Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Artists is making its mark on Atlanta by truly doing things differently.
By Jewly Hight
Sonia Leigh could have made the announcement from any given stage in any given town on any given night: “I don’t know if y’all know this, but I’m on Zac Brown’s label, Southern Ground.” But spoken during her late-November show at the Nashville rock club Exit/In, those words took on special significance.
The club sits less than two miles from the music industry hub known as Music Row, a pair of tidy one-way streets lined by record labels, publishing companies, recording studios and other establishments integral to the business of music making. Standing in its shadow, Leigh gave her shout-out to Southern Ground Artists, 250 miles away in Atlanta and set apart from established models of commercial music making by a good deal more than geography.
Sure, Brown—the label’s founder and a bona fide band-leading country superstar—could have chosen to set up shop in Music City, long a key destination for people pursuing careers in music. Due to downsizing in the record biz, there’s surely prime real estate available. Plus, his management company, ROAR, keeps an office there.
But it makes sense that Brown would want his young, genre-stretching label to be based where the Zac Brown Band found early and essential support for its genre-stretching ways, as opposed to a place where people took a while to catch on.
Lynn Oliver, Southern Ground’s general manager, summarizes, “What we defined as ‘new country’ was not what Nashville defined as ‘new country.’ We think that ‘new country’ is a lot more open-minded, and open to guys that wear beanies instead of cowboy hats.”
“It’s nice to watch something grow from where you did, and I think that has a lot to do with it, too,” Chris Sherrer, the company’s chief operating officer, muses on the Georgia connection. “This is where [Zac’s] made his mark, had his opportunities.”
Not surprisingly, a tinge of native pride could be felt in ZBB’s CMA Awards Show rendition of “Georgia On My Mind,” which featured the contributions of Savannah resident Gregg Allman. And beyond simply being on his mind, Fayette County is where Brown hangs his beanie when he’s not on the road.
Georgia also is home to the majority of the Southern Ground roster, including Leigh, who’s been kicking around Atlanta for years. Everyone seems to have their own account of meeting Brown in a live music setting and striking up a friendship; that those stories, taken together, sound more like the formation of a mutually supportive music community than, say, a string of strategic talent-scouting efforts, says a lot.
Take Leigh’s story, for instance. About a decade ago she won a recording session with John Hopkins, who would go on to become ZBB’s bassist. One thing led to another. Leigh joined an all-girl rock band with Hopkins’ wife. They wound up playing at Brown’s now-defunct Lake Oconee restaurant, Zac’s Place, and a song of Leigh’s caught his ear.
“That’s when we met,” she says. “I remember us just totally hitting it off and really developing this respect.” It seemed only natural that casual co-writing sessions and gigs opening for Brown would follow.
Playing fiddle in Leigh’s band was Levi Lowrey, the Dacula-based great-great grandson of early hillbilly fiddle star Gid Tanner. Upon learning that Lowrey’s talents extend to singing and songwriting, Brown showed up to hear him do his own thing one night. Lowrey’s folk ballad “Rosalee and Odes” caught his ear, and so began the conversation that eventually brought Lowrey into the Southern Ground fold.
Label mate Nic Cowan had never met Brown before opening for him in Carrollton. Brown, then a strong regional draw without any national hits, told Cowan of his plans to start a label—a label he wanted the younger songwriter to be part of. Cowan marvels, “I was just lookin’ for some advice, but ended up gettin’ a hell of a lot more…”
Oliver Wood—a fixture in the Atlanta blues scene and the lead-singing and guitar-playing half of Southern Ground’s Wood Brothers—was invited by his friend and ZBB’s keyboardist Coy Bowles to participate in a songwriters’ round that also featured Brown; there, with guitars in hand, Wood and Brown got properly acquainted.
And Charlie Starr, front man of Blackberry Smoke—also on the roster—got to know Brown when both their bands played Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man Cruise. “There were actually a couple of guys in the band that my wife and I knew already,” Starr explains. “So we all became friendly really quickly.”
The latest Southern Ground signees, Atlanta-bred hip-hop brother duo The Wheeler Boys, found themselves in a right place, right time situation of their own—as Leigh’s neighbor. Says Sean Wheeler, “It’s kind of funny because we spent a solid nine months, 10 months just going back and forth: ‘Oh yeah. I make country music.’ ‘Yeah, well I make hip-hop music. One day we should trade CDs.’ We finally got around to it and she’s like, ‘You’re really good!’ ‘Well, you’re really good!’ She’s who introduced us to Zac.”
Several members of the ZBB also go way back with Brown, and the same goes for folks employed by the label. His friendship with Sherrer dates back to the late ’90s, and he sang in a barbershop quartet with Tyler Walker—who works as a recording engineer and in A&R—in high school. Those are two of many examples.
Pass the ‘Chicken’
You get the sense Brown has never had a problem drawing people together or generating expansive ideas. Says Oliver, “I toured with the band for the first two and a half years when I was their day-to-day manager. So there were a lot of late-night bus rides where [Zac] would just talk about what he loves, and a lot of that has to do with philanthropy and fellowship.”
Brown’s many loves—family chief among them—keep him so busy these days that he was unavailable for an interview. However, when this writer spoke with him a little over a year ago, he emphasized the communal drive behind what he does: “Once I started playing with other people and realized this is a social thing—it’s just like hanging out with your buddies, but you’re all united together in making a sound and making harmony—I kinda just got the bug for it. …I figured out a way to get in and write and share and collaborate with all the people I care about.”
After ZBB began having its blockbuster commercial success, he was able to circle the wagons and launch Southern Ground in 2009. The band’s first country number one, “Chicken Fried,” provided the operation with both momentum and its name, taken from lyrics in the first verse.
“I think for [Zac],” Oliver offers, “everything that he has created and everything in his vision is stuff that he’s been doing his whole life, but maybe just on a smaller level. …The cooking, the playing, supporting other artists, that’s stuff he’s always done. He’s always invested his own money and his own time, but it was just more on a local level. And now that he has the platform to share it with the world, that’s what he wants to do.”
“That is the kind of guy he is,” says Leigh. “I think it started like a seed for him, but then it developed into something. But my first thought when he asked me to [sign], the only reservation that I had was we’re friends and music peers. …I didn’t want that ever to be interrupted. He’s like, ‘That’s not gonna happen.’ And it never has.”
What Brown can do for you
This year, Southern Ground released studio albums by Leigh (1978 December), Lowrey (I Confess I Was a Fool), Cowan (Hard Headed) and The Wood Brothers (Smoke Ring Halo), marking the first time the former three have had their music distributed nationally and the first full-length the Woods have made since parting ways with Blue Note Records.
Blue Note has also been home to Chris Wood’s other band, Medeski, Martin & Wood, and the label went through a major shakeup when it was bought by EMI. The brothers came to their new deal with considerable perspective. “We really like the idea that even though Zac is not experienced with having a record label, his business in general has a lot of momentum, probably more so than most record labels these days,” explains Oliver Wood.
Blackberry Smoke saw their previous label disintegrate, too. Southern Ground just released their Live at the Georgia Theatre DVD, and a new album is coming next year—their first since 2009—along with an EP from The Wheeler Boys.
Southern Ground headquarters is an even more bustling place than you’d imagine—which is why it’s been nicknamed “the Hive.” It’s housed in what was once a sprawling men’s clothing store on Atlanta’s Westside, a place Cowan knew well before music paid his bills. “I used to load, God, probably a hundred boxes a day of suits and stuff like that into UPS trucks that would go to what is now the record label,” he remembers.
Sherrer estimates they employ as many as 175 people, including everyone out on the road. That may seem like a gigantic number, but, then, there’s much more going on under Southern Ground’s roof than you’d expect at a label—like in-house merch (Lucy Justice Goods), catering (Baby Goo), videography (Southern Reel), metalworking (Southern Grind) and leather (Southern Hide) businesses.
Many sounds, one city
Brown has drawn comparisons between what his team is doing in Atlanta and what Stax Records accomplished in Memphis and Motown in Detroit during their heydays. Starr, being a southern rocker, throws in a reference to what Capricorn had going in Macon in the ’70s. Like those famed ventures, Southern Ground does a lot in-house and represents serious investment in a regional music scene.
Oliver points out that they’re not exclusively working with Georgia-rooted artists; the label has begun relationships with Sarah and Christian Dugas—a Canadian brother and sister formerly of the adventurous string band The Duhks—and Bermuda-born reggae-popster Mishka.
Still, it’s no small thing that the label’s first six acts are locals. Wood’s take is “Atlanta’s a big place…. There’s a lot of different niches that just rarely cross over with each other. There’s this amazing hip-hop scene, and then there’s all the Americana and blues. And a lot of times those things function in different parts of town and they’re just different groups of people. I think one of [Zac’s] visions is that, ‘Wow, there’s all this good music. These people should cross-pollinate more. If nothing else, know each other and create together and have a label that can support more than just one kind of music.’”
Southern Ground most certainly supports more than one kind of music. You won’t find a Stax- or Motown-style assembly line setup, where set groups of players and producers constantly clock in for sessions; the aim isn’t to fashion a single sonic calling card.
The Wood Brothers specialize in tuneful, jazzy, groove-based alt-folk, while Blackberry Smoke has a hard-hitting, countrified southern rock aesthetic and Lowrey is a barroom country-folk soul searcher in the Kristofferson storytelling tradition.
Cowan’s devil-may-care, southern pop-funk doesn’t sound a thing like any of them. He’s thankful that Brown has never insisted it should: “I realized this was a guy that really believed in what I was doing, and accepted the fact that I was doing southern music and urban music and trying to find a mix. He got it, and most people kinda weren’t really getting it and wanted me to go one way or the other—either go southern or go urban.”
In their own way, The Wheeler Boys straddle the same chasm with their blue-collar rhymes and mash-up of heavy beats and down-home acoustic licks. They’re also the only hip-hop act on the label. (Add to that the fact that Walker—the lone person at Southern Ground with a PhD in classical composition and theory—is working with them.) Sean Wheeler is aware how strange all this may look on paper.
“I think one thing that was really important to [Zac] was our music, it is in a lot of ways struggle music,” he offers. “…I’ve had people point out to me that if you just write down our lyrics and read through ’em, a lot of our songs could be confused with blues songs. And I think to Zac that’s really what it was about, is that we’re not really stereotypical rap music. For him, it makes sense because people that appreciate country in a lot of cases appreciate hip-hop.”
Leigh, too, boldly blends musical sensibilities. Her vocal attack musters the toughness and bite of rock, and her songs recognize no barriers between honky-tonk, alt-country, roots rock and R&B. That Brown and band have conquered the mainstream country format ahead of her could make all the difference in the world to how people hear her music.
“I think what he’s done has definitely opened up the doors for a lot of artists,” she reflects. “Because what I think that a lot of people in country music realized that they missed was the opportunity to be a part of something great when they turned their backs on Zac in the beginning. So now they don’t want to miss that opportunity when something different comes around.”
Writers in the round
Aside from the fact that acts in the Southern Ground family don’t play by narrow genre rules, it’s not musical style that unites them. Songwriting is their common ground. They all write their own material—it was their original songs that grabbed Brown’s ear in the first place—and they sign publishing deals along with their record deals. Says Cowan, “I think that’s the unifying trend at the label.”
The trend at a lot of labels dealing in country, rock, R&B or pop is to lean on outside songsmiths and, quite often, to nudge recording artists who aren’t really writers to get in on co-writing just for a piece of the publishing. The songwriting philosophy at Southern Ground couldn’t be further from that.
Says Lowrey, “I think everybody involved, when we were growing up and doing this, we never considered it an option not to record your own songs. It was just this is the way it was done. You write these songs and then you play ’em out. That just seems like the way it’s supposed to be to us, to me. It wasn’t like you see [in Nashville] where you take an artist and you develop them and then you give them the right songs and you put ’em out there and back them with money and whatever else.”
Starr echoes the sentiment: “In Blackberry Smoke—obviously, good songs are good songs. We’ve recorded a few songs that I didn’t write or that we didn’t write. I’m not putting that down at all. But if we were a label full of people that were looking to Nashville writers for songs to fill up an album, there wouldn’t be any magic there.”
The singer/songwriters of Southern Ground—all of whom can stand on their own—frequently help each other flesh out ideas, along with Brown, several members of ZBB, like Clay Cook, Hopkins and Bowles, and Brown’s traveling co-writer Wyatt Durette. Most of the label’s artists spend time touring with ZBB, and, notes Lowrey, “When you have 18 songwriters on the road, eventually somebody’s gonna get together and write with each other.”
Besides the uniqueness of a label shaped by an against-the-grain yet business savvy artist-founder, there’s one more thing that makes the culture of Southern Ground stand out. Remember the philanthropy Oliver referred to? She didn’t just mean that Brown shares his success with his artist friends. He’s building Camp Southern Ground, a nonprofit camp for kids overcoming behavioral and learning disabilities and disadvantaged backgrounds.
And he makes a point to encourage everyone on his team to give back. Everyone.
Wheeler recalls the day he sat down with Brown to hash out their contract, a contract that came with a rather unorthodox provision: “‘If you see somebody on the street that needs help and you can help them, you have to do that. That’s your obligation as [a Southern Ground signee]….’ That means so much to me, and it really summed up everything about [Zac]. Dude, you’re talking to a couple of rappers you’re trying to sign. I can’t imagine anybody else at any other company bringing that up in the negotiations.”