Music Issue - Zac Brown: Two thumbs up (a critic's ass)

Singer/guitarist flies under the critical radar - and straight to fans

On many bands' MySpace pages, fans queue up to offer slavish dedications and salutations. On Zac Brown's site, fans tend to get a little more personal. "Y'all played an awesome show ... come back and let's go fishing!" writes an attractive female fan from South Carolina.</
"I'm no different than anyone else," chuckles singer/guitarist Zac Brown, after being reminded of the post. "I just happen to play music for a livin'. I love the interaction with all the folks. And a lot of 'em get to be friends."</
His fans lavishly praise his Southern-fried approach and energetic performances while he flies decidedly under the radar of both the mainstream and alternative music press. Yet the affable Georgia native doesn't seem even slightly concerned about being ignored or slighted by backhanded comparisons to South Carolina's Edwin McCain, Hootie & the Blowfish, Florida's Sister Hazel or even Decatur's Shawn Mullins. Brown may often be lumped into the dreaded keg-party, frat-rocker bin by the Pitchfork-thumpin' music-critic elite – reviews are difficult to find online. But he steadily sells tons of his own CDs, DVDs and merchandise (with virtually no help from Amazon) while laughing all the way to the lake.</
"It's not [frat-friendly] Carolina beach music, it's 'lake music,'" he says of the association. "In one night, we'll cross over from country to bluegrass to reggae to acoustic to wherever it goes. It's a lot of different things and a mouthful to have to explain to somebody. It's like what you'd want to hear if you were kickin' back on a lake or goin' fishin'."</
The brawny, bearded, behatted Brown (rocking a look that could classify him as rural cousin to the U.K.'s acerbic Badly Drawn Boy) grew up near Lake Lanier. He spends most of his free time on his farm in Union Point near Lake Oconee, about 80 miles east from the back-stabbing hustle of Atlanta's music scene. The guy seems almost too wholesome to be a rock star, anyway. He raises his family, breeds dogs and even makes fig preserves for family and friends. The slower-paced lifestyle and down-home image suits him and his growing numbers of dedicated fanatics just fine.</
"Well, it's the only way I know how to go about it," Brown adds. "We do have a grassroots following, [and] because of that core, nobody can ever take that away from us. No label can say, 'We're takin' you off tour.' We've achieved it all on our own with the help of our fans.</
"There's a foundation underneath us."</
In the past decade, Brown has made his living as a working musician with an expanding circuit of regular gigs, including slots on the critically maligned but financially successful Rock Boat and Rock Bus tours. (Full disclosure: Creative Loafing served as a co-sponsor of the Rock Bus tour.) And last year, partly fueled by a live album from that tour, he earned an impressive wave of readers' nominations on CL's 2006 Best of Atlanta ballots – including, most tellingly, Best Band to Get Fans to Vote. Fans pack shows at venues as large as the Variety Playhouse.</
"Maybe next year, the critics will put our new album on their lists, too," he laughs.</
But if they continue to overlook him while chasing some elusive new fad, the country boy will survive: "I've been playin' the music I want to do and never really havin' to eat Ramen noodles, you know? I'm very blessed."</
Major labels have shown interest, but Brown shoos them away. Preferring to stay indie for as long as possible, he notes that Shawn Mullins – one of his early inspirations and, yes, yet another target for hating hipsters – was strangled in a corporate chokehold for several years. "Grassroots [support] is the direction that offers longevity in a musical career these days," agrees Bain Mattox, a fellow indie singer/songwriter and frequent Rock Boat performer. "Zac is on his way to longevity."</
While his detractors scoff, his devotees frequently preserve concerts for posterity. "No show is ever the same," says die-hard Brown taper Jim Knox of Atlanta. Knox adds that even the band's choice of covers, such as the improbable "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd, is a hot topic among devotees and tape-traders. "If people want to burn one of my CDs," Brown concludes, "I say, 'Yeah, go ahead and burn 10 and give 'em to your friends.' Chances are good they'll come to a show and buy the next album."

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