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While still rooted in Southern rock, the Zac Brown Band detours to Margaritaville

There's irony in the fact that the Zac Brown Band won the most recent awards for Top New Vocal Group from the Academy of Country Music and Best New Artist at the 2010 Grammys. After all, this is a band whose first album came out back in 2004.

John Hopkins, bassist for the Atlanta-based band, says there's really no way to put the recent success into words.

"I've been playing in bars for 22 years and it doesn't really count," he says. "But when you get into the national arena, we really did feel like new artists." At the same time, Hopkins says he still feels like he's at the bar. "It's just these guys have on nicer clothes."

The band got more good news this week with the announcement of its six nominations for the 2010 ACMs. The 38-year-old Hopkins, who just celebrated his fifth year with the band, says country radio's been good to them, even though he doesn't really see the group as a country act. Growing up in Gainesville, Ga., Hopkins says his high school days were spent listening to REM, U2 and Journey — not a "country" name in the bunch. And this summer, the Southern rockers will be out on tour with the Dave Matthews Band, whom Hopkins describes as one of their biggest influences.

Country or not, the shtick's working for them. On March 19, CMT will premiere a new episode of CMT Crossroads featuring the Zac Brown Band — with singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett.

"It's amazing to hear his voice singing the songs, our songs," Hopkins says. "As soon as he sings them, it's like, 'Is this really our song? It's not like a Jimmy Buffett song now?' He has such a distinct character to his voice and his delivery. It was just a joy to be there."

Buffett's influence didn't stop with Crossroads. The six-piece band, which includes frontman Zac Brown, fiddler Jimmy De Martini, guitarist/organist Coy Bowles, drummer Chris Fryar, and the just-added multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Clay Cook, has been recording vocals for their upcoming album down in Buffett's studio in Key West. Hopkins says after last week's recording session, they've got 17 new songs to choose from and that the songs should have a more aggressive feel compared to 2008's The Foundation. Part of that, he says, is due to Cook's contributions.

"When you add somebody like Clay Cook to the mix, he just brings a professional dynamic that's helped us achieve new levels of production and melody and harmony."

Despite the trappings of success, the band members have maintained a pre-show ritual with selected fans, family and friends that keeps them grounded: Eat and Greets.

"Around 5 o'clock, 5:30 we get together and we have ... the pork tenderloin and the beef tenderloin in Zac's sauces," Hopkins says, referring to the Southern Ground Grub sauce and rub line by Brown, a former chef. "Then we have different sides every night depending on where we are. When we were in Boston, Rusty, our chef, went out and got lobsters. And we had crabcakes, and we had all kinds of stuff on the side that was more indigenous to the area or seasonal. ... So that's pretty cool."

kakens@csindy.com

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