NASHVILLE – The Zac Brown Band isn’t the first group to be honored with an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum — the Oak Ridge Boys and Statler Brothers preceded them — but they own the rights to a couple of other distinctions.
The Atlanta band’s 70-piece presentation at the airy shrine to country music in downtown Nashville boasts the first-ever black light to be used in a display there — the better to show off the groovy jackets decorated with cobras, skulls and tigers used in their 2014 “Day of the Dead” performance at the Country Music Association Awards.
The “Homegrown” exhibit, which opened in July and will run through June, is likely also the first to spotlight a massive green dragon head, which the band used during a few encore performances on its 2015 tour.
“The dragon’s head made it into three or four shows, but it became too dramatic,” said John Driskell Hopkins, a founding member of the band who switched a couple of years ago from playing bass to a multi-instrumentalist role. “It was an encore thing and all of the guys had backpacks that blew up into dragon pieces. It’s this vision Zac had, almost like a dream, and, while it looked really cool, it didn’t seem like something we would continue with. But it is a cool piece, and it is a representation of how quick we are to step out of the box.”
It’s that kind of unconventional thinking that piqued the interest of the Hall of Fame curators and spurred them to reach out to the band and craft an exhibit.
“Part of it is their success, but it’s also that they’re so different, not just musically, but how they run their career,” said museum editor Michael McCall, who curated the display. “From the food stuff (the band hosts “Eat and Greets” before their shows) to them doing their own stage stuff and the camp (Brown’s Camp Southern Ground in Fayetteville), Zac just has such an unusual way of creating. He started reinvesting in his career to give the band more flexibility. That’s what’s fascinating about what he does.”
It took the museum about a year to cull band artifacts — items such as 1992-era journals with scrawled early lyrics to hits “Chicken Fried” and “Toes,” a collection of Grammy trophies and the band’s lone CMA award, and a wicker torch “passed” to them from Jimmy Buffett in 2010. Even so, band members were emotionally jolted when they attended the summer opening of the exhibit.
“We thought it would be a little corner in a spot in the building,” Hopkins said. “We knew they weren’t inducting us (into the hall of fame) and they just said, ‘We want to feature you.’ So we were all kind of taken aback when we saw the scope of it. A lot of things happened in that amount of time (that the display covers) and you do tend to lose track of what was, when we’re working on what is.”
Side note: Hopkins said ZBB likely will return to their Nashville studio in early 2017 to start work on the follow-up to their 2015 musical stew “Jekyll + Hyde.”
But, back to the museum exhibit, where casual fans can learn the history of each member’s arrival in the band and view their respective instruments: Besides Hopkins, violinist Jimmy DeMartini was another founding member in 2004, keyboardist Coy Bowles hopped on board in 2006, drummer Chris Fryar and guitarist-multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook joined in 2008, percussionist Daniel de los Reyes in 2012, and bassist Matt Mangano in 2014.
Although Hopkins hasn’t played standard bass in ZBB for about three years — he’s still known to tackle an upright — it’s his signature instrument from the band’s formative years. (The famously bearded musician also is unrecognizably clean-shaven these days, though he plans to start a new growth process to complement the upcoming record.)
Three of his basses adorned with the names of his daughters — Faith, Hope and Grace — are neatly displayed for fans to view.
“I love representing things and wearing things, but I’m not a tattoo guy, so I prefer to have (a message) on an instrument that I can give them one day,” Hopkins said. “It’s my way of putting artwork on things to represent what is on my mind and who is on my mind. Whenever I see that, it’s a reminder of how much I miss my family when I’m on the road.”
The band’s epic tours are represented in the exhibit with special tour merchandise from their record-breaking performances at Fenway Park in Boston and Citi Field in New York, and a large video screen rolls footage of the band’s videos and live performances.
But the exhibit also spotlights other aspects of ZBB — cute fan letters written by children, the food paraphernalia (cookbooks, knives, cutting boards) that represent Brown’s other business, cue cards from their performance on “Saturday Night Live” and information about Camp Southern Ground.
“It’s so important to him,” McCall said of Brown’s camp for children with neuro-behavioral disorders.
A large placard adorned with photos explains the mission of the camp, located 22 miles south of Atlanta, and also cements the notion that recognition in a hall of fame in no way means a career is heading toward twilight.
“It was a little odd to see everything, but it didn’t feel like a shrine to me, (rather) a picture out of a scrapbook,” Hopkins said. “I just see it as a neat representation of what we’re doing.”
IF YOU GO
“Homegrown: Zac Brown Band.” Through June 2017. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day). $24.95 (adults 13 and older), $14.95 (children 6-12). Children age 5 and under are free; discounts for seniors, students and the military. Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 222 Fifth Ave. S., Nashville. 615-416-2001, countrymusichalloffame.org.