LAWRENCEVILLE - Zac Brown Band guitarist Clay Cook said some of the best concerts he's ever seen were at the historic Athens music venue.
One performance in particular at the Georgia Theatre, he said, changed his musical life.
"I got to see a guy named Charlie Hunter play there," Cook, now 31, recalled, "a long time ago, about '97 or '98."
At the time, Cook, who started playing guitar at the age of 6, was more of a rock 'n' roll musician.
"Charlie Hunter is more of an acid jazz or jazz guitarist," he explained. "It really opened my mind that there are other types of music out there."
Cook was so impressed with the show, he went out and bought all of Hunter's albums.
"I don't think it would have been that good if it was in a smoky nightclub or a big arena or a properly seated theater," he said. "The energy was coming from that crowd."
The South Gwinnett grad was filming the music video "Toes" with the Zac Brown Band in Hawaii when he learned the historic venue, which he had last played in fall 2007 as a member of the Marshall Tucker Band, had caught fire and burned down.
"When news reached Zac and everybody, Zac said, 'You know what we should do is be one of the forerunners in raising some money for the theater,'" Cook recalled. "We thought we were going to have to compete with a lot of charity functions for the theater."
But Cook said that hasn't seemed to be the case. Still, the Zac Brown Band added a special tour date to its current schedule for a benefit concert, which has turned into an event featuring multiple musicians - Kid Rock, Kellie Pickler, Little Big Town, Shawn Mullins and other music talents are set to perform tonight at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta.
Plans are in the works to film the concert for a Zac Brown Band DVD release.
"If it's a great performance, which I'm sure it will be," Cook said, "it will be available eventually. We're definitely pulling out all the stops, I do know that."
Proceeds from tonight's concert will go toward rebuilding the Georgia Theatre.
"It has such a special place in our heart," Cook said. "It was the place to play in Athens. We're hoping to raise enough money to make it that again in a couple years."
His music history
Cook began learning to play guitar at 6 and continued throughout his high school years at South Gwinnett, where he also played percussion in the marching and symphonic bands. After graduating in 1996, he went on to attend the Berkeley College of Music in Massachusetts, where he studied jazz and composition.
"Shortly after high school I went off to college for music," Cook said. "Shortly after dropping out of college, I was a professional musician."
Before joining the Zac Brown Band in January, Cook recorded and toured with Sugarland, Shawn Mullins, John Mayer and the Marshall Tucker Band. He wrote songs for the latter two.
"It was the coolest job in the world and I still have it with literally the best employer in the world right now," he said. "(Zac Brown is) the best boss ever."
Cook said Brown, whom he had known on the Atlanta music scene for eight or nine year, had approached him just a couple years ago about playing with the band but couldn't afford to take on a sixth member at that time. Once the band signed a recording contract, Cook was asked to sign on.
"(Zac) knew from the time he met Clay he wanted to have him in his band," said band manager Lynn Oliver. "(Clay) is one of the best musicians (Zac) has ever met in his life."
And Cook, who now lives in Grant Park, has continued to write music.
"I've got my hand in a couple of these new songs we're going to put on this record," he said, referring to the album the Zac Brown Band plans to record on a break from touring in January in anticipation of a summer release.
But the best thing about his job?
"Just the whole fact that I get to do it and I'm not playing covers in a bar somewhere," Cook said. "I get to support my family playing music, which is a blessing unto itself."
SideBar: If you go
· What: Zac Brown Band and Friends Benefit Concert for the Georgia Theatre
· When: 7:30 p.m. today
· Where: Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E. in Atlanta
· Cost: $100 per ticket
· For more information: Visit www.foxtheatre.org or www.zacbrownband.com