It was a little under a year ago that I went to a showcase at tiny L.A. club the Mint to see an up-and-coming country band called Lady Antebellum. Their first single, “Love Don’t Live Here,” was burning up the charts; the buzz was deafening. We all know how that turned out — CMA and ACM awards, a Grammy nom for Best New Artist — and so when I got word that another up-and-coming country band with a hot first single would be setting up under the Mint’s low-hanging, record-speckled ceiling, I figured I should stop by.

Thus did I find myself surrounded by people in plaid shirts and varying degrees of intoxication last night as the Zac Brown Band played an hour and a half set that began with a man in the audience whooping, “We like our chicken fried, too, Zac! Welcome to Hollywood!” and ended with the hit in question and a deafening singalong of the line, “cold beer on a Friday night,” even though it was Wednesday. This is a real backyard mutt of a band, somehow fusing reggae, hoedown, metal, and jam band vibes into one vaguely cohesive package, fronted by the burly, bearded Brown and his well-picked acoustic guitar. Their influences seem to make up the lion’s share of their sound: I wrote “Charlie Daniels” down in my notes two songs before a lightning-fast cover of “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and spent a long time trying to isolate who Brown’s clear tenor reminded me of (James Taylor?) until they segued through “Into the Mystic” and I heard all that Van Morrison.

And while big hit “Chicken Fried” is an ultra-American tailgate party (based solidly in the patriotic ethos of 2003, when it was written), themes elsewhere spanned the spectrum from downing PBRs and rolling a fat one (the Buffett-worthy Mexicali groove of “Toes”) to the Serenity Prayer (new song “Let It Go”). The scent of early Dave Matthews was heavy throughout. In other words, there was something for everyone, especially if that someone attended a southern school. There was also enough gutsy musicianship to at one point cause esteemed LA Times music critic Ann Powers to involuntarily throw devil horns at the stage. For me, the highlight was “Free,” a lazy Sunday morning ballad (where we got the snippet of Morrison) that Brown said reminded him of beaches in Australia.

Given the speed at which “Chicken Fried” hit No. 1 on the country charts, I’d say this band’s future is its own to make. What do you think, PopWatchers? Do they have a shot at those 2009 Best New Artist awards? Check out the “Chicken Fried” video after the jump, and then weigh in below with your own picks for under-the-radar artists primed for a breakout in the new year.

addCredit(“Robb D. Cohen/Retna “)