Zachariah “Zak” Jones McConnell, 26, the founder of the Dahlonega-based bluegrass band The Fiddleheads, died suddenly of a heart condition Tuesday.
McConnell, a lifelong resident of Dahlonega, played mandolin in the band that garnered national attention on the sixth season of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”
Funeral services are scheduled for 11 a.m. today at Dahlonega Baptist Church, 234 Hawkins St., Dahlonega. Interment will follow in the Bethlehem Jones Chapel Cemetery in Lumpkin County.
According to the band’s website, thefiddleheadsband.com, McConnell founded the band in 2009 for the music department at then North Georgia College and State University.
In 2011, the group auditioned for “America’s Got Talent” and finished in the top 25 performers, getting seen by 100 million viewers around the world. They went on to headline The Kentucky Bluegrass Festival in Louisville, Ky., opened for Tim McGraw and Phil Vasser at The Opry House in Nashville, Tenn., and performed at a Braves game at Turner Field. The group frequently performed at area venues like The Crimson Moon in Dahlonega and released its first studio album “Goodbye L.A.” in 2012.
McConnell’s bandmates Michael Wallace, Trygve Myers, Jake Larios and Adam Kersh met together Friday night to practice a song to play in his honor during the funeral.
They told The Times that two months ago, the band went to a Vince Gill concert in Nashville, Tenn., and after the concert, McConnell showed them a video of Gill playing “Go Rest High on that Mountain.”
“After we watched it he said, ‘I want this played at my funeral,’” Wallace said. “We were all thinking he meant about 50 years from now, and that was two months ago.”
Wallace said the band will miss its leader and his serious personality that kept the band in check.
“He was the one that brought us all together in the first place,” Wallace said. “We looked at him as a musical, intellectual, business leader every time. Every decision he made for the band was in its best interest not in his own. He was one of the most generous and talented people I have ever known. If not the most.”
Larios agreed and said McConnell’s love of music and genuine interest in helping people improve was always obvious.
“He was a genuine friend for all of us,” Larios said. “You almost don’t realize how much he cares for you. We’ve been talking about that a lot actually — how much he genuinely cared about all of us. He always pushed us to be better and expand what we could play. He just wanted the best for us as musicians and as a friend.”
Kersh said each member of the group will keep playing music but “The Fiddleheads will never be The Fiddleheads without Zak.”
“What he would want for us individually is that we all go and work hard,” Kersh said. “He wouldn’t care what stage or where we play. He just wants us to work hard and not lose what we have.”
While McConnell may have been the “serious leader,” his friends felt it was their responsibly to make jokes and have fun.
Speaking Friday, one of the group’s members mentioned “the James Dean haircut” and the rest fell into a belly laugh.
“I think we’ve probably laughed as much as we’ve cried,” Larios said. “We keep sending each other goofy pictures of him and videos and all sorts of stuff. We have a lot of memories.”
Myers said McConnell’s serious nature stemmed from his strong desire to see his friends reach their potential in life and in music.
McConnell often taught others how to hone their musical skill.
Wallace said McConnell’s gift of music was a true gift from God.
The group agreed McConnell’s faith was a huge part of his life and one he eagerly shared with those he met.
“He was one of the rare musicians who would dream about music and wake up and play it,” Wallace said. “It was always so much prettier than what I could have dreamed about. That was just a gift that God had given him, to wake up and play what God let him dream about. That’s something 99.9 percent of all musicians can’t do.”
McConnell is survived by his wife Lacee Sheffield McConnell, parents Frank J. “Mac” and Tona Norrell McConnell and brother, Zeb McConnell.
He was a teaching assistant working toward earning a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Georgia.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Zak McConnell Memorial Scholarship fund at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega.