When the Zac Brown Band hits the road, they take their instruments, amps and 54-foot custom food truck called "Cookie."
"We're Southern guys," says Rusty Hamlin, traveling chef for the Grammy-winning band, whose 2008 hit "Chicken Fried" catapulted them to fame. Before each show, Hamlin feeds up to 200 fans a gourmet Southern meal as they hang out with the band. "Nothing makes us happier than getting to know people around a plate of food."
Country music and food — especially Southern food — have long been intertwined, with lyrics about sweet tea, pecan pie and whiskey joining references to mother, country and pickup trucks. But as country music and Southern food each move beyond their traditional bounds — Zac Brown Band sells out Boston's Fenway Park and even Los Angeles has a fried chicken festival — they have spawned a new hybrid of cookbooks, cooking shows, food festivals and even restaurants that are rapidly becoming mainstream.
"Country music is huge and it's just gotten huger," says Cynthia Sanz, editor of People Country, the celebrity magazine's country music quarterly. People has been publishing its country music edition for roughly a decade and recently added a country channel to its digital site. "It's always been connected to food. It's more than just the music genre, it's a lifestyle."
Food has always been a staple of People's country music coverage, Sanz says, and a Facebook post of a popular star such as Tim McGraw making dumplings can get more than 4,000 "likes," above average for the page.
Big-name national country stars such as Trisha Yearwood were among the first to succeed on the mainstream food front. Yearwood, a three-time Grammy Award winner, is the author of two best-selling cookbooks and the host of Food Network's "Trisha's Southern Kitchen," which is entering its fifth season.
But today, even books featuring lesser-known country names are doing well. "Country Music's Greatest Eats," a collaboration of Southern Living magazine and Country Music Television, sold 11,000 copies in 12 minutes on shopping channel QVC, says the book's publicist, Aimee Bianca. Though the book doesn't hit stores until May 6, Bianca says, it already has exhausted its initial 80,000 print run.
"If you think about music, but country music in particular, every single song has a story to tell," says Hunter Lewis, executive editor at Southern Living. "We always say about Southern recipes that every recipe tells a story: it's from somewhere, from someone, your mom, your grandmother taught you to do it... If you think about the way recipes are passed down and shared, and the way songs are written and passed down and shared, it's a very natural intersection."
Country stars also are pairing food and music in restaurants and festivals. Singer-songwriter Toby Keith owns a chain of restaurants named after his 2003 hit "I Love This Bar" that can be found in more than a dozen cities from Foxborough, Massachusetts, to Oxnard, California. Chart-topping artist Dierks Bentley opened Whiskey Row in Scottsdale, Arizona, featuring craft beer, organic ingredients and a 360-degree stage for music acts. In September, Nashville, Tennessee, will host its second annual Music City Food and Wine Festival. Created by Grammy Award-winning artists Caleb and Nathan Followill of Kings of Leon and chef Jonathan Waxman, a pioneer of American regional cuisine, the festival features national and regional chefs and music.
"We wanted a closely curated festival that featured national chefs to draw attention, but it was about the town of Nashville and about the regional area," Waxman says. "We're talking Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia... That area of the world has just grown up culinary-wise."
Waxman and others point to the upscaling of Southern food that has occurred as locals schooled in famous urban kitchens return to the area. Cities such as Nashville, Birmingham, Alabama, Athens, Georgia, and even little places like Kinston, North Carolina have welcomed home young chefs who win national acclaim by offering new twists on the foods of their youth. Nashville alone had three James Beard nominees in 2014, including Nate Appleman protege Tandy Wilson.
"People used to flock to Nashville for the Ryman," Southern Living's Lewis says about the theater known as the "Mother Church of Country Music." "Now they're flocking to Nashville to eat Tandy Wilson's food."
Many people close to the scene also credit the success of the food-country music pairing to the food itself and the stars who cook it. The food is unfussy, comfy, homey. A can or two of condensed soup is not unheard of. Such dishes hardly conjure the image of effete "foodies" that might otherwise repel this down-to-earth audience. And they mirror the authentic image of the stars themselves.
"Most people identify with country artists as someone they can invite to dinner and sit down and have a meal with themselves," says Amanda Phillips, vice president of Consumer Marketing at Country Music Television, which offers a food-and-a-movie format show. "There's a familiarity and connection with the stars that's really accessible. You think about a major pop star — Lady Gaga — there's not that connection there."