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 pickups.
But as country music and Southern food move beyond their traditional bounds – Zac Brown Band sells out Boston’s Fenway Park and Los Angeles has a fried chicken festival – they have spawned a new hybrid of cookbooks, shows, food festivals and restaurants that are rapidly becoming mainstream.
“Country music is huge and it’s just gotten huger,” says Cynthia Sanz, the 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.”
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 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.
The book hits stores today and has already 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, the executive editor at Southern Living. “We always say about Southern recipes that every recipe tells a story: it’s from somewhere, from someone. … 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, Mass., to Oxnard, Calif.. Dierks Bentley opened Whiskey Row in Scottsdale, Ariz., featuring craft beer, organic ingredients and a 360-degree stage for music acts.
In September, Nashville, Tenn., will hold 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.”
“People used to flock to Nashville for the Ryman,” 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 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, and mirrors 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,” says Amanda Phillips, the 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.”