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."