Kellie Pickler may not have known the way to the "American Idol" final, but she still knows how to get a leg up on the competition.
"Southern hos-pital-ity," she said with her signature drawl.
There's no denying that the South has most definitely risen again on "Idol." Of the winners and runners-up from the previous seasons, seven of the eight are from Southern states, and not much is different this season. Before Pickler's surprise departure this week, five of the six remaining singers hailed from the South (Katharine McPhee is the lone Yankee). So why does "Idol" seem to favor Southern contenders?
"We've asked this question ourselves time and time again," co-executive producer Ken Warwick said.
And like "Idol" itself, the answer is the subject of an ongoing debate. Warwick and his fellow executive producer, for instance, have separate theories.
"The thing is, if they're [from the] North and they're talented, then they tend to go professional," Warwick hypothesized. "They go to New York, they come to L.A., they go to San Francisco and they get jobs. But if they're in the South, maybe there's a little less opportunity, so there's more talent ... floating around. And that's what we're after. We like the fact that the kid comes from nothing and becomes a huge star."
"I think there's a lot of church-going [in the South] where they literally learn their craft and they're singing there every single week and [perfecting] the performance that goes with that," argued Nigel Lythgoe. "And I think there's a lot of soul there. In truth, though, we're just shocked by it to a certain degree."
It's not all that shocking, however, to Shirley Halperin, who covers "Idol" for Teen People. Her theory is based on the voters, not the singers.
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"That's where the bulk of the voting is coming from," she said. "People in the media always focus on metropolitan areas like New York, L.A. and Chicago, but I think we often forget how many more people — who watch more TV because they're not working all the time — live in between, especially in the Bible Belt. I don't find it at all surprising that the winners have been from the South because I think there's an enormous and active constituency from their home states. Just like I'm not surprised that a dark horse like Taylor Hicks has made it this far. He's from Alabama, after all, home to Ruben and Bo."
Diana DeGarmo, the third season's runner-up, was born in Birmingham too, which makes the city an unofficial "Idol" favorite. The show considered going there for auditions this season, but Warwick said factors like venue and proximity to other major cities deterred the move.
"Idol" does traditionally visit a few Southern cities each audition season, hitting Greensboro, North Carolina, this year after the threat of Hurricane Katrina moved tryouts from Memphis.
"When I arrived there I thought, 'Where on Earth am I?' Because it wasn't a hick town, but it was certainly not a major city where we'd been going previously," Warwick said. "And we had more talent and more fun and more honest emotion there than we've ever had anywhere. And it's kind of affected where we're going to go next year because we got such a good show from there. It's probably the best show we've ever had. ... Now we're reviewing the places we actually go to, because the [Southern] kids are ... not more genuine, but they're less affected by showbiz."
Southern singers also are more practiced, according to semifinalist Kinnik Sky, who hails from Duluth, Georgia.
"We have nothing else to do but to walk around singing and stuff because there ain't nothing to do in the South but eat and sing," she said. "So we're ready for competitions like this. And we have that pure, raw unadulterated talent."
Paris Bennett, one of the five remaining Southern singers — along with Chris Daughtry (McLeansville, North Carolina), Elliott Yamin (Richmond, Virginia), Pickler (Albemarle, North Carolina; see " 'Idol' Singer Causing Picklermania In North Carolina Hometown") and Hicks — agrees with Lythgoe that their church backgrounds come into play. And eliminated finalist Mandisa certainly agrees.
"The power of God is down there," the Fayetteville, Georgia, native said. "There is a spirit thing down there, and we are bringing soul and just taking what God has given to us and sharing it with everyone, and that is my reasoning."
Bucky Covington, another eliminated finalist from the South, pointed to Southern contestants' personalities, their accents and the fact that they represent something different than what is on popular radio for the most part. He did point out, though, that it's not always an advantage.
"It's a nice, comforting feeling to know there are three of you out of North Carolina, but then again, where other people might have, like, a whole state voting for them, we have to split it [three ways]," he said. "So I'm sure it probably hurts a little bit, but it's a nice thing to say that North Carolina has a lot of talent coming out of it."