Food, now music, served at Cracker Barrel

Restaurant starts label to record various tunes

January 17, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It's a place where you can get down-home food - fried okra, smothered steak, hot cornbread - and lemonade comes in a jar. The antiques and old product memorabilia adorning Cracker Barrel Old Country Store restaurants evoke a nostalgic early-American charm.

Music was missing from the homey ambience. But not anymore.

To extend the traditional theme, Cracker Barrel has created a new independent label, CB Music Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of the interstate restaurant chain that records a variety of traditional and ethnic music. The record company has just released 17 CDs by a mix of obscure and well-known artists, including bluegrass star J.D. Crowe, Cajun legends the Balfa Brothers and others. The National Council for the Traditional Arts, a nonprofit, Silver Spring-based corporation that presents and documents folk and ethnic arts, produced the first batch of releases.

"Music merchandising is changing," says Joe Wilson, the executive director of the council for 27 years and the artists and repertoire manager for CB Music. "How records are sold is undergoing a revolution. Retailers these days have their own brand of CDs. Cracker Barrel stresses a traditional theme, so the traditional music goes along with the type of merchandise that's sold in the stores."

Wilson says the restaurant chain has an advantage over other independent specialty labels.

"Cracker Barrel has something that is important: distribution," he says. "In the stores, you have a rack where you can walk up and punch a button and hear the music. You can hear it, then buy it right there. Other independent labels do well to sell about 20,000 copies of a CD. But with Cracker Barrel, there's an opportunity to sell more than that because of the distribution in all the stores."

The CDs will be sold for $11.99 each in the retail stores of all 480 restaurants across the nation, including five in Maryland, alongside such signature items as rocking chairs and the jumbo checker Tic-Tac-Toe rug.

"The restaurant has this push to do everything traditional with the food, the decorations on the wall," says Wilson, 65, whose background as a folk-art curator spans 40 years. "So there's a larger purpose with the music - to preserve this type of American music."

The releases cover a range of styles - Christmas music, Native American flute music, rockabilly, Piedmont blues, bluegrass, Irish ballads, Western swing - that serves as an aural tapestry of American music. Three discs in particular feature distinct flavors of gospel. The Sacred Steel Guitar Masters showcases a spirited, high-octane brand of black gospel that originated in House of God services in the late 1930s. In today's pop world, acclaimed singer-musician Robert Randolph has folded holy steel guitar vocalizing into a funk and rock context.

The soaring harmonies of the Birmingham Sunlights, an African-American a cappella quartet from Jefferson County, Ala., contrast sharply with the jangly sounds of the Stony Point Quartet, an Appalachian gospel group. Yet the two CDs display how energetic and melodically inventive the gospel idiom can be.

"We work with ethnic musicologists to help scout talent for the label," Wilson says.

He travels throughout the country, attending festivals and concerts in search of raw talent, singers and musicians who remember the roots of American music.

"There's not really a big aesthetic purpose behind putting the music out," Wilson says. "We want to put something on your CD player to soothe your soul. Quality announces itself."

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