- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Folklorist Joe Wilson concludes his resume with the fact that he’s never been named to “Who’s Who” anywhere. But in his East Tennessee drawl, he easily gets down to what’s what.

As executive director of the Silver Spring-based National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA), Mr. Wilson has cobbled together an astonishing collection of 17 CDs ranging from Appalachian to Cajun, Irish to Mexican, rockabilly to New Orleans jazz, gospel to Piedmont blues and Native American northern Plains courting flute. Each disc comes with thoughtful liner notes.

Here’s the astonishing part: They are produced for and sold in the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain nationwide.

“They like how this has worked,” says Mr. Wilson, 65. “These records are doing well and selling more than an average independent label would.” And at $11.99, they’re offered for somewhat less than the going rate for most CDs.

The project is giving broader exposure to bands such as Washington’s own Seldom Scene and Washington-born musician David McLaughlin, nominated for two Grammys as mandolin player with the Johnson Mountain Boys. Mr. McLaughlin plays or sings on four of the Cracker Barrel Heritage imprint’s first set of releases.

“As an artist, it’s kind of like having a winning lottery ticket,” says Mr. McLaughlin, 45, who points out that with its 487 restaurants and country stores in 41 states, Cracker Barrel has more locations than Tower Records’ 113 stores worldwide.

“It’s a great marketing idea for Cracker Barrel and the artists,” he says. “Cracker Barrel will sell more in one year than everything I’ve done in my entire lifetime.”

Cracker Barrel Vice President for Merchandising Debra K. Kidwell says, “We see our music company as another way to offer our customers a taste of what is good in America.”

One of the 17 discs, the eponymous “Springfield Exit,” was recorded in Mr. McLaughlin’s Winchester, Va., studio. The band, comprising Mr. McLaughlin, Bristol, Va., singer Linda Lay — who has a disc of her own in the collection — and Mrs. Lay’s husband, David, actually came together as a result of their work on other Cracker Barrel discs. The band has since performed at the Birchmere in Alexandria and is booked to play in May at the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester. They’ve even given impromptu concerts in Cracker Barrel restaurants when they’ve stopped to eat while touring.

Two of the Cracker Barrel recordings come from the NCTA’s archives of live concerts. Others, such as the Seldom Scene disc, are compilations not previously available on a single disc. Dudley Connell, one of the original Johnson Mountain Boys, now performs in the Scene and works as an archivist at the NCTA. Mr. Connell and Mr. McLaughlin also sing together in the two Stony Point Quartet recordings in the Cracker Barrel series.

The Seldom Scene disc “is one of the top three sellers,” Mr. Wilson says. “Those records have been out of the stores for a long time.”

Mr. Wilson has headed up the NCTA since 1976 and has had a hand in producing more than 100 recordings of traditional music.

The group, founded in 1933, moved to the Washington area in 1938. For 11 years, the NCTA produced the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap Farm Park. Then, under Mr. Wilson’s leadership, the organization turned the festival into a traveling show — setting up shop in a city for three years at a clip with an annual event, planting the seed for a music and arts event that it hopes takes root.

NCTA also puts together national tours of traditional music.

“I’ve learned to like all kinds of music,” says Mr. Wilson, who adds that the Cracker Barrel Heritage label is currently producing four new discs, among them an Appalachian string band project and a yodeling cowboy disc featuring Wylie & the Wild West, named for Wylie Gustafson of Yahoo.com TV commercial yodeling fame — “an honest-to-God cowboy, so skinny he could crawl through a Lifesaver, and he laughs like a banshee,” Mr. Wilson drawls.

The other two discs will feature vintage Sugar Hill Records tracks from the gospel bluegrass group Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and gospel recordings combed from Ralph Stanley’s 1970s Rebel records.

Although four of the 17 current discs and two of the planned projects are religious — representing “sacred steel” guitar, Christmas, and black and white Southern gospel traditions — Mr. Wilson says he’s not promoting any spiritual point of view. Nor is Cracker Barrel, he says.

“That just reflects the way things are,” he says. “Sixty percent of the music made in this country is religious, when you get to traditional music or music that people make for themselves. There’s some great music that has some religious content.”

He hopes the series helps “more Americans be aware of their culture and how rich and deep it is, and how close it is to them — to understand that it’s not something someone else has somewhere else,” in New York, Hollywood or Nashville.

“Traditional music isn’t produced just to make money,” he says. “It’s produced out of beliefs; it’s produced out of values.”

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