Red Lobster, Cracker Barrel, Applebee’s, and Country Music

Right now the iconic American chain restaurant is going through a reckoning that draws similar parallels to country music. On the surface, perhaps these things don’t have any similarities at all. But digging a bit deeper, they’re both experiencing a transition as the American public wakes up to the fact that they probably have better options on the menu than whatever corporate America is serving up, and that supporting business that’s independent, local, or regional probably should be a priority.

Red Lobster is currently closing restaurants across the country and has officially declared bankruptcy. Though some initial false reporting put the problem entirely on people taking advantage of an “endless shrimp” promotion, the issue was actually much more fundamental, and had to do with the buying and selling of the brand by big companies, and money manipulations behind-the-scenes that often doom these big corporate brands.

But the more underlying issue is that Red Lobster was no longer considered a cool place to eat. The chain had subsisted for decades on the premise that it was fine dining. But when people figured out that as a restaurant concept, it was really no different than a McDonald’s, just with better decor, food, and a waitstaff, it started to fall out of favor. It is not alone.

The American “fern bar” concept has become increasingly uncool with the public over time. In the ’80s and early ’90s, these were some of the most hip places to go and hang out for the yuppie class. But by the late ’90s, opinions began shifting. There were the iconic scenes with Jennifer Anniston in the cult movie classic Office Space from 1999 where Anniston’s character mocks her boss for his over-insistence on “flair” at the fictional casual dining chain Chotchkie’s.

The TV series The Office also incorporated this kind of fern bar lampooning, including in the famous episode “The Client” from 2005 that was centered around a meeting that happens in a Chili’s. The restaurant chain then became somewhat of a running joke throughout the series. All of this underscored a “basic bitch” aspect that the American corporate fern bar had taken on. When they started offering specifically-priced meal deals, this made them even more synonymous with fast food.

This ultimately set the table for Walker Hayes and his 2021 hit “Fancy Like” that become one of the most hated “songs” in country music history. It’s now known colloquially as “The Applebee’s Song,” and is heavily derided for its shallow and insipid music and lyricism, while also being an ear worm and guilty pleasure for many. Similar to fern bars, mainstream country is now commonly mocked in popular culture, from comedian Bo Burnham, to popular Canadian sitcom Letterkenny.

Ironically, “Fancy Like” actually draws attention to the emerging truth that to many Americans, Applebee’s is a “fancy” date night place for them. As the wealth divide in America continues to widen, Applebee’s is a splurge, or perhaps the only thing that passes for a “fancy” restaurant in many communities and price ranges in America.

What does all of this have to do with country music? Similar to chain restaurants, corporate country music is also starting to become passe as people realize they have better options. Why do people go to chain restaurants as opposed to a local independent eatery? It’s because there is a familiarity with the atmosphere and the menu, and a safety in knowing what they’ll get. No matter where you are in America, Red Lobster’s cheddar biscuits will taste the same, as will the baby back ribs at Chilli’s.

This also applies to country music. No matter where you are in America, if you turn on the corporate country station, you’re going to hear the same songs from the same artists. It’s safe and familiar. But on the whole, independent country music is just more healthy, enriching, and better to support for the local economy. There is a risk involved though in not knowing what you may get. The unfamiliarity might be a little intimidating at first. If you go to a mom and pop restaurant, you may not know exactly what you’re in store for. But when you find a great one, it won’t result in just a good meal, but a good memory.

During an earnings call last week, the CEO of the restaurant chain Cracker Barrel said, “We’re just not relevant as we once were,” to explain why revenue was lackluster. There is a bit of irony in that statement since the whole point of Cracker Barrel is to be old-fashioned. That’s what the term “Cracker Barrel” means. It’s a euphemism for outdated, and poor, despite some trying to assign it as being somehow racist via urban myths.

Currently, Cracker Barrel isn’t planning to close down stores, and compared to Red Lobster and some other struggling chains, they’re doing just fine. Anyone who has been to a Cracker Barrel on a Friday night or a Sunday morning will attest to this after sitting outside on a rocking chair for an hour waiting on a table. But in the corporate world, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. This is what pushed Red Lobster to make risky moves that resulted in its demise.

Cracker Barrel plays an important role in the country music ecosystem. It’s one of the few retail outlets left that actually carries physical CDs and vinyl, and sells them at a substantial enough level to keep them stocked at their stores. These are mostly specialty releases or one-time promotions as opposed to an entire selection like a record store has, but some traditional country, bluegrass, and Gospel country artists do cater to the Cracker Barrel crowd, including with exclusive releases for the restaurant.

Cracker Barrel also supports country music by playing it in all of their 687 stores in 45 total states. And it’s not just mainstream country featured. You can hear quite a bit of classic country and even Americana performers like Jon Moreland and Jaime Wyatt. In fact, Jaime Wyatt’s song “Love is a Place” recently appeared in a Cracker Barrel commercial.

In years previous, Cracker Barrel had a bad reputation among the LGBT community that Jaime Wyatt happens to be a part of. By most accounts, those days have since passed. “This is living proof to all the dreamers and neurodivergent artists who don’t fit into the world, that you can do big things sometimes, even when folks try to limit your dreams,” Wyatt said about the opportunity. “Most folks are trying to protect us when they say this things, but I’m really glad I was born too stubborn to listen!”

Cracker Barrel also plays an important role with touring musicians. In a feature for No Depression, roots/bluegrass musician Rachel Baiman praised the importance of the Cracker Barrel breakfast as a mainstay of the touring life. If you talk to other touring musicians, they’ll also tell you that if a chain restaurant is on the itinerary, it’s usually a Cracker Barrel. After all, just like Chilli’s, you know what you’re going to get. They’re also one of the few places left that allow RV’ers to stay overnight in many of their parking lots.

One of the reasons these mid-priced fern bars like Applebee’s and Chili’s are actually doing fine in this depressed economy is because they’ve moved into the splurge/fine dining space once occupied by the now too expensive Red Lobster. And unlike fast food chains such as McDonald’s, these fern bars have been able to keep their prices relatively affordable.

A few weeks ago, there was a viral story that Chili’s were shutting down too. It turned out to be false, and the rumor was attributed back to the country music website Taste of Country. Why was a mainstream gossipy country music website like Taste of Country reporting on the plight of Chili’s? Because just like Applebee’s, these restaurants appeal to many mainstream country music listeners. They know what they’re going to get and it’s “safe,” just like the music of Walker Hayes.

Conscientious consumers may not want to go to Red Lobster over their local seafood place, or the Cracker Barrel over their local “meat and three” comfort food restaurant, but they still sometimes do. Just like a single on mainstream country radio, it’s a guilty pleasure. And no matter if you frequent these restaurant chains currently or not, there’s also something a bit sad about their potential demise. There is something wholesome about these restaurants. They’re cultural institutions.

“We’re just not relevant as we once were,” is what the CEO of Cracker Barrel said, and you can definitely say something similar about corporate country radio, about the ACM Awards, major label artists, and other mainstream country music institutions. Now that people know they have better options for finding music, they’re just not frequenting these establishments in similar numbers compared to years ago. And because these institutions are built off a corporate structure that demands growth every quarter, sustainability is not enough.

But sometimes old-fashioned is cool. When you look at the surging popularity of artists such as Zach Top, Ernest, Lainey Wilson, and others, this seems to be appropriate to this moment. Not all of country music’s mainstream institutions have to be doomed. Look at the Grand Ole Opry, which might be fair to characterize as the “Cracker Barrel of country,” i.e. old-fashioned. It’s arguably more relevant at the moment than it’s been at any other time in the last 20 years.

Why is this? Because under the leadership of Dan Rogers, it has brought in more up-and-coming talent than ever. It has opened up the stage to a more diverse crop of performers than ever. The Grand Ole Opry has finally inducted some deserving artists as members (Jamey Johnson, T Graham Brown). It has worked to meet the challenges of the current moment as opposed to cost cutting and downsizing in a strategy that only prioritizes survival.

The rest of country music’s institutions need to step up as well. Or they may be going the way of Red Lobster sooner than later. Because in increasing numbers, people are no longer digging “Fancy Like.” They want something real.

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