NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The thought of eggs over easy and country ham often means long lines at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. That's nothing compared to the wait The Grascals had, though.
The bluegrass band waited three years to get what they wanted from the popular restaurant chain — a slot in its exclusive music program.
"It's a blessing," Grascals guitarist Jamie Johnson said. "We're very lucky to get one in there."
In an increasingly digital world, Cracker Barrel got one of the largest footprints in the United States when it comes to physical album sales — and it's looking to grow in new directions.
The company recently released an exclusive Smokey Robinson album, "Now And Then," making the 70-year-old the first black performer to appear in the company's exclusive program.
"I'm very proud of this," Robinson said. "It's a very groundbreaking event for Cracker Barrel and for me, and I'm very proud of that fact."
The CD includes six songs from Robinson's new album "Time Flies When You're Having Fun" and six classics he recorded live during concerts this year. Robinson said he visited Cracker Barrel's Lebanon, Tenn., headquarters and found the company once sued by the Justice Department for racial bias to be "a very diverse place."
"I mean people of all races work here and people of all races frequent the restaurants and the stores, and it's a great place to have my music," Robinson said.
Chris Ciavarra, Cracker Barrel's senior vice president of marketing, calls the choice of Robinson extending the brand — finding an artist not traditionally associated with the restaurant's country music-heavy catalog who will still appeal to a wider swatch of its clientele.
"I think we're very fortunate unlike some other restaurant companies to have a really multigenerational guest base, and Smokey really transcends time," Ciavarra said. "It's still being played. It's pop music. He's still recording. So our ability to kind of connect across our whole guest base is pretty nice."
And every Cracker Barrel guest sees Robinson's CD. It has been sitting on the corner of the cash register row directly across from the hostess station — where each diner pauses before being seated. Cracker Barrel averages more than 6,900 customers per store per week. That's tens of thousands of shoppers strolling by his album every day. The CD also is prominently placed on the Cracker Barrel website.
The rest of the restaurant's CD selections are at a kiosk that sits near the end of the cashier aisle and next to the door. It only measures a few cubic feet but it's productive square footage.
"That's prime location," Ciavarra said. "Every customer's going to walk past that. It tends to be one of the last things they do. It tends to be one of the more impulse items in place."
That's the kind of visibility Johnson and The Grascals are looking for on their new album, "The Grascals & Friends: Country Classics With A Bluegrass Spin," which features guest appearances by Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, Dolly Parton and Tom T. Hall. But with just one bluegrass slot open each year, they had to wait for their chance.
Last year's bluegrass release, "Dailey & Vincent Sing The Statler Brothers," sold 40,000 copies, according Nielsen SoundScan. It went on to win the International Bluegrass Music Association's album of the year and earned the group a Grammy nomination.
"Now we've got to step up to the plate and do our part," Johnson said.
The Jan. 10 release is the 25th album in the exclusive music program, which has sold nearly 1.8 million albums since June 2006 with acts like Parton, Amy Grant, Alan Jackson, Zac Brown Band and Kenny Rogers. In a time when important outlets like Wal-Mart are dramatically shrinking space devoted to physical albums, that's a number worth paying attention too.
"There's definitely a place in the marketplace for them and they do move a significant amount of records," said Peter Strickland, Warner Music Nashville vice president of sales and marketing.
"It's about outlets. It's about store fronts and doors that people go through."
AP writer Mesfin Fekadu in New York contributed to this report.
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