Cracker Barrel asserts that “care” is the secret ingredient in their brand, one that’s since been turned into a “rallying cry” in the form of the Care It Forward initiative. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cracker Barrel launched the campaign to “amplify care and connection” by calling on accomplished artists, gospel legend CeCe Winans and hit songwriter Shane McAnally, to mentor up-and-coming acts Tauren Wells and Kylie Morgan, respectively, in addition to offering in-store surprises to guests and a digital content series that spotlights the mentorship sessions and collaborative performances.
When Cracker Barrel reached out to Winans about the initiative, she was compelled by the benevolence of the mission and opportunity to mentor breakthrough Christian artist Wells. “When they told me what it was about, caring for people and being a blessing to people and also the mentoring piece, I was honored to be a part of it,” Winans shares with Sounds Like Nashville via phone interview. “For them to take out the time to create something that gives back without worrying about something in return, it’s the spirit of generosity. I felt the spirit of generosity on the set, but also the spirit of love, the spirit of unity, it was diverse. That’s always an honor to be a part of when you can.” Wells, who calls the comfort food eatery his “home away from home,” says being part of the initiative was an “easy yes” for its compassionate call to action. “If I want to feel surrounded by family, I go to Cracker Barrel,” Wells declares. “I love the heart of what they’re doing with Care It Forward, trying to move people to action on the behalf of others. That’s really what I’m about, what my life is about. I hope that through the content and the conversations that everyone is finding ways to show love in their own unique ways.”
Like Wells, McAnally is a self-professed “lover” of Cracker Barrel, frequenting the establishment with his family. The country songwriter became involved after announcing on Instagram that he was going to miss Cracker Barrel during a work trip in L.A, the comment leading to a series of conversations between the songwriter and restaurant about partnering on the initiative. For both Winans and McAnally, the mentorship component served as a compelling element that drew them to the project, fulfilling their desire to elevate deserving young artists. “I’ve been so blessed and so lucky to have had the career that I’ve had, and working with new artists is what fulfills me,” shares McAnally. “I think that ultimately when you’re on this path and you reach your own wildest dreams, you realize that isn’t what you thought. The only thing that really makes you feel full is is carrying it forward, doing something for other people. That’s what I’m trying to do, be of service, and I love that we can include these young artists and give them a platform.” “It’s so important to help people. I’m so grateful for the mentors that I’ve had in life, people who took out time to pour into me not just with my singing, but with life,” Winans comments on the value of mentorship. “That’s been a joy of my life to be able to pour into other people, young people. It means a lot. It’s important so that people can be encouraged, ask questions, because none of us have gone this way before, so you ask those who have gone before you.”
Through the program, the 12-time Grammy Award winner sat down with Wells to discuss a range of topics from their favorite Cracker Barrel menu items to offering sage wisdom on how to navigate the music industry, Winans aiming to impress upon the husband and father of three children to find a healthy balance between success and honoring precious time with family. “The main thing is to remain true to yourself. Success is funny because success is an awesome thing to experience, but it can also interrupt your life in a way that is damaging to your life if you’re not careful. So I always try to share with Tauren and the other artists who I see is on the move,” Winans advises. The joy between the two passionate passionate singers is evident as their voices unite in harmony and spirit on performances of the classic “Lean on Me,” in addition to “Believe For It,” the title track of Winans’ 2021 chart-topping album, and “Until Grace,” Wells’ Top 20 single featuring Rascal Flatts.
For Wells, receiving wisdom from the “living legend” that he cites as a “huge influence” and one of his heroes was invaluable, stating he was “thrilled” and “overjoyed” to have Winans as a mentor. “She has navigated so many spaces in the music industry with so much grace and humility and poise and excellence. I can’t think of a better person to give me some insight and wisdom and direction. I love how she operates from a real place of purpose that it’s not just about notoriety or building her brand, but for her it’s about purpose, it’s about people. Being reminded that’s the true north was something that I’ll carry with me,” he praises of the gospel great. “You want to serve people with music. You want to encourage people and give people songs and be at the table after the show and learn the people’s names and hear their stories. But the further you get along in this and the more success you have, the harder you have to fight to stay close to the people. We can get so dialed in on what we’re doing that we forget who we’re doing it for, so her sharing that as the thing that she constantly goes back to is the people was a very timely lesson for me to hear and be reminded of.”
When stepping into the mentor role for Morgan, McAnally was intentional about encouraging her to honor the journey. As a rising songwriter during his early days in Music City, the Texas native worked in the restaurant industry, writing songs by day and waiting tables at night to make a living. Working in the service industry allowed him to be in constant contact with others, the master writer keeping his mind and heart open all the while. He often took the stories he heard from patrons and brought them into the writing room, turning their experiences into song. It’s all part of an empathetic process that’s earned McAnally hit songs by Sam Hunt, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert and many more, and serving as producer behind such Grammy winning albums as Kacey Musgraves’ debut, Same Trailer Different Park. “The number one thing I always say is if it’s not fun, don’t do this, because it’s going to be hard either way. Mentorship bridges that gap and it puts someone right in front of you that has done it. Having the experience that I can then say to [Morgan], ‘it’s going to happen. Even sometimes as you get knocked down and you hear a thousand ‘no’s’ before you hear one ‘yes,’ if this is what you want to do, it’s worth staying. It may not look the way you thought, but I guarantee you it will only be better than what you thought if you just let it,’” the songwriting titan expresses. “For so long, I had one script written. I had such a narrow vision of what it meant to make it in the music business, which kept me from enjoying the journey. Getting to tell people, ‘you don’t have to always feel like it’s an uphill climb because the fun is in the journey and I’m still on it.’ I like to be able to hand that down and say ‘please have fun doing this because it’s really not worth it any other way.’”
The two-time ACM Songwriter of the Year reconnected with his roots in the restaurant industry when he volunteered at a Cracker Barrel location in Nashville as part of the campaign. The experience proved to be one of divine intervention, as one of the first guests McAnally met was 80-year-old couple, Roy and Shirley. It didn’t take long for Shirley to open up to McAnally, sharing the couple’s story of how they struggled to have a family. After losing a child, they decided to adopt, serendipitously going to the adoption agency on Shirley’s birthday – the same day the twins they ultimately adopted were born. It was a moment that “instantly connected” McAnally to the honest couple, as he and his husband Michael Baum welcomed their twins, son Dash and daughter Dylan, through a surrogate in 2012. “My reasons for a surrogacy were different than their reasons for adoption, but it still shows that a child being brought into your family is more than blood. It’s meant to be. They were obviously supposed to be there that day, and we feel the same about our children,” he professes. “They really were the American dream, the story of building a family against all odds. That impacted me because I know in a totally different way, it was my story too. We want the same things, and their heartbreaks were mine, and the way that things worked out for them, they were completely satisfied in their journey and their lives. They felt very blessed, so do I.”
Calling back to his instinct as a burgeoning songwriter, McAnally brought Roy and Shirley’s heartfelt story to Morgan during a writing session, the two crafting the original song, “Growing Young,” that they performed as part of the Cracker Barrel series, featured alongside McAnally’s beautiful interpretation of Musgraves’ “Rainbow” and Morgan showing off her strong vocals on “Outdoor Voices.” “I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to be a part of Cracker Barrel’s Care it Forward initiative. It was one of the most inspiring moments to be able to write ‘Growing Young’ with Shane after learning about the story of meeting Roy and Shirley right here in Nashville at a local Cracker Barrel,” Morgan describes in a statement. “Shane has been a mentor to me over the years and this experience is one that will continue with me throughout my career.”
As demonstrated through the stories of people like Roy and Shirley and McAnally’s observation of the devoted employees who go above and beyond for customers, to the universal element of music that ties it all together, at the heart of the Care It Forward initiative is connection that each of the participants are grateful to have experienced. “I feel like everyone, no matter where you’re at, no matter what you’re doing, you have a step to take. We all have a step to take toward others, toward the pain of others, toward the triumph and celebration of others,” Wells observes. “I think [Care It Forward] means moving toward people, the needs of others, the fears of others, the places that other people are celebrating, and to do it with an authentic, pure heart, and to always be ready to pour into someone, to give to someone, to share an encouraging word, to lend a helping hand. I love this Care It Forward program. It’s bringing awareness and this idea of importance to our mind that we have to be moving toward people in action and in care and celebration of them and what they’re going through.”
“It is that human connection and that’s what makes the difference in making music. You have to be coming from a place of honest human connection for the songs, for the music to also do that, to also connect with people. It starts in everyday life. It starts in listening to people, watching their experiences, being open to being empathetic and knowing that every person you meet, there’s a reason. If you’re open to that and getting in the flow, you never know what’s going to come from it,” McAnally proclaims. “So often I’ll look back and think about incredible things I got to do and wish that in that moment, I had been more in the moment. I think Care It Forward means…you got to go through it yourself, but hopefully by giving them a little piece of that, they’ll hear that in a moment of struggle and say, ‘I’m on the right path.’”
For Winans, the movement symbolizes hope. As the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, the legendary singer encourages viewers to find the sense of connectedness through the initiative that embraces not only a caring spirit, but hope. “It’s a perfect setup when you have a great company doing something great, knowing that you’re going to leave people smiling, you’re going to be a blessing to someone’s day. You’re going to give them something that a lot of people need right now. A lot of families look totally different than what they did before the pandemic, so I think whenever you can put a little sunshine in someone’s life, it goes a long way to have impact of encouragement on someone’s life. They need to see it because it gives hope, and that’s what I felt,” she affirms. “Care It Forward means to share what you’ve been given. Everything I have is because somebody gave it to me, and everybody’s been given something that they can share. I want everybody to care forward and take out time to care for somebody. I think if that’s our goal, a daily goal to care for somebody, to care it forward, to do something nice, to do something kind, I really do think we could change the world,” she vows. “But it’s going to take us all doing it together.”
Fans can also be a part of the movement by sharing their acts of kindness on social media with #CareItForward.