Uncle Kracker never expected to have a No. 1 country single. But then, he’s never been one to strategize every career move.
“It’s kind of an accident that I’m sitting here right now,” he says, leaning against a table in the conference room at Warner Bros. Nashville while promoting his just-released album, Seventy Two & Sunny.
The No. 1 single was “When the Sun Goes Down,” a duet with Kenny Chesney stemming from last year’s guest appearance during Chesney’s stadium concert at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. On 72 and Sunny, Chesney returns the favor on another duet, “Last Night Again.”
Uncle Kracker — aka Matt Shafer — first gained national attention through his work as Kid Rock’s DJ and songwriting partner. His debut solo album, Double Wide, was released in 2000 and eventually sold 2 million copies. Take away the rap songs on Double Wide and 2002′s No Stranger to Shame, and you’ve got something that sounds a lot like Seventy Two & Sunny.
“The record sounds a little country here and there, and it sounds a little pop here and there, and it sounds a little bluesy here and there,” he tells CMT. com. “I think back to those old records like Little Feat, the Band or Dr. Hook. I don’t think anybody ever wrote a bad review about [the late Little Feat frontman] Lowell George. I’ll bet there was never an article that said, ‘Will Little Feat be country tonight, or will they be southern rock? What are they going to be tonight? Why are they leaning more one way or the other?’ They were good records, and nobody was really questioning them. I think things got a lot easier for the record labels when they could categorize and channel their funds into one direction.”
Uncle Kracker first visited Nashville seven years ago when he and his wife traveled from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Tennessee. “We drove south to see the Hank Williams museum, which I thought was in Paris, Tenn.,” he notes, explaining that all of Hank Williams Jr.’s T-shirts were emblazoned with the name of the small town west of Nashville. After realizing their geographical error, the couple headed to Nashville and stayed at a hotel near a Music Row strip mall that primarily housed retail stores selling souvenirs.
“I stayed over by that Shoney’s near the Hank Williams store and George Jones stores,” he says. “I was in love with Nashville just because I was parked across the street from the Hank Williams store. From the front, it looked like a souvenir store. But in the back, it had all of Hank Sr.’s collectible stuff.”
The first visit also included a bit of a shock when he opened the menu at a downtown restaurant that has since gone out of business. “There was the NASCAR Café,” he recalls. “I remember doing that because cheeseburgers were, like, 12 bucks. I’m thinking, ‘In Tennessee?’”
Noting that he gets “annihilated in the press,” Uncle Kracker was not expecting the warm reception he’s received from the country music community.
“But after I figured out a little bit of what goes on in Nashville, it didn’t surprise me that much,” he says. “Once I got down here and started hanging out, I realized that people down here really give a f–k. … If you read the publications out of L.A. or New York, nobody really goes past the cover of the record. Everybody’s sitting around trying to compare me to Kid Rock — or I’m this Kid Rock clone or protégé. Nobody takes the time to figure out that I helped write things like ‘Only God Knows Why’ and ‘Cowboy’ and all these other songs on his albums. We’re going to sound alike because we wrote them together. Instead, they just kind of crucify me. Down here, people actually appreciate songwriters, and they appreciate a song, and they appreciate music.”
Some of the sessions for Seventy Two & Sunny took place in Nashville, including the one for “Last Night Again,” which also features harmony vocals by Phil Vassar and Poison vocalist Bret Michaels. He first met Michaels the night before the session.
“He came by and hung out for a while,” he explains. “Then Phil came by to do some piano. Kenny was just hanging around and said, ‘Let me add some harmonies or something.’ I said all right, but I felt like a scumbag because the song wasn’t even written yet. I started writing, and it took me about 20 minutes to finish it.”
Although he and Chesney enjoyed a huge hit with “When the Sun Goes Down,” Uncle Kracker doubts that “Last Night Again” will be released as a single.
“I don’t think Kenny’s label would give us permission to go to the radio stations with it,” he explains. “I could just see something like that happen. … They’ll say that it will interfere with what he’s got going on. That’s what I foresee. It would be sweet to hear it as a single, though.”
Uncle Kracker is now on the road with Chesney during a summer tour. “I signed on for the tour because I thought it’s going to be a big tour, and it’s going to be good for me,” he says. “And it’ll be good for anybody who wants to hear ‘When the Sun Goes Down.’ So everybody kind of wins on that tour.”
But even though he’ll be performing to a predominantly country audience, he says he’s not making a conscious effort to cultivate any particular fan base. He welcomes any new listeners he can find.
“I have no master plan,” he says. “I’m sure the label has probably got plans and maneuvers. … I’m not trying to weasel myself here or there. I’m not really trying to do anything.”