Uncle Kracker’s “Smile” May Be Contagious at Country Radio

Michigan Musician Talks About Kenny Chesney, Kid Rock, Hank Williams Jr.

Uncle Kracker still lives in his native Michigan, but during a recent visit to Nashville, he made it known that he’s quite fond of the country music capital, too.

“I love Nashville. I do. It’s not home, you know, like Detroit is obviously home for me, but stuff I like to do, I can’t do around my home,” he says. “This place is one big music anything. You can go into any bar and see live music any night of the week. That is awesome and not something I can get at home. It would be sweet to live down here and be able to do that.”

His latest single, “Smile,” is currently being worked to country radio, but he’s no stranger to the country charts. In 2004, Kenny Chesney introduced him to a new fan base with a five-week No. 1 hit duet, “When the Sun Goes Down.” And last year, an Uncle Kracker/Kid Rock collaboration, “All Summer Long,” blared from car radios coast to coast. In this interview with CMT.com, he talks about his famous friends, his upcoming tour and his early discovery of country music.

CMT: Last summer, “All Summer Long” was everywhere. What were you trying to capture the day you all wrote that song?

Uncle Kracker: At the time, what was happening in music was all these mash-ups. … Especially in Europe, they were huge. Kid Rock had just come back from a music festival there, but he doesn’t like anybody messing with his stuff to do a mash-up, so he was like, “I’m just going to do a mash-up myself and cut out the middleman.” He called me one day and he’s got Skynyrd and Warren Zevon looped up. … We literally knocked that thing out in an hour. It was just fun, obviously with Skynyrd and Zevon. It was feel-good, fun and an easy one to do.

Kid Rock has almost a larger-than-life personality, but what is he really like?

He’s a good dude. I don’t want to say he is like you’d think he’d be. He’s my best friend so it’s hard for me to explain how he is. He’s just a good dude. I couldn’t ask for a better best friend.

What sets him apart in the music world, do you think?

I think what sets him aside the most is that he’s like a jack of all trades, master of none. He can do just about anything there is to do with music. He’s a great songwriter, and I think what sets him aside the most is that he’s an excellent performer. He’s an entertainer. You just don’t see many people like him. His determination and his commitment and his passion set him aside from really anybody.

Were you involved in the songwriting for “When the Sun Goes Down”?

No, I wish I was. (laughs) That was a track that Kenny had. This is how I met Kenny: At the time, he was doing Neyland Stadium in Knoxville (Tenn.), and it was his first stadium show. He asked if I would come out and do “Drift Away” and, of course, I was like, “Yeah.” After I met him, he said, “Man, I’ve got this song I want you to get on.” But he didn’t play it for me, so a couple of months went by. When he was playing in Detroit, I went and asked him, “Whatever happened to that song you wanted me to get on?” He’s like, “Ah, man, I forgot to play it for you!” So I busted his chops about it. Probably to the point where he was like, “All right, I’ll let you on this song.” (laughs)

When he did play it for you, what did you think?

When I first heard it, it sounded like “Follow Me” to me a lot. I was like, “Is that my song? What is that?” In fact, that was a joke around here for a while. Every time I’d come to Nashville, they’d say, “Uncle Kracker, have you gotten a hold of [songwriter] Brett James about your royalty checks yet?” It’s a big joke, but when I heard it, I thought, “What a great song.” I wanted to be on it immediately.

Do you play it at your own shows?

Yeah, I do. Not all the time. It’s tough to do without the other person. It’s not really the same, so once in a while I pull it out, like at a fair down South, or way up North.

For some who’s never seen you on tour, what can they expect from your show?

I just tell people, “Don’t expect too much.” (laughs) If you’re not expecting too much, you won’t be let down. I will leave it there. I do tell people not too expect too much. It’s a good time. It’s a feel-good show. That’s all it is. It’s all about the songs, and that’s really it. There’s not any fire, not any explosions, but the lights are set down, the music’s loud and people are boozin’. It tends to be a pretty good time.

Did you grow up on country music? I know it’s popular in Detroit.

It is. It’s a huge thing in Michigan, and people always ask me why. It stems from a long time ago when people migrated from down South for the auto industry. I know that’s why there’s still a big country fan base there. I did grow up listening to George Jones and Patsy Cline. I think those are the only two country artists my dad knew. It was either those two, or all Motown music, all the time at my house — out of my dad’s garage, anyway. He owned a gas station and was a mechanic, so he was always blaring music at 3 in the morning. I think he was chopping cars in there.

When you started discovering music on your own, did you find any country artists beyond those two?

It wasn’t until high school, maybe my senior year, when I started listening to Hank Jr. I was like, “This is just like rap.” I had been listening to all rap records and I was like, “This is the same thing.” He was talking about pickup trucks and Jim Beam as opposed to low riders and 40s [40-ounce beers]. It was a breath of fresh air to me. I really got into him. After I got into him, he seemed to be into his dad a lot, so I started looking into Hank Sr. and listening to that. It was a little different for the 16-year-old kid that I was, but I ate it up nonetheless.

You know, there was no Internet either, so I started piecing together the puzzle — “All right, he’s on tour. Charlie Daniels is opening up. He must love Charlie Daniels.” So you grab the Charlie Daniels record. And, “What’s this Marshall Tucker Band record? I’ve heard him sing about Marshall Tucker,” so you grab that. You start piecing together the puzzle like that. It was over a couple of years that I started getting into a lot of that stuff. Those were some of the best years of my life — not because I was finding out about country music but because it was a time when I was just graduating high school and there was a lot going on. That music was a part of it, too — a lot of cool memories while listening to something new. And it wasn’t even new stuff. It was older stuff that I had never been hip to. That was a really cool time.

Do you remember meeting Hank Jr. for the first time?

Yes! It was awesome. It was like meeting Elvis. He’s gotta be the closest living Elvis-type figure, you know what I mean? It scared me, but he was everything I thought he would be. He was having his Fourth of July party, and we were on tour with Metallica at the time. We were in Baltimore or something. Hank sent the private jet to fly us from Baltimore to Tennessee, where his house was. I remember the whole day, thinking, “I’m gonna get hammered.” So all day, I was like, “Water, water, water, water, water.” Then, that night, I got extremely destroyed, but then I woke up and called Merle Kilgore, his manager, God bless him. It was 8 in the morning, and I was like, “What do we do here?” because they put us in this hotel in the middle of nowhere. (laughs) I remember calling him, asking, “What’s going on? Where am I at? What am I doing? There’s no Burger King here. There’s no nothing. What’s going on?”

Merle’s like, “Cousin Kracker, hold on a second. Hank’s gonna come pick you up out front.” I’m thinking to myself, “How is he awake right now?” Hank comes and picks me up in a Navigator, and we rode from this little hotel back to his lake house. And he cooked me crappie, and we had been catching them earlier. They looked like sunfish to me, and in Michigan, you don’t eat sunfish. So he’s cooking this crappie, and it’s really early in the morning, and I’m like, “I really appreciate this.” … It might have been the best-tasting fish I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. I don’t know if it’s because if crappie tastes that good or if it’s because Hank Jr. cooked it. But I’m going to go with, because Hank Jr. cooked it. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.