Uncle Kracker is currently watching his single, “Smile,” inch closer to the Top 10 on Billboard’s country songs chart while his recently-released EP, Happy Hour: The South River Road Sessions, looks to cement his status as a serious, if slightly unexpected, country artist.
With his singable lyrics paired to catchy, pop-leaning melodies, the Detroit native and former DJ is no stranger to the top of the musical heap. He co-wrote some of Kid Rock’s biggest hits, including “Cowboy,” “Only God Knows Why” and, of course, last year’s ubiquitous smash “All Summer Long.” As a singer, he had major hits of his own with 2001’s “Follow Me” and 2003’s “Drift Away,” but many country fans will remember him best from his appearance on Kenny Chesney’s 2004 hit, “When the Sun Goes Down.”
His subsequent friendship with Chesney may have helped steer the singer toward The South River Road Sessions, which features country mixes of songs from last year’s Happy Hour album. Uncle Kracker — aka Matt Shafer — recently talked to CMT.com about his latest release and why “Smile” is so upbeat.
CMT: You got your start as a DJ for Kid Rock. Has your musical taste really changed over the years?
I think being a DJ broadened my musical taste, but I think it takes a certain type of person to be a DJ first. I had a general appreciation for most types of music, and I think to be a DJ, you have to.
Do you think that makes you a better writer?
Absolutely. I think being open to different things will make you a better writer and a better person. I think everyone needs to be a little bit more open.
Can you kind of tell when you’re writing a song if it’s likely to result in a country mix?
I don’t know. I mean, you know what instrument fits on it and what doesn’t. If it’s not working after a couple of minutes, it’s not gonna work. I try not to spend too much time trying to make it sound one way or the other. …There’s just some songs that you can’t pull off in that way. It feels like a lot of people say, “Oh, we’re gonna make a country version of that. We’re gonna put some pedal steel on it.” It doesn’t work like that. And so I use the song. I just think that you can’t make a song into a country song. It’s either going to be there when you write it or it’s not going to be there.
Can you tell me a little bit about South River Road Sessions?
I grew up on South River Road. This was more or less like the country version of “Smile.” We went in and redid some things that should have been on it the first time around. … Originally, you go in to record an album and basically record just about everything. So there’s banjos and pedal steel and a whole bunch of fun stuff happening, but it didn’t all make the final mixes of the record. “Smile” started doing OK and we went back in and we recalled back up a bunch of the older mixes — stuff that I liked and the record label didn’t like and vice versa. And we just picked six [songs]. … I dug up a song that I wrote with David Allan Coe about eight years ago that was actually on my second album [called] “Letter to My Daughters.”
How did you and Coe meet?
I met David Allan probably, I’d say 10, 11 years ago when I was on tour with Kid Rock. David Allan Coe read an article — it was a Kid Rock interview. Kid Rock was talking about listening to David Allan Coe songs. Well, David Allan’s son was about 14 or 15 at the time. His son actually thought that was really cool that Kid Rock listened to his dad, so David Allan reached out to Kid Rock. I remember we went down to Texas, and he and I just hit it off really well. We just became great friends. He’s actually one of my better friends these days.
I hear “Smile” everywhere, and it just sounds so happy. I was wondering if you could tell me who the inspiration was for that?
There’s no one particular thing behind the song. I wrote that with Blair Daly and J.T. Harding. We were up in my cottage in northern Michigan and we woke up one morning and we’d been writing the same shit over and over and over, and I was like, “Let’s do something happy. Let’s do something positive, something out of the ordinary.” … We were making fun songs, like a fun record, but “Smile” was a conscious decision to just write something positive — like over-the-top positive. I feel like there are not enough of those songs anymore. … A lot of those ’70s songs that you could go back to, they weren’t afraid to be like, “Aww, you’re awesome.” Nowadays, people don’t do that. They’re not as positive.
Kid Rock sings with you on “Good to Be Me,” and that’s another one with a “happy to be alive” feel. Is that how you’re feeling about life right now?
Absolutely. Yeah, I am happy to be here … I guess it is.
“Me Again” features Jesse Lee, who is a very country singer. How did that collaboration come around?
When I turned that song into the record label they thought it would sell better as a duet. And Jesse Lee is on the same record label, [so] they suggested maybe Jesse Lee. I made them send me some Jesse Lee stuff because I wasn’t hip at the time. But when I listened to her, she just reminded me of a young Dolly Parton. Like a 17-year-old year old Dolly Parton. She came in and rewrote her verse so it sounded more like from a girl’s perspective. So she ended up being more of an asset than anything else. She really did the song justice. And I’m happy because in the beginning I was like, “I don’t need this to be duet. I have this all figured out.” I thought the label was just trying to use one of their artists or whatever, but she sold me fast.