Uncle Kracker, ‘Midnight Special’ Album Keeps Singer’s Toes Dipped in Country
Like a well-worn pair of your favorite jeans, Uncle Kracker has found a place in country music that's comfortable and just the right fit for the Detroit hitmaker. From his first No. 1 hit, "Follow Me" to the crossover smash "Smile," which landed squarely in the Top 5 on the country charts and sold two million copies (with plenty of hits with and for artists like Kenny Chesney and Kid Rock in between), Kracker has found a niche in both the pop and country worlds and a way to travel back and forth between both seamlessly with projects like his latest, the just-released Midnight Special. The country-tinged CD derives its name not from the famous TV show of the 1970s, but more from the attitude and spirit in which the music was born.
"The title wasn't about the variety show or anything like that," Kracker tells The Boot. "A buddy of mine from Texas and I were up in Seattle at the same time and we were going over the album, listening to some of the demo stuff that I had just come out of the studio with. We were kind of kicking it around and he said, 'Man I like that one, it's kind of like a midnight special!' Just meaning like, crack a beer after midnight and listen ... the album's really loose, and that's kind of the whole 'midnight-special' meaning, something you do late."
The feel of the album may be loose and freewheeling, but the songs are definitely tightly-crafted and well-produced, thanks to the writing of Kracker and fellow songwriters like JT Harding, Shane McAnally and Blair Daly, and the studio skills of producer Keith Stegall (who also produced Kracker's last country CD, Happy Hour: The South River Road Sessions). Though this is his second official country outing, Kracker (a/k/a Matt Shafer) actually appears to have naturally been moving towards the country genre for most of his career. Initially breaking through as part of Kid Rock's Twisted Brown Trucker Band, it didn't take him long to blaze his own trail through the business, exploding onto the scene in 2001 with his debut project, Double Wide. After racking up a couple of pop hits of his own, Kracker teamed with buddy Kenny Chesney on the smash hit, "When the Sun Goes Down," and found a new fan base within the country genre. The two toured together and that success fueled Kracker's ongoing love affair with country -- something he grew up with and had a genuine passion for all his life. With the pop smash "Smile" leaping onto the country charts two years ago, Kracker knew it was time to make the natural migration to the music he had always loved, and he set about making a country version of his album Happy Hour, which became the South River Road Sessions. That album yielded a second hit, "Good to Be Me," a tune featuring guest vocals by Kid Rock that landed the duo a nomination for ACM Vocal Event of the Year.
Kracker taps into that breezy, "it'll all be alright" zone once again on his latest single, "Nobody's Sad on a Saturday Night," a song that's been tapped this season for college football telecasts on ESPN and ABC. Penned with his "Smile" co-writer JT Harding and Shane McAnally (the duo behind recent country hits such as "Somewhere With You" and "Alone With You"), the single sets the tone for the easygoing project. He credits JT with helping open him up a bit as a songwriter -- a move that led to some collaborations with country tunesmiths Chris Tompkins, Scooter Carusoe and more on the new album.
Watch Uncle Kracker's 'Nobody's Sad on a Saturday Night' Video
"JT has always been a solid individual," he says. "Always been very witty and talented ... I met him through a good friend of mine in Detroit. He always mentioned JT and he said, 'You should get together and write.' I hemmed and hawed, because I never really wrote with anybody outside my immediate circle, so I was always a little skeptical. But I opened up a little bit more, and I got to hang with JT a few times, and I was like, you know what, let's try it. At the very last minute, JT brought up Blair Daly, they flew up to my house. We drove up to my cottage and spent a week writing, and it just felt good. It was comfortable, everybody got along great, nobody was afraid to shoot somebody's idea down, and it was a really cool situation. Then JT brought Shane along, too, and I got Scooter Carusoe's number from JT as well. So he's been very helpful."
Those sessions led to tunes like the raucously fun "Four Letter Word," an ode to that wild woman in a man's life who always finds a way to drive him absolutely crazy yet he can't resist; "In Between Disasters," about the zaniness of a chaotic life that name-checks Zac Brown, and Kracker's personal favorite, "Who We Are," a song that perfectly encapsulates the crowd of regulars perched at any dive bar in any town on a Saturday night and the troubles they're trying to drown. It's a song near and dear to Kracker's heart for several reasons.
"I own a bar in Clinton Township," he says. "I go hang out there when I'm home ... it's a shot and beer joint. It's fun to have your own joint, your own place. I wrote that song one day with Chris Tompkins. It was a fluke, really ... something happened when I was here and I had a morning off, so I called and asked if he wanted to write, and that song came out of it. It's one of my favorites on the record. I really enjoy writing with Chris, he's a very talented and a cool guy."
The CD also includes a duet with Sonia Leigh called "It Is What It Is," a vibey tune that ponders the lovely messiness of life with all of its juicy entanglements. Kracker was eager to recruit her for this latest album after touring with the Southern Ground artist. "She and I became really good buddies. She's very organic and I'm a big fan. We became good pals by the end of three months. We had always talked about singing together, so I was like, 'why don't you hop on this one.' We hit 45 cities together on that tour, it was fun!"
He's also a great admirer of Southern Ground godfather Zac Brown, too, with whom he traveled on a Kenny Chesney tour several years back. "I love all the songs, his records sounds great always, the songwriting is always top-notch. Live, they remind me of Led Zeppelin. They're just great ... the show is always good. Man, it makes you want to quit! He makes me want to quit, because he's so awesome!" [laughs]
Kracker also stays in frequent touch with longtime buddy Kenny Chesney, another artist whose career he'd love to emulate. "I've always looked up to Kenny, and he's always been a great friend. Whatever you need, he's always there. He'll always pick up the phone and he'll always have something to say. We talk every couple of days ... we became really great friends. You won't meet any nicer people than him."
Preparing to tour in support of the new project, Kracker is happy he's found a new home at indie label Sugar Hill, a place where he has the freedom to be exactly who he wants, musically, and can continue to evolve.
"I love the album ... it's a good little break away from things. I think song for song, if I never make another record ever again, I'm gonna be happy I put this one out. It's just kind of our own little spin on country, and I think that's why I had such a good time making the record. That's what's cool about being at Sugar Hill -- they let you do what you want to do. Isn't that why you write songs? Do what you want to do. I've never been more comfortable with a record. In any setting. Everything felt great. I think that's why I'm so happy about the outcome."