“This is a full-on country record,” says Uncle Kracker unapologetically. “Maybe not the ‘A guy walks into a bar and goes, ‘Where does a man go to get a drink in this town?’ kind of country, but it’s my version.
“I’m a suburban kid, but I grew up on a dirt road. I still live on a dirt road, a block from the street I grew up on. I’d kinda say I’m full-on Midwest, but that’s not actually an accurate description either, ‘cause I’ve traveled around so much. I can tell you this, though: those guys who have the jacked up trucks, they laugh at a lot of the same stuff I do – because at the end of the day, a good time is a good time wherever you go.”
Midnight Special his Sugar Hill label debut bottles that notion up. No matter where you are, how hard life might be or what you dream, Uncle Kracker believes the most powerful thing you can do is celebrate the now. Whether it’s the dumped-but-loving-the-future “Nobody’s Sad on a Saturday Night,” the gone for the weekend “In Between Disasters” or the Tom Petty-feeling small town truth behind what people reveal “It Is What It Is,” Uncle Kracker’s conversational baritone cuts through the mix to put life in perspective.
“I laugh all day seems like,” says the man actually named Matt Shafer. “I think I laugh all the time. From the time I wake up ‘til I go to bed, it seems like there’s always something to laugh about! People are funny: the way they do the things they do. Things are funny. I think living is funny to be honest…”
That easy-going ability to take life as it comes has given Uncle Kracker a place in pop (“Drift Away,” his Dobie Gray redux that featured Gray on vocals, set a Billboard record for most weeks at #1 on any chart, topping their Adult Contemporary for 28 weeks), rock (“Follow Me,” from the double platinum Double Wide, was a Top 5 hit) and as a D.J./vocalist in rock/rap icon Kid Rock’s Twisted Brown Trucker Band. And then there was “When the Sun Goes Down,” the #1 Country hit that sat on the top of the charts for 6 weeks with friend and sometimes tour mate Kenny Chesney and the #2 AC hit “Smile.”
“There’s stuff to take serious,” he continues. “But it doesn’t make sense to give too much of a damn. Take it as it comes. It’s pretty simple. I’m trying to lift people’s spirits… Make’em feel good ‘cause everybody needs that.”
Working with acclaimed producer Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson, Zac Brown Band, George Jones), the pair had one rule going into the studio: “If you can’t sing it with an acoustic guitar, we’re not cutting it.”
The result is a collection of songs that move from “Nuthin’ Changes,” a white trash homage to Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good,” to the soul-shuffle “Happy,” which wishes an old girlfriend well to the plucky countryfied “You Got That Thang,” that’s equal parts taunt and invitation. There’s the crunchy clever “Four Letter Word,” with its stinging guitar and serious backbeat, capturing the manic nature of can’t-live-with-or-without’em relationships.
But what stands out most is how solid Uncle Kracker’s voice is throughout. Always a salty, but welcoming vocal presence, Stegall challenged the singer to really come to the table with his delivery.
“In Detroit, maybe it’s more about looking cool than stretching,” Uncle Kracker allows. “I mean, my first album was gonna be a rap record, so I’ve grown a lot in 12 years.”
“Keith wanted me to try things, to go for it… I’d be asking, ‘Do you shoot it down the middle? Go over the top?’ and Keith was like, ‘Just go in there and hit it.’ So, I was definitely out of my comfort zone.”
Uncle Kracker, who wrote or co-wrote all 11 songs, worked with a group of writers who truly understood his mind set. Re-teaming with Grosse Pointe, Michigan’s JT Harding and Blair Daly, who’d written “Smile” with him, as well as Nashville hitmakers Shane McAnally (“Last Call,” “Somewhere with You”) and Scooter Carusoe (“Anything But Mine,” “Better As A Memory”), Shaffer came up with a set of buoyant songs for hard times. Though only co-writing seriously since his last album, he’s figured out how to make it work.
“I met JT years ago, and he’s the reason I co-write. When I was working on Happy Hour, he kept saying, ‘Let’s write.’ We went up to this cabin, did a song or two every day for a week. It opened up a lot of possibilities… Like ‘In Between Disasters,’ I didn’t really do much dating, breaking up and getting back together; but I wrote it with two other guys.
“Some people you’re not ready to say stuff to, and some people you can say anything to, just bounce stuff off them,” he continues. “People like Shane, JT or Scooter, it’s about not being afraid to hurt their feelings or look dumb in front of them. And you never know how things will work, but I think good songs will find their home.”
A kid from outside a big city, Uncle Kracker understands the pulse of the America that exists between the coastlines. Beyond his always inviting grooves and rhythms, he’s as quick to fold in references to “80s songs,” “chipped nail polish” and “the sound of Goodyears” as invoke “Johnny Cougar,” “Bocephus,” “Neil Diamond” and Eat A Peach.
That identification he hopes people will have with him and his music extends from his own relationship with music. Uncle Kracker explains, “When I was a kid, songs like ‘Fire and Rain’ and James Taylor always had a good effect on me, took me somewhere. Or ‘I Wish It Would Rain,’ something old and Motown, did that, too…”
The laconic “Who We Are” is an homage to the way songs capture life. Celebrating “the thing we all have in common is our favorite bar,” it name checks the songs that watermark life for people sharing the night: “Margaritaville,” “New Orleans Ladies,” “Somebody’s Baby,” “Mustang Sally,” “Centerfold,” “Purple Rain” and a lyrical reference to David Allen Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.”
“I started listening to country ‘cause of Hank Williams Jr and ‘Country Boy Will Survive.’ It felt like the rap I was listening to – about life and the way it was. That led me to Charlie Daniels and Linda Ronstadt. I saw Barry Beckett produced him, so what else was there? Because music pulled me in.
“I hope people can walk away from this music with something, too. People will come up and tell me certain songs mean certain things to them – and that’s crazy! After all, my world isn’t that interesting, or different.
“When I’m up onstage, I don’t feel removed from the people coming to hear the music. You can feel it, when they identify with you. Sometimes when I’m up there, I wanna tell’em ‘I’m not any different than you are…’
“But, then I know we’re all here for a good time, too. That’s why we’re there together, and if I can give’em that, then that’s the deal. That’s how I make my records, and it’s how I try to live my life.”
With Midnight Special, the Mount Clemens, Michigander brings it all home. Love, life, heartbreak, friends, fun, songs and laughing your way through it, it’s all here.