Something New Under the Sun
by Jay S. Jacobs
Music has always been a rainbow coalition of sounds for Uncle Kracker, a mélange of rock, hip-hop, country, jazz, soul, blues and more. That’s what they played on the radio (remember the radio?) when Kracker was growing up, and that’s what he has played ever since.
Kracker has literally been in music since he was a kid – he first hooked up with his first mentor Kid Rock when he was only in middle school. After years touring as part of Kid Rock’s posse, he and the Kid worked together on his first solo disk (remember disks?) Double Wide, which came out in 2000 and housed the huge smash hit “Follow Me.”
Kracker spent the rest of the decade recording and touring, periodically hitting it with radio smashes like his cover of 70s classic “Drift Away” (which was done as a duet with the original singer of the song, Dobie Gray), his country cross-over hit “When the Sun Goes Down” with Kenny Chesney, and another country-vibed nugget called “Smile.” Kracker’s most recent album Midnight Special came out in 2012 on the storied indie label Sugar Hill.
Kracker is currently taking part in the latest version of the Under the Sun tour, Mark McGrath’s annual 90’s Fest in which McGrath’s band Sugar Ray hooks up with three of the biggest bands of the decade and travel the country in a festival. Previous tour members have included Smash Mouth, Gin Blossoms, Blues Traveler, Vertical Horizon and Fastball. The current lineup, which is made up of Sugar Ray, Uncle Kracker, Better Than Ezra and Eve 6, is crossing the country as we speak, stopping at Xfinity Live in Philadelphia on August 22, 2015.
Kracker called us from the road to catch us up on what’s going on Under the Sun.
How did you get involved with the Under the Sun tour?
Last year Mark McGrath called me and asked me if it would be something I would be interested in. Of course I said yes, I would be totally interested in that. I’ve known McGrath for a long time, probably 20 years. He’s helped me out tremendously in the past. We’ve been good friends ever since. It just sounded like a fun tour to hop on, to be a part of.
Most of the bands on the tour over the years are 90s bands, but your first solo album came out in 2000. Why did they make that exception for you?
I don’t really know why, actually. I don’t know, maybe because it was close enough.
Yeah, and you were working in the 90s, just not doing solo work.
Are you enjoying touring with Sugar Ray, Better than Ezra and Eve 6?
Yes. Everybody’s fun. Nothing’s hard out there. Everything is easygoing and is what it is. There’s no ego tripping out there with anybody. It’s just: hey, man, this is fun. Let’s play! Everybody does about 40 minutes. They do their hits and they get out of there. Nobody is trying to sell a new record. Nobody’s trying to shove nothing down nobody’s throat. It’s just fun.
Before you started working solo, you were part of Kid Rock’s posse. How did you start working with him?
Long, long time ago I met him. I was probably 13 or so. I worked with him when I was about 14 or 15. About 16 he asked me to DJ for him. I was pretty cost efficient. I was free. (laughs) He loves free.
When did you decide you wanted to move on and do your own music?
I was doing my own demos with Kid Rock before all that stuff. When I DJed for him, I was always still making my own stuff. It was just always in our plan: when the Kid Rock gig started unraveling, I would just be an extension. We thought we would piggyback me off of him, or something. Spawn my record off of his, anyway. It just made more sense that way. Eventually that’s what we ended up doing.
Your first huge hit was “Follow Me,” which sort of draws the equivalent between love and drug addiction. Was it fun to play with a dichotomy like that?
(laughs) I like doing that. I really like doing that stuff. I don’t do enough of it. It’s fun to just draw astray. It’s just writing. Songwriting 101, I guess. (laughs)
Fifteen years after the hit, do you still look at love as a drug?
Yeah. Yes. Definitely. It’s definitely something I don’t look at like I used to look at. (laughs) I’m older.
Double Wide and particularly “Follow Me” ended up being huge hits. How surreal was it for your first single to be all over the radio and TV and all?
It was beyond surreal. We were touring with the Devil Without a Cause album [by Kid Rock] for almost three years straight. I thought that was pretty awesome, and like hitting the lottery itself. Then when we put my first record out and it did… (laughs) well it didn’t do near what Devil Without a Cause ended up doing, but it did pretty sweet. It was like hitting the lottery twice, really.
You were able to record “Drift Away” with the original singer Dobie Gray, who has since passed away. Why did you decide you wanted to cover that song?
Well, back when my first record came out, I had “Follow Me,” but that was my only hit off of that record. In fact, that single would just never go away. We never even could come with a single after that because it lasted so long. When I would show up to do shows, people only knew that song. The house contracted you to do shows for like 75 minutes or 90 minutes. It’s hard to play 90 minutes of music to people that have never heard any of it before in their lives. I just followed these people who knew “Follow Me” and Kid Rock had suggested to me a long time ago “While you’re there, you should maybe cover ‘Drift Away’ or something like that.” I was covering “Drift Away” in the live shows, doing acoustic sets at radio stations with it, just because it had some familiarity with people. It helps ease the pain of sitting there. It’s brutal when people are just staring at you and they haven’t heard what you’re doing before.
How was it decided to record it?
I was playing an acoustic set in New York City. Scott Shannon was the program director, a legendary disk jockey. He had called the guy at my record label and said, “If Uncle Kracker doesn’t cut that for his record it would be a big mistake.” Because I was doing that just kind of acoustic-y at a morning show there. Of course Scott Shannon gets fired up and everybody at the record label gets fired up, like “Ooh, Scott Shannon says….” Which is good. It worked out awesome, but that’s how that shook down.
What was Dobie like to work with?
Dobie was a nice man. A very nice man. He was always professional. He would just come and he always delivered. We did a couple of things with him. I didn’t expect him to come and do the video, or when we went to radio with the single, when we played Jay Leno, stuff like that. I didn’t expect him to do all that, but he was more than helpful. He was above and beyond kind. He was great. He was great.
Also on the same album you worked with the legendary Jordanaires [a gospel group that often worked with Elvis Presley] on “Memphis Soul Song.” How did that happen and what was that like?
You know what? I never even made it into the studio with them. There were a lot of scheduling conflicts with that. I remember obviously wanting the Jordanaires for the harmonies and all that stuff. I just remember there being like, one guy couldn’t make it because he had to go fishing. The other guy couldn’t make it because he had a haircut appointment he didn’t want to skip out on. (laughs) Which is awesome, you know? Then I think I couldn’t make it one day because I was on tour. The version we ended up with was super sweet [because of] them guys. But, yes I never got to make it into the actual studio. Then we couldn’t get them in the video with me because we were shooting in a bar. They didn’t want to shoot in a bar, probably because it was secular. Which I get. They’re just legendary and I’m just lucky to have had them sing. I wish I would have been in that studio with them while they were doing it. It would have been awesome.
About that same time you hooked up with Kenny Chesney for “When the Sun Goes Down” and touring. In fact, your whole next album 72 and Sunny was mostly country. Why did you feel you wanted to follow that direction?
Well, you know what? I’d always toed the line. Even with some of Double Wide, the first record, we still used a lot of pedal steel and there was a lot of rap stuff. Second record I was just going in not any one direction or another, anyway. I hadn’t really claimed anything. Still haven’t to this day, which is probably why I have been able to stick around so long. I have been really lucky to not have been pigeonholed into any one thing or another. I don’t know what to attribute that to, but that third record, I guess it did toe the line between adult contemporary and country. I probably made the mistake of not committing one way or the other again, to be honest.
Well, like you just said, your music has touched on lots of genres: rock, soul, folk, jazz, hip-hop, country. When you were growing up, did you listen to lots of styles of music? Back in the day you could hear all those things on the same radio station, which you really can’t now.
Yeah. Right. I just didn’t know anything different. Growing up in Detroit, you didn’t even have to change your radio station dial. You put it on one station and it wasn’t all pop, or all rock, or all anything else. You could hear a R&B song after a rock and roll song. The disk jockey came on to let you know what you were listening to and who it was. Why it was good. Growing up, I didn’t know any real difference. My dad listened to either all Motown or Patsy Cline and George Jones. My mom listened to James Taylor or BJ Thomas. It was one end of the spectrum to the other. I think it was just growing up with that so you weren’t crossing the line on anything, either.
How has your wide range musical tastes changed your music?
I guess as I got older, just DJing at clubs, the one thing I learned was you didn’t necessarily play everything you liked in a club. You were playing for other people. So that opened the door for me to listen to things that I normally wouldn’t listen to. Just opened my mind up a little bit to other things. There’s always room to grow if you let it in. I’m like the kid that – well, I’m not a kid anymore, I’m way old now – but I’m like the guy right now that a radio station will come on and I’ll be like, “That’s fucking sweet. Who is that?” Everybody will look at me and go, “That’s Led Zeppelin, dummy.” I’m like damn! I love it. Just when you think you’ve heard everything, you haven’t. I love hearing something new that makes me think or makes me want to do something other than sit there like a dummy.
I really loved your single “Smile,” which sort of continued your country trail. At that point, it had been a few years since your last big hit, was it nice to return to the charts?
Yeah, but I’m used to that. I’m used to not being on there. (laughs) You can put one out, it doesn’t do anything. You put another out it hits. It just is what it is. I’ve been lucky all these years to still be here.
Your most recent album, Midnight Special, was released on the legendary indie label Sugar Hill. After doing all your previous albums on majors, what are the positives and negatives of working on an indie?
I don’t know.
Like for example on an indie you may have a lot more control over the final product.
I mean obviously there’s positives and negatives on each of them. Mainly the advantages of being on a major label are greater, obviously. They can pull somebody with more strength, depending on what you’re looking to do. I guess that would be the advantage of being with a major against being with an indie. [On Sugar Hill] I did have whatever I needed, creative freedom to do whatever I wanted to do, but I had that on the major label, too. Since I was a little kid I’ve always heard artists crying: Waahh, the label made us do this. Ohh, the label made us do that. They don’t make you do anything, really. One thing I found on a major label is they just want hit songs. If you don’t want them, you’re not going to have them, pretty much. That’s the reality of it. They have the guns, you just give them the bullets. You either want them or you don’t want them. It’s how bad do you want it, and how bad do you not want it?
What do you think of the current state of the music business? The label system even you came up in is obviously broken with piracy, bad sales, low-streaming fees, but young acts do have many more outlets to get things out there. Do you think that an artist like you could have gotten an audience in this atmosphere?
You know what? I don’t know. I’m glad I did get in when I got in as opposed to now. I do think there’s a lot fewer records being put out. Not as many albums get attached to gate keepers. There’s a ton less. But I think the internet makes up for lack of anything new coming out. I would like to think that music would get better, to be honest. People being a little bit more creative with themselves, as opposed to letting somebody else do it. I see it going back to the way it used to be.
How has social media changed the way you get your music out there and interact with fans?
You know what, that’s how dumb I am. I don’t take advantage of that type of thing. People always tell me all the time how much I should be tweeting or something else. I guess you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. (laughs) With so many years of not doing it, you just don’t even think to do it. Once in a while I tweet, but if I do start engaging in that, I usually get myself in trouble. So I put it down.
How would you like for people to see your career?
I always just say they have to see it as they see it. I’ve had a lot of fun over the last 20 years. If somebody couldn’t see that, it would be a shame.
Copyright ©2015 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 17, 2015.
Photos ©2015 Deborah Wagner and Maggie Mitchell. All rights reserved.