Sunny Side Up

by Alan Sculley and Mike Corrigan

Recording artists usually have their game plan nailed down before they set one foot in a studio. Not so with country star Uncle Kracker (a.k.a. Matt Shafer). "I just go in with no expectations," he says. "It comes out how it comes out, and you just hope to God that at the end of a couple of weeks, it all meshes. That way I can never let myself down. I used to tell my parents that when I was a kid. 'If you want to be proud of me, just lower your expectations.'"

Unfortunately, Shafer has had to deal with expectations ever since his second album, No Stranger to Shame, yielded the smash hit cover of Dobie Gray's soul-tinged ballad "Drift Away" and after he made a major mark in country music as guest vocalist on the Kenny Chesney hit, "When the Sun Goes Down." Uncle Kracker opens for Chesney Friday night at the Spokane Arena.

Uncle Kracker's new album, 72 and Sunny (release date: June 29), seems tailored for commercial success, playing to both the adult contemporary pop audience that embraced "Drift Away" and the country music audience that first discovered Shafer with his guest spot on "When the Sun Goes Down."

Songs like the laid-back groover, "Rescue" (penned by hit-making songwriter Diane Warren), and "Please Come Home" follow very much in the vein of "Drift Away." Meanwhile, easygoing tunes like "A Place at My Table," "Writing It Down" and "Last Night Again" (the latter of which features guest vocals from Chesney) all sound as likely to get airplay on country radio as on rock or pop formats.

Even rockers on 72 and Sunny, like "This Time," "Blues Man" and "What Do We Want?" -- which have the breezy feel of Steve Miller or Bob Seger -- could easily have turned country with the addition of a little steel guitar or fiddle.

But Shafer, who says his only goal for the new CD was to pursue "good old-fashioned traditional songwriting," once again says there was nothing calculated about 72 and Sunny.

"I'd hate for people to think that I'm capitalizing off of anything, but I don't really get mad when people do think I'm capitalizing," he says. "I just wish that I was smart enough to capitalize. I'm just not that type of a person. When 9/11 happened, people were like, 'Yeah, you should write some songs about freedom and patriotism and stuff like that.' Maybe somebody should, but it's not going to be me."

Detroit-based Shafer first found recognition as the deejay and sidekick of fellow motor city musician Kid Rock. In fact, Shafer co-wrote much of the material on Kid Rock's hugely popular debut album, Devil Without A Cause. Not surprisingly, his first own foray into recording, 2000's Double Wide, favored the rap-rock sound that wasn't far removed from that of the Kid.

"Every record, whether I have rapped or not, has had something to do with country," Shafer says. "It's had somewhat of a twang to it, whether it be a hint of something Southern, or just blues stuff for that matter. It even ends up sounding a little country. I think for the most part my first writing was mostly rap stuff, but it still had slack guitars, oboes and stuff like that banging around on it. So I mean, I guess it's been more of a natural progression that it's come to this record."

But even on that first abum, Shafer included "Follow Me," a soul-laced country tune that became the breakthrough hit that propelled Double Wide to sales of more than two million. And with his second, 2002's No Stranger To Shame, the only full-on rap-rock song included was the lead track "Keep It Comin'." On 72 and Sunny, the rap element of Shafer's music is conspicuously absent.

Shafer says changes in his life over the past several years may have something to do with that as well as the album's more relaxed demeanor.

"I've gotten a little bit older. I have two daughters," he says. "And I've matured a lot in the last five years. It's not that I don't still like rap, but I just didn't really have it in me this time."

That sense of maturity carries through to the upbeat tone and thoughtful lyrics on 72 and Sunny. Shafer says it's partly a reflection of his getting beyond recent turmoil in his personal life. In the year before making the album, his marriage nearly fell apart. Part of the strain was due to the pace of his career. Between tours with Kid Rock, recording and touring to promote his own material, he was almost constantly away from home.

"After about five years or something on the road, there was no light, or none that I could see," Shafer says. "I was just gone. That's what I did. I left. I think that you lose sight of a lot of things. I guess I was in kind of a bad way for a while, where I was just really irritable. When it comes down to it, I'm married. I married my best friend. Why would it be going south now? Well, it's not because I have a job that I travel at. That's not the reason. So you have to look at yourself and go, 'Well, what's the reason?' So here it is, you get back to basics. You get back to why you were best friends. That's when you stop and look and you know you love this business, but you learn that it can't be your life."

Having kept his marriage intact, Shafer has focused his new material on the better times that have followed the dark period.

"A lot of my friends have been through some divorces and stuff like that. I've seen them when they're absolute wrecks," Shafer says. "The only advice you can give is it's going to stop raining. It's got to stop."

Texas Troubadour -- Oh crap, not another dude singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar. There are so many earnest six-string troubadours out there, you'd think that any time now, they'd start thinning themselves out, lemming-style, pitching themselves headlong into the sea. Indeed, it takes something extraordinary to stand out from the crowd enough to become master of this domain.

Does Rocky Votolato have what it takes? He bloody well does, if convincing performances with heart and real passion have a way of reaching down into your own jaded soul and putting on the squeeze.

Texas-born Votolato cut his choppers and polished his chops in the late-'90s rock band Waxwing. With the help of some newly minted Seattle friends (the Blood Brothers and Rosie Thomas, among others), he eventually split with the traditional rock format to pursue a more personal approach to songwriting, a quest that culminated in the excellent 2001 long-player, Burning My Travels Clean. His most recent offerings, Suicide Medicine and the Light and Sound EP (produced by Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla), are neatly recorded and well produced, yet effortlessly capture the spontaneous, intimate energy of Votolato's legendary live performances.

Speaking of live performances, you've got two opportunities this weekend to scope this guy out along with fellow Seattleites the Pale. The first show is scheduled at the Shop on Wednesday night, and the second is at Art on the Edge in Coeur d'Alene next Thursday. Both shows are open to moody modern music fans of all ages.

Locals Hit It Big -- A handful of local bands have made a slick transition from second banana to big cheese, from off-night afterthought to prime time showcase. I'm talking here about the live music event at the Big Easy this Saturday night featuring some Spokane natives: singer/songwriter Melody Moore, funk-jazz-rock wizards Jupiter Effect, and the ever-jamming Melefluent (along with an Oregon Band called My Gold Fish Ned). The Big Easy's "Locals Live" night is typically held on Thursdays, so it's sort of a big deal to have a bill featuring local talent bumped up to the grandest nightlife night of all: S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y. Night!

And at a meager five bucks, this all-ages show is also delightfully affordable.

Publication date: 06/17/04