The year was 2004. That was when one of the true odd couples of contemporary music took over the charts.
Leading the way was a suitably summery hit by champion country music beachcomber Kenny Chesney called When the Sun Goes Down. Of the many tropically themed Nashville hits he has scored during the past decade, this was the one that played directly to the Jimmy Buffett contingency Chesney was so obviously eager to add to his mounting fan base.
But his duet partner for the single wasn't some video-friendly Nashville pop bombshell or an established celebrity artist who would provide Chesney with even greater star power than he already had. No, it was a street-savvy, rock- and rap-bred artist out of the little-known country metropolis of Detroit. His name was Matthew Shafer. But audiences already knew him as Uncle Kracker.
Thus began one of country's most unlikely alliances, one that continues this weekend, when Uncle Kracker serves as one of two opening acts (country-pop vocalist Billy Currington is the other) for a stop on Chesney's Goin' Coastal Tour on Saturday at Rupp Arena.
"It's a fun tour," Kracker said. "But it's really weird, too. Starting seven years ago, I did a guest appearance on a song with Kenny. And, thank God, the thing did really good. So we did probably two or three tours after that with me along as a kind of special guest. But it feels weird because that was all several years ago.
"Now I've got a record of my own out on country radio," he said of the crossover single Smile, which became Kracker's first solo country hit last fall. "So I don't feel so much like a charity case anymore. Now, it's like I'm an opening act with a purpose."
To underscore exactly how unexpected the collaboration with Chesney was in 2004 and Kracker's own acceptance within Nashville circles, consider who was one of his earliest musical allies: Kid Rock.
The two, in essence, grew up together with Kracker, 36, serving as DJ in Rock's Twisted Brown Trucker touring band for many years. That, in turn, led to Kracker's Rock-produced debut album, Double Wide, a top five, multiplatinum-selling work that spawned the massive radio hit Follow Me.
A second album, No Stranger to Shame, followed in 2002 with a hit cover of the 1973 Dobie Gray pop-soul staple Drift Away. But it was Kracker's third album, 72 and Sunny, that set its sights on Nashville. The record didn't initially click with pop or country crowds. But it didn't need to. When the Sun Goes Down did the trick later that year.
"I guess I never really sat down and said 'I'm going to write a rock 'n' roll song' or 'I'm going to write a country song,'" Kracker said. "I sit down to write songs just so I can write songs. How they really sound is how they sound. It just never dawned on me that they would throw me into the country side of things. It just came out of left field. But I love it there."
Kracker's fourth album, 2009's Happy Hour — or more precisely, a 2010 EP boasting "country remixes" of tunes titled Happy Hour: The South River Road Sessions — cemented a country audience. The jubilant Smile became a hit on pop and country charts, while a second single aimed at country radio, Good to Be Me, teamed him again with Kid Rock, who also has forged a devout Nashville following.
"We're best friends," Kracker said Rock. "We have been for a long time. He helps keep me inspired, to tell you the truth. I'm lucky to be surrounded by people like him and Kenny. I've always been of the opinion that if you're the biggest guy in the room, it's time to get out of the room. So it's good to be around people like Chesney. You will always know which way is up."
But record titles like Smile and Happy Hour are more than genre-satisfying tags designed to generate record sales. In the world of Uncle Kracker, they are credos for living life, a measurement of an upbeat attitude that seems to permeate every aspect of his artistic existence.
"I think it has to be that way, you know? In every job there is, attitude is everything. I went through some tough periods, some slick spots here and there," he said. "I went five years where I didn't even put out a record. I was just getting so burned out — not burned out in the sense of 'This is so tiring,' but burned out as in, 'This is getting to be so boring. What am I doing out here?'
"When you get to that point, it's time to start bopping around to keep things interesting and fresh. And that keeps the attitude in place.
"Look, I'm just happy to have an audience, no matter where it comes from. And in Lexington, I'll be happy to be the warm-up act. I'll be the little monkey that juggles until the big act comes out. It's all about entertainment. I have fun onstage, so the big thing for me is to make sure the people who come have fun, too."