Matthew Shafer pumped gas in his father’s gas station as a kid in Detroit.
Then he met Robert Ritchie. Shafer became Uncle Kracker, Ritchie became Kid Rock and life’s been a gas, gas, gas ever since. Mostly.
From rap to rock and now country, Uncle Kracker’s crisp route through music leads him to the Washington County Fair in Abingdon on Sept. 12. Unlikely as it seems, Kracker identifies logic in his now two decade transformation.
“My unlikely transformation, it was a natural thing,” said Kracker by phone from his home in Detroit. “I was and am a songwriter first and foremost. I’m not a musician, so don’t put a guitar in my hands. I love writing songs.”
Kracker’s break came when Kid Rock hired him as a DJ in his band, the Twisted Brown Truckers. The pair began to write songs together. Rock’s mainstream breakthrough album, 1999’s “Devil Without A Cause,” features tunes mostly written by Rock and Kracker.
“I co-wrote ‘Only God Knows Why,’ ‘Cowboy’ and later ‘All Summer Long’ with Kid Rock,” Kracker said. “If it hadn’t been for Kid Rock, I might still be pumping gas in Detroit. He was vital in so many ways.”
While “Cowboy” charted minimally for Rock, “Only God Knows Why” sprinted to Top 20 success in 2000. That led to Kracker’s debut album later that year with the Rock co-produced “Double Wide,” which peaked at number seven on Billboard’s Top Pop Albums chart.
“I owe Kid Rock a lot,” Kracker said. “(‘Devil Without A Cause’) sold 16 million copies. Then my first record (‘Double Wide’) sold like fire. It felt like winning the lottery. My first album sold three million copies. So, the follow up album was very, very important.”
After eight years with Rock’s band and with a platinum album on his wall, Kracker left to pursue his own career in 2002. His sophomore album, “No Stranger to Shame,” also signaled a shift in style. Kracker’s country meets Motown sound arose more prominently thanks in part of his cover of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away.”
“Wow!” Kracker said. “If it hadn’t been for ‘Drift Away,’ who knows?”
Three albums and such singles as 2009’s “Smile” later, Kracker’s career sits firmly within country’s mainstream format. But why, some may wonder, could a former two turntables and a microphone rapping DJ from Detroit turn to country?
“Detroit is a big country market,” he said. “People came up here from down South to make cars, and they brought country music with them.”
Couple that with his father’s influence.
“My dad, God bless him, was a mechanic,” Kracker said. “It might be three in the morning and he’d be out in the garage and I could hear George Jones, Patsy Cline and Conway Twitty. Those were my first ex-periences with country music when I was little.”
Later came Hank Williams Jr. who linked Kracker to such country icons as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Country grew, rap shrunk and so nowadays Kracker’s turntables gather dust.
“It feels like a million miles away now,” Kracker said. “It wasn’t until I got older and looked back to my dad that I figured out what country meant to me.”