Sophomore jinx? What sophomore jinx?

If anything, it was easier the second time around for Uncle Kracker, whose “No Stranger to Shame” album (Lava/Atlantic) was released Sept. 24.

“I was so lucky with ‘Follow Me’ and the success it had,” Uncle Kracker (aka Matt Shafer) said recently of last year’s Top 5 pop hit. “To come off and try to follow that up, I could be there forever trying to top the success of that song, so really I didn’t feel any pressure.

“I knew going in, ‘You know what? It’s going to be impossible to do one exactly like it,’ so I wasn’t worried about it. Plus, I did it with Mike Bradford, who I wrote ‘Follow Me’ with. He produced this new record with me and made it so easy for me. We work so well together that we finish each other’s ideas. A good producer actually helps.”

Bradford has known Kracker since their early days with Kid Rock in their native Detroit. He says they are musical kindred spirits.

“First, we both have lived in Mount Clemens, Mich, which is a small burg outside of Detroit,” Bradford said. “We like a lot of the same kinds of music, and we see life pretty much the same way. He’s the easiest guy to work with that I have ever known. We can throw ideas at each other and critique them with no hard feelings. We both want the same thing, which is a great album and great songs. Also, he hasn’t been affected by fame or celebrity. Same great guy, just in a bigger house.”

“No Stranger to Shame” proves that Kracker was no fluke. His songwriting abilities have improved (as evidenced in the first single, “In a Little While,” and “Letter to My Daughters,” an poignant apology to his young girls for not being there during their formative years).

“It’s not like I’ve never written a song before,” Kracker said. “I’ve written tons of songs, but I think I’ve just grown as a songwriter. It turns out this record sounds a little mellower than the first one (the gold-selling ‘Double Wide’), but at the same time, I don’t think it feels that way because some of my transitions are better and my chord changes are smoother. I feel more focused when it comes to writing a song.”

And even Kracker says he has discovered his voice.

“I found another key,” he said, with a hearty laugh. “I got a little more comfortable. That last record, I didn’t even know I could sing. I’m more like a crooner than a singer, like I should be in a barbershop quartet or something.”

On the production end, Bradford says his goal was to continue what they had started on “Double Wide.”

“I wanted more emphasis on classic sounds and songwriting,” he said. “I wanted this album to stand the test of time, and not be bound by trends; I wanted it to be like a great James Taylor or Bob Seger record. I also wanted to showcase the fact that Kracker can sing and write, in addition to his already established rapping and DJ skills. When you write songs, you can do that forever.”

One of the album’s highlights is a faithful cover of Dobie Gray’s timeless “Drift Away,” a longtime staple of Kracker’s live shows. He even got Gray to provide background vocals.

“I didn’t want to take the song away from him,” Kracker said. “I do it live in my shows, and it comes off so well that it made sense as a cover. If you’re going to cover a song, my theory is you should make it better than the original – and that song’s pretty much impossible to make better. But I thought, ‘Why not have him do it with me,’ and maybe get away with it.”

Kracker was surprised at how simple it was to get Gray involved and how accommodating he was.

“Some things are a nightmare when you want to get someone else involved, which is why I don’t collaborate much with anybody, because I know I’m on a tight schedule,” he said. “We called him and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,’ and the next week we were in the studio in Nashville doing the vocals. It worked out way too easy.

“He loves the version, and I love the version. But I have to admit, I felt like such an idiot trying to sing next to him because he’s such a good singer. But he coached me a bit through it and gave me a lot more confidence. It blows me away that Dobie can walk into a studio and be that nice of a guy and sing his ass off. He’s very professional. Everything was pretty much in one take.”

The rest of 2002 is mapped out for Kracker. He has promotional appearances to do for the new album, as well as tour dates with Kid Rock and on his own. He’s accustomed to being away from home, away from his wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 2, but that doesn’t ease the pain he feels from the long separations.

That’s why “Letter to My Daughters” is so close to his heart.

“It’s definitely my favorite song on the album,” he said, “because it’s an apology to them. God forbid something should happen to me and I wasn’t around to say that to them, but at least I’ve done something that says something to them.

“Like, if I was a real writer, I’d write them a big long letter and put it in an envelope and give it to them when they’re older. This song was my letter to them. At least there’s an explanation from me in a way they can understand. … On one hand, it sucks that I’m not there for the years that probably matter the most, and on the other hand, I feel like I’d be less of a father if I wasn’t out doing this, taking advantage of what I’ve started.

“It does benefit them in the end, and right now, the only thing that justifies what I’ve been doing is that the only thing they know is me being gone. They don’t know me being home every day … so I’m not taking away anything that they had.”

Kracker is philosophical about his career. He knows it won’t last forever, but he’s making the best of what time is left.

“They say the average span of an artist is four to five years,” he said, “and I figure I’m in about the first two years on a four- or five-year plan, and anything after that is a bonus.

“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Well, I’ll quit when I’ve said what I needed to say,’ but I don’t have that much to say anyway. I look at it like this – you know when you were a kid and you’d go on nature trails with your class? I can see myself walking through the nature trails and the whole class keeps going, but I find a tree with lots of shade and I’m sitting under it. I figure I don’t know when it’s time to go home, but it sure is comfortable for a while.”

WHAT’S NEXT ON BRADFORD’S AGENDA?: “I’m now working on a band from Canada that has an amazing front man named Tom Barlow. Great songs and a bit of a social conscience. Then, this fall, I’m producing a new album by Deep Purple. We met earlier this year. It’s the ‘Machine Head’-era lineup, except for guitar. Steve Morse is playing instead of (Richie) Blackmore. Steve is an awesome guitarist. Ian Gillan’s voice is better than ever, and the band’s been on tour for two years, so they’re in top form. Great bands transcend trends and styles. That’s why they last forever. Thirty years from now, you’ll still be hearing about Kracker, for the same reason. If he ever stops, it won’t be because he’s run out of gas. It’ll probably just be that he feels like going fishing.”

ON THE WEB: Other sites – Follow Me, The ClemTown Cowboys.