In 2009, Detroit singer-songwriter Uncle Kracker landed his biggest hit in years with “Smile,” a feel-good single that went multi-platinum while storming the pop and country charts.
It was also a breakthrough work for songwriter JT Harding, raised in Grosse Pointe and now based in Nashville. His songwriting collaboration with Kracker became one of a slew of hits Harding went on to write for other artists, including Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney.
Harding recounts the origins of “Smile” in his colorful new memoir, “Party like a rockstar”, available Tuesday from twelve books. The passage from Harding’s book is excerpted here.
“What about a song called ‘Smile’?”
Funny how those simple words Uncle Kracker said to me one afternoon turned into my biggest hit song so far. After a weekend of sipping Crown Royal and orange Faygo at his northern Michigan cottage, we sat around a knee-high table filled with empty soda cans, and caught lightning in a bottle. .
There was easily four feet of snow outside. No exaggeration. After driving from Detroit, Kracker’s Cadillac got stuck in the driveway. As I ran from the car to the warmth of his cabin, one of my boots came off in the snow. I don’t even remember if I ever got it back.
We wrote by day and haunted the log cabin-style Long Lake Bar by night for chicken wings and beer and to brainstorm song ideas. Uncle Kracker is so popular in Michigan that the bar literally had menu items named after him. The other songs we wrote were okay, but the last one, the last day, was “Smile,” and I knew that was a hit.
Emptying a black ashtray filled with cigarette butts resembling a Goodyear tire, Kracker said, “I would love to write a song that my daughters think is cool that my mom can dance to too.” Oh that’s all? A song that’s easily embraced by three generations of music fans – no problem. Maybe we should join NASA and go to the moon while we’re there.
It seemed mission impossible, but we succeeded.
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Another writer, Blair Daly, was with us and he had composed a ten-second piano loop. We started writing lyrics and melodies over it. Kracker came up with “Cooler than the back of my pillow”. It was a saying I had never heard before – I love these lyrics when you immediately know what they mean even if they are new to you.
“Buzz like a bee” was my line, and I had to fight for it. The guys thought it was too light, but I knew it would be perfect on the radio. He had an innocence.
The sun was setting through the large picture window overlooking the snowdrifts on the lake as we recorded the demo in the mobile studio we had brought. Kracker continued to sing “Crazy on a Friday night”. I corrected him: “That’s crazy on a Sunday night. You’re crazy about that person in the song. You act crazy, you go crazy on a Sunday night. Anyone can go crazy on a Friday night.
Shaking his wrist as his expensive watch clicked, Kracker thought about it for a second, then replied, “Good thing.” The Sunday night lyrics were retained. We finished the song and never thought of writing a bridge – we put in a cool violin solo instead.
“You have to write a bridge (expletive).”
Rob Cavallo, the blockbuster producer, instructed us in his Star Trek control room-style recording studio in Los Angeles while we recorded “Smile.” Rob was hired by Kracker and has the energy and mannerisms of Quentin Tarantino, and I mean that in a good way. He produced Green Day, Alanis Morissette, Dave Matthews Band, the Goo Goo Dolls, etc. “(Expletive), you want to write the bridge on the very guitar the Goo Goo Dolls wrote ‘Iris’ on? It’s here!” he said at one point, pointing to an acoustic guitar hanging on the wall.
On his enthusiastic advice, we dropped the violin solo and wrote the bridge. I can’t imagine the song without her now. I’ve heard it takes a whole village to raise a child — it also takes a whole village to tune a banjo and write a song. It took three writers and the guidance of a producer to bring “Smile” home.
It’s my favorite song I’ve been a part of and it’s my biggest. As much as I love rebellious rock bands trashing hotel rooms, I’m proud to have written a song that makes people feel good. A song that children and adults can sing too, just like Uncle Kracker wanted. My father had recently passed away when we wrote it – maybe I was thinking of him.
Couples walk down the aisle for weddings. People make “heal yourself” videos by singing them for people in the hospital. When Regis Philbin retired, they played “Smile”, showing clip after clip of him on TV. As a songwriter, you really can’t ask for more.
“Smile” has sold four million copies and it’s still selling. It was a pop hit and, unexpectedly, a country hit as well. It’s been on many TV commercials, including for Cold Stone Creamery ice cream over the past three years. It’s also in the movies. I hear it constantly on the radio and in stores when I’m shopping. Taylor Swift played it at one of her concerts, igniting YouTube and my ego.
Playing it live on my songwriter shows inspires a sea of cellphone lights to hold above people’s heads. Even better, after the worry I caused her by moving to Los Angeles many years ago, my mom was standing in the longest line at Kroger just to get more people to brag about “the song my son wrote with Uncle Clunker”. The royalty money flowed in and I made sure my mother’s bills were covered. After she believed in me for so long, it was amazing to do things like that for her.
Excerpt from PARTY LIKE A ROCKSTAR: The Crazy, Coincidental, Hard-Luck, and Harmonious Life of a Songwriter. ©2022 JT Harding and reproduced with permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.
‘Party Like a Rockstar: The Crazy, Fortuitous, Unlucky, and Harmonious Life of a Songwriter’
By JT Harding
Twelve/Hachette Book Group, 304 pages, $28
Book release events with Harding:
8 p.m. on March 4
20 Front St. to 20 Front St., Lake Orion
8 p.m. on March 5
Cadieux Cafe, 4300 Cadieux, Detroit
$30 (book included)