Moving on from 32 Below: Founding frontman happy as a solo act
About once a month, mostly on a weeknight, Matt Aakre loads up an acoustic guitar and drives across Moorhead, Minn., to some small bar or brewery to play a solo acoustic set as he did last Thursday night at Junkyard Brewing Company.
"I like them," the 36-year-old singer-guitarist says of the intimate rooms. "People tend to listen and be receptive."
He knows crowds. For 13 years he fronted 32 Below, the country-rock band he helped form. The group dominated the Fargo-Moorhead bar scene—it has won Best Live Local Act every year for the last decade in The Forum's annual Best Of reader's poll—and established a fan base around the country.
But in 2012, at arguably the height of the group's popularity, Aakre announced he was leaving. He played his last local set with the group on New Year's Eve, unplugged and walked away from the spotlight.
Over the last year, he's re-emerged to play the occasional small show. In a way, it's like starting over, though his goals aren't as big as they were with 32 Below.
"I want to keep building what I've got going. For me it's just enjoying what I'm doing," he said before Thursday's show.
He's always been a music fan and even when he departed the group he still liked playing with them. But playing with that group meant less time to play with his kids as he realized he was more of a road dog than a home dad.
"The only downside to being a traveling musician is that you know you're going to be gone every weekend and you're going to miss a lot of activities," he said.
"That's the beauty of these acoustic shows — you can play them on weeknights," he added with a smile.
Local acoustic shows also make it easier to get up for his day job in agronomy sales—seed, chemicals and fertilizer—with Dakota Plains Ag.
While he likes his job, he was missing music so he started playing around the house "as a hobby." He laughs at the notion of what was his full-time job for 13 years now being a hobby, but playing by himself helped him be a better guitarist and performer, he said. Previously the only solo gig he'd played was a New Year's Eve gig in Minot that was booked as a 32 Below show, but when a storm kept the rest of the band off the road, Aakre, who was already in town, said the show would go on.
The switch to a solo act took him out of his comfort zone, something he's come to appreciate. At Thursday's show he mixed in some country ("Long Black Veil") and pop ("Last Kiss") classics and contemporary tunes (Needtobreathe's "Wasteland" and Lanco's "Greatest Love Story") with 32 Below songs he wrote like "Rearview" and "Kickin' Back."
"Now some of those (shows) that I never thought I'd do are my favorite gigs," he said, recalling a recent installment of Beer & Hymns at Junkyard.
"It was a blast. Two hours of something I never played before," he said. "I enjoy that kind of stuff these days."
"I also really enjoy filling a dancefloor," he added with a smile.
He's been able to do that too, as he recently has reunited the original 32 Below lineup—guitarist Ty Taylor, fiddle player Jeb Reinhiller, bassist Nathan Stang and drummer Derek Lien—for a show outside Moorhead's Brickhouse.
Though the lineup hadn't been together in nearly a decade, the familiarity was welcome.
"The power of a band is something that's always going to be attractive to me," Aakre said.
Still, he doesn't miss being in the band when he sees 32 Below playing around town.
"We got to do more than our share of wonderful things over the years," he said. "We played WE Fest nine times and were in the offices with three major record labels."
They also made friends that have lasted longer than his duration with the band, like Montgomery Gentry, who jammed with 32 Below at the 2003 WE Fest and encouraged the group to move to Nashville, Tenn., in 2004. The group stayed there for four years before moving back, but kept in touch with the duo. Aakre ran into Troy Gentry at the 2016 WE Fest and the two spontaneously started working on a song together.
Gentry's death earlier this month hit close to home for Aakre and make him more grateful for how fortunate he's been through the years.
"There can be times when it's easy to forget that," he said. "When you play and people sing along, big stage or small stage — I appreciate it all the same."