It’s 10:08 p.m. in Charleston, South Carolina, and Darius Rucker has finally got the kids to bed. Ramping up for the promotional grind of launching a new record, he’ll be doing the British radio rounds in the dark hours of the coming morning, a string of TV appearances, as well as a CBS “Sunday Morning” piece they’ve just finished filming.
It’s late. He has to get up early. We both know it, yet somehow, the former frontman of Hootie & the Blowfish is laughing. Maybe it’s the gift of a true second act. Or maybe it’s the fact that When Was The Last is his fifth country album on a major Nashville label. In a wash of pop-come-latelys, the fact Rucker is still here is almost a miracle. Or maybe the kind of meant-to-be that defies every bit of logic.
“I’ve made more country records than Hootie records,” he marvels. “It’s almost like a whole other life. And you know, we were having a [Hoot & the Blowfish] band meeting, and one of the guys said, ‘I don’t know if I wanna keep being a touring band like this...’
“I’d been talking about making a country record for so long, but I didn’t think I’d get a record deal. Or maybe I’d make a couple records, and that’d be it. When I actually signed with Mike Dungan and Capitol, we had so much fun making that first record, I just hoped they’d let me make another one.”
Looking back, it almost feels like false modesty. This is the writer and frontman of one of the biggest groups in the '90s. Multi-platinum, arena-filling, Grammy-winning Hootie & the Blowfish, patron band of Southern frat houses, Midwestern field parties and anywhere people were happy living right where they were.
But that was also part of the problem. The Blowfish were a rock band. Rucker was a grown up. And second career starts, especially after defining an age or a moment, almost always fall apart. And he’s black.
A warm laugh, like brown sugar melting into real oatmeal, meets the obvious. “It’s weird, but it isn’t something that punched me in the face,” he explains. “I don’t think about [being black], because I’m thinking about the songs and the fun we’re having. I don’t think about [what the success] means, because that’s not why I do this.
“But, especially when we were starting out, I’d get calls: ‘How does it feel to be the first black guy since Charlie Pride to have a Top 25 country hit?’ I think about Cleve Francis, Trini Triggs, and think, ‘Wait a minute.’ But it’s true. And, you know, being next after Charlie Pride is one of the best things in my career. That’s something to be proud of.”
A former pop act in the whitest genre in the business? When BroCountry and pop country were dropping the demographic age, making country the least mature it’s ever been, Rucker dropped “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It.” It hit No. 1. “It Won’t Be Like This For Long,” the follow-up, hit No. 1 – for three weeks. Then “Alright” not only made Rucker three-for-three as it rose to No. 1, but it made him the first act since Wynonna Judd to triple chart-top out of the box.
In a world of Charlie Pride comparisons, the drawling South Carolinian was matching certified country royalty on his restart. But unlike Wy, who was a Judd, he was a rock star of a certain age. Part of how he got there, though, is simple.
“Luck and hard work,” he offers, without flinching when pressed for the secret. “It was a blessing and a curse. In the beginning, people thought, ‘Oh, another pop guy, another carpet bagger...’ But, a lot of the program directors were coming over from pop about that time, and they at least knew the voice.
“We got out there on that promo tour, went all over the country. I met a lot of people setting that album up, heard a lot of stories and made a lot of friends who are still out there today. You can’t be afraid to do the work.”
Doing the work is part of what’s made Rucker stick where so many other acts have failed. He is distinctly Southern, not afraid of a melded world. As a singer in an alternative music, college-focused band, he was often in rooms as the only black man. And even in those, he was often the only person leaning into progressive and old school country.
Back as Hootie was taking off, the band played Nashville’s now defunct 328 Performance Hall; Radney Foster, the Del Rio, Texas, half of progressive country duo Foster & Lloyd, was at the bar as Rucker’s guest.
“Darius loved our music,” Foster recalls of the left-field invitation from the band that was already bigger than the room they were playing. “He really felt songs like ‘Texas in 1880,’ ‘Crazy Over You,’ and ‘You Can Come Crying To Me.’ Something about him just responded – and, big as they were fixing to be, he was very generous about reaching out.”
Looking back, Rucker jokes, “When I was learning to play guitar, it was ‘Fire on the Mountain’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ so that got into my writing. I’ve always been more drawn to the Southern piece of my favorite bands – REM’s ‘Rockville,’ for example.
“So, I’d go to the band with these country songs I’d written, and they’d make them rock songs.”
The South. It permeates his vowels, the way his words dangle just a bit before he drops that final consonant. It also shows up in his worldview. He writes about what he knows, where he goes. Family, small towns, figuring out the New South where he makes his home.
“There’s positives and negatives, but it’s who I am, where I was born and where I’m gonna die,” explains the husband and father of three. “There’s a way of life: working hard, playing hard, taking care of your family, raising your kids and being part of this little community that has problems. That’s [the way of the world], but wherever you are, you come together and try to figure things out.”
Coming together, figuring things out are lessons he learned from his mother. “We didn’t have much, but my mom always said, ‘There are those with less, and we can help them.’ I learned that from her, even back in the day when we were just playing clubs to 500, or even 100 people, we’d get some other bands and do a show for an orphanage. Give them the money, make their load a little lighter.”
His mother also gave him a sense of earning his way. But as Rucker admits, this is where his following Charlie Pride comes in handy. “One of the first things I learned is being a black man, to make it in this world, I’m going to have to work twice as hard. So being African American made me work harder, taught me the value of work in getting where I wanted to go.
“That’s a very important part of who I am. It’s actually such a big part of the way I live, who I became and who I’m becoming. I don’t think about it, but knowing it inside helps me be this guy 99 percent of the time.”
With a show slated for Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater — “How many country shows have played there?” he asks happily — Rucker is further blurring the lines. “When I was growing up, that was the place! James Brown at the Apollo?! That meant you made it, not Madison Square Garden.
“It’s a great thing to bring country music to the Apollo. Country music is opening up, expanding, becoming a wide spectrum of things. Look at Kane Brown. So why not?”
Part of the New South Rising is this attitude of checking the attitude and finding the grace. Back when Cracked Rear View was on its way to selling a gazillion copies, Rucker wrote a song called “Drowning.” At five minutes, it was never a single, but it speaks volumes.
“Drowning in a sea of tears,
Hatred trying to hide your fears
Living only for yourself Hating everybody else
Cause they don't look like you
Nanci singing it's a hard life wherever you go
About some fat racist living in Chicago
Trying to teach his kids to hate everyone
Well tell me why is that something
you wanna teach your son?
Why must we hate one another?
When the people in the church,
they tell me you're my brother
You don't walk like me...
you don't talk like me,
Saying Go back to Africa, I just don't understand...”
— D. Rucker, D. Felber, M. Bryan, J. Sonenfeld
“I try to write in the now,” Rucker says of his process. “I wrote that about an encounter with a buddy of mine named Spider, who was homeless. He’d say the deepest things, and when I’d be going from bar-to-bar, I’d grab him and get a beer and just sit and talk. When the big controversy about the Confederate Flag on top of the statehouse was going on, I ran into him, and he said, ‘Tired of hearing about heritage, not hate.’
“That’s where the song came from, that conversation. Sitting there, talking to this intelligent homeless man who spent every day being judged, that conversation became a song.”
For Rucker, knowing who he is provides a freedom to choose how he responds.
Maybe it’s his mom, or that early conditioning, but he admits, “I have that problem of believing everybody’s good until I meet you and you prove me wrong. I go out onstage believing everybody’s a good guy, not thinking, ‘This guy’s a racist...,’ or trying to figure out who doesn’t like me because of the color of my skin. Start by thinking, ‘we’re all here to play some music, enjoy the night.’ The rest, I can’t let it matter in that moment.”
Watching his kids grow up, a second career that comes with a certain focus and commitment, it’s a matter of choices. Having dominated two different musical genres without truly being of them, he believes in the music’s ability to transcend.
Established as a country artist, he reached into Old Crow Medicine Show’s catalogue for their Dylan cover “Wagon Wheel,” then teamed with crossover monoliths Lady Antebellum and took up residence on the country radio charts. Beyond multiple weeks at No. 1, it won the Best Country Solo Performance Grammy.
On When Was The Last Time, Rucker again mines his unlikely influences for Drivin’ & Cryin’s “Straight To Hell,” with Charles Kelley, Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan.
“That song did so many great things for me so many nights. Whether it was playing some bar, or late at night at somebody’s house. To me, those songs should be passed on.
Of matters as grave as dissolving prejudice or maintaining a band's place in the conversation, he says, “Really, I’m a musician. If something I did or do helps, that’s great. But I don’t think enough of myself to think I could change anything. I hope I open doors, maybe offer something that makes people feel better or think a little bit (about where and how they live).
“I think it is important to be an adult [as an artist]. It’s who I am, and it’s interesting because you can write anything from a place of experience. I write in the moment, and I think, ‘Where was I?’ when I’m writing.
"That’s a good feeling."