Darius Rucker - Living the dream
Darius Rucker had two childhood dreams. He wanted to make a country record and he wanted to sing onstage at the Grand Ole Opry like the people he listened to on the radio every Saturday night.
As a boy growing up in Southern Carolina he probably wasn’t alone in either ambition but there was a drawback. Rucker is African-American and back in the late 1960s and early 1970s he was made to feel that he should know his place – and African-Americans didn’t make a success out of singing country music, until Charley Pride, one of Rucker’s great heroes alongside Kenny Rogers and Al Green, came along.
When Rucker finally found himself in a position to go into a studio and record a country album, there was another drawback. How on earth, people asked, was the singer in a hugely successful rock band, Grammy winners Hootie and the Blowfish, going to make the transition from rock to country?
It turned out to be easier than even Rucker himself imagined.
“My manager was at a dinner just after I’d told him of my intentions and he got chatting to the head of Capital Records,” says Rucker, whose latest album, True Believers, has just given him his third country chart topper. “When the Capital Records guy heard who this new country artist was that my manager wanted him to check out, he said, ‘You know, I never really got Hootie and the Blowfish but I always thought their frontman was a natural country singer, singing in a rock band.’ So he signed me.”
Rucker might have followed a different career path. He might have followed his father’s example and joined a gospel group – a popular South Carolina quartet who went by the name of the Rolling Stones – or he might have tried his hand at Al Green’s then-secular soul music, which his mother played at home all the time. Equally, he might have become a professional American football player; he was reckoned to be good enough but music got in the way.
“I was an AM radio kid,” he says. “Every night when I got home from school I’d switch the radio on and turn the dial until I heard something I liked. And that could have meant anything, just as long as it made me feel good. My dad wasn’t a big part of my life at that time and my way of being with him was to listen to his group singing gospel music on the radio every Sunday morning. Saturdays were always Grand Ole Opry because I loved country music. My brothers used to tease me about listening to this white boy music but for me, Kenny Rogers and those songs he sang that told stories like he’d been there, that was magic. Of course, Charley Pride was someone I looked up to, too. He did something no African-American had done before but his music just appealed to me anyway.”
Hootie and the Blowfish came about because the four constituent members were friends – and they’ve stayed friends, having worked together for nine years before they got a record deal and having managed to swim against the 1980/1990s grunge tide with their essentially feel-good rock that caught the ear of TV chat show host David Letterman.
“We nearly didn’t make it all,” says Rucker. “We’d put out our own EP, which we distributed to local record shops, and someone at Atlantic Records noticed that this unknown band was outselling U2 and Pearl Jam in Southern Carolina. Even when we signed to Atlantic there was this ‘what did we sign these guys for’ vibe in the company until David Letterman happened to hear us, got us on his programme and told viewers, if they didn’t buy our record, there was something wrong with them. That kind of triumph in the face of adversity made us bond even tighter and it was only when our drummer said he wanted a break from all the travelling that we took time out and I decided to make my country album.”
With a voice that’s warm and sincere and good quality songwriting, Rucker has been welcomed into the country scene with open arms. The first time he stood on the Grand Ole Opry stage, he got shivers up his spine due not just to his surroundings but also his reception.
“It feels like a sacred place,” he says of a venue that’s often referred to as the church of country music. “And I felt a warmth coming off the audience that made it even more thrilling. I don’t really think of myself as having changed styles or genres because I’m songwriter and we all use the same notes and chords, the same words. It’s all music and in the end the only thing that matters is that you believe what you’re singing.”
From The Herald, November 19, 2014.