Gone Country: Darius Rucker

Listen to a track from Darius Rucker’s new album, Charleston, SC 1966

Photo: Jim Wright

Darius Rucker in Charleston, South Carolina.

It’s 7:30 in the morning, and Darius Rucker is awake and chatty on his tour bus rumbling through the middle of North Dakota. It’s not an odd hour for him to be awake, except that in years past, it usually meant he hadn’t gone to bed yet. Those were the days of his first band, Hootie and the Blowfish, which went from being the ultimate bar band, playing in college beer joints across the South, to selling out arenas, practically overnight. With the success came the partying. But today, he’s rested after a decent night’s sleep, following a gig in Fargo opening for Brad Paisley. “I’m always up at 7:30, usually earlier,” Rucker says, his deep baritone voice betraying only a hint of gravelly early-morning cobwebs. “Having three kids will do that.”

In addition to his brood, much has changed for Rucker since those early days. After Hootie peaked in the mid-’90s, subsequent success became fleeting, and the band eventually went on hiatus. While the other members tended to various nonmusic projects, Rucker did something that most thought was a radical move: He made a country record. But there wasn’t anything strange about it to Rucker. “I’ve always listened to country music,” he says. “I wanted Hootie to become a country band at first, but I was outvoted.” What he wasn’t prepared for was the monstrous success of his 2008 country debut, Learn to Live. The album spawned three number-one singles and garnered him the 2009 Country Music Association Best New Artist award. Now Rucker is readying the release of his second country album, Charleston, SC 1966 (out in October), and there’s no element of surprise this time. “Hell yes, I feel pressure,” he says. “I want to make more country records, and if this one tanks, I’m done.”

Photo: Jim Wright

Rucker on guitar.

Rucker’s transition to country has been impressive. Other pop/rock stars—Jewel, Jessica Simpson, Kid Rock—have tried to cross over to the country world, with little success. Not to mention that Rucker has become the first African-American country star since Charley Pride. “I think race was an issue for people at my label,” he says. “But we sent the first record out blind so nobody knew who it was. When I showed up at all these radio stations to play, everyone was like, ‘Cool, this is a great record.’” The new album follows in the same vein as his debut, and while it’s definitely mainstream country, Rucker has a knack for penning cliché-free lyrics and pairing them with his trademark monster hooks. His songwriting panache comes in part from volume. “I wrote seventy-seven songs for the record,” he says with a laugh. “Some of them are awful, but when you have that amount, you can take bits and pieces and hopefully make twelve great songs.”

The title of the album is a nod to Rucker’s hometown and birth year and to the 1992 Radney Foster classic Del Rio, TX 1959 (the place and year of Foster’s birth). Foster, a cult country figure, was a huge influence on Rucker, who first heard him while working at the record store Sounds Familiar as a student at the University of South Carolina. “I always used to come in late to work. My manager would put on my schedule ‘whenever he shows up until close,’” he says. “One day I took Del Rio home to listen to, and I couldn’t stop. I was three hours late for work the next day.” Like Rucker, Foster displays a razor-sharp wit in his lyrics and an affinity for well-crafted melodies. “That record had such an effect on me, and I’ve been fortunate to get to know Radney,” Rucker says. “He gave me the best piece of advice: Just be yourself.”

Rucker stays grounded in Charleston, where instead of partying until dawn, life now revolves around his wife and his son and two daughters, who range in age from five to fifteen. “I love Charleston. I love the ocean, the heat, the food, everything about it,” he says. “My kids love just driving around with me. Yesterday, my five-year-old, Jack, asked me to change the radio station. I’m like, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because it isn’t country.’ That was amazing.” While his family has wholly accepted his change in direction, have his Hootie bandmates? “They all would rather be on tour,” he says. “But we’ve always taken the high road with each other. I know they’re happy for me.” And Rucker is adamant that there will be another Hootie record in the future. “Hiatus doesn’t mean breaking up. We’ll get back to it. But I’d like to make a few more country records first. This isn’t a joke for me. It’s real, and I’ve got work to do.”