Former Hootie & the Blowfish Frontman Darius Rucker Leaves Rock for Country Music

Darius Rucker is the first black singer to sit atop the country-singles charts since Charley Pride did so 25 years ago.
Darius Rucker is the first black singer to sit atop the country-singles charts since Charley Pride did so 25 years ago. (By Peyton Hoge)
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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

NASHVILLE The Hootie Guy has hung up his cowboy hat.

It just doesn't fit Darius Rucker anymore, now that the Hootie & the Blowfish frontman has gone country.

"The last eight years with Hootie, I wore a straw cowboy hat on all our shows," Rucker says of his standard headgear with the mega-million-selling jangle-rock band. "Wearing it in rock-and-roll was a fashion thing. But coming here as a country singer, trying to make a country career, I'd be making a fool of myself by wearing a cowboy hat. And it would be a slap in the face to guys like George Strait and Alan Jackson, guys who are cowboys."

The South Carolina singer-songwriter with the gruff, brawny baritone is lunching at the Palm steakhouse, just a boot-scoot from Music Row -- or trying to. His meal keeps getting interrupted by country power players stopping by to offer their congratulations.

It's Country Music Association Awards week, which is something like prom season for Nashville stars and rookies alike -- and Rucker happens to be both. This year, at 42, he recast himself as a country singer after leaving Hootie behind, maybe for good. "I love Hootie & the Blowfish and what we do, but that's not my main focus anymore. This is a career move for me. I'm gonna be doing this until I've got my own theater in Branson," he says, laughing about the Missouri entertainment town where old singers go to keep singing. "I'm a country singer now."

An instantly successful one, too: "Don't Think I Don't Think About It," the catchy, melancholy first single of Rucker's nascent Nashville career, reached No. 1 on the country charts in late September. A second song, "It Won't Be Like This for Long," just cracked the Top 25. His album, "Learn to Live," reached No. 1 on the country charts.

With a single, transformational stroke, Rucker has revived a recording career that was long ago left for dead, even as Hootie continued to do robust touring business.

That it happened for Rucker in country made the feat even more remarkable, given the overwhelming whiteness of the genre. Rucker was the first African American singer to reach the Top 20 on the country-singles chart since 1988 -- and the first to ascend to No. 1 since Charley Pride scored the last of his 29 chart-toppers in 1983 with "Night Games." A black artist hadn't hit No. 1 on the country album chart since 1985, when Ray Charles did it with a duets collection, "Friendship."

The significance of these accomplishments is not lost on Rucker, who once sang about racism in "Drowning," in which the Charleston native wondered why a Confederate flag still flew at the South Carolina statehouse. (It was taken down in 2000.)

"I'm used to being the only black guy," he says, while observing that he is, in fact, the only African American having lunch at the Palm. "I've seriously walked onstage, looked out in the audience, 15,000 people -- and I'm the only one in the place. It's no big deal. My whole career's been like that.

"I never even thought about it until people started bringing it up. I thought Cleve Francis or Cowboy Troy or Trini Trigg would've at least had a Top 20. Then you get to number one? Wooowwww. When I let myself think about it, I think: Why me? . . . I've got a great song, but it's gotta be more than that. I don't know what it is. I'm just glad it is."

He adds: "A year ago, we told our son, 'You can be anything you want, except president or a country singer.' Now we can't say that." He shakes his head. "It's been a long time since I've been this happy. I'm so ecstatic about all of this. I just want to play. I want. To. Play. After being in a band for a long time, playing the same songs, I mean, yeah, I'll play 'em. But it feels great to want to play again."

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