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."
The first -- and, frankly, last -- time most people thought about the Hootie Guy in the context of country music was in 2005, when he appeared in a TV commercial for Burger King's TenderCrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch sandwich. Wearing a white felt cowboy hat and a bejeweled, purple Nudie suit that looked like a Porter Wagoner loaner, Rucker sang an ode to the deep-fried chicken fillet sandwich to the tune of "Big Rock Candy Mountain," an old hobo ballad.
Rucker played the bluegrass jingle straight, but the spot was a surreal sendup, complete with a dancing chicken, a ranch-dressing waterfall and some Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. It was about money, not art. "Do the commercial, buy a pool," Rucker jokes.
But he says he had really wanted to sing country music for years. Rucker was exposed to some of the genre's old-timers when he was growing up, courtesy of his grandfather. But his a-ha moment didn't come until he was 21 and heard "Crazy Over You," a 1987 hit by the country duo Foster and Lloyd. "I remember thinking: Who is this? Why haven't I heard this before? Where can I get the record? Hearing Radney Foster was big for me, like hearing Al Green or R.E.M. for the first time."
Rucker's new obsession wasn't necessarily reflected in Hootie & the Blowfish's music: If the quartet was a teensy bit country, Hootie was principally about rock-and-roll -- namely, rootsy, Southern-flavored guitar-rock that tried to split the difference between R.E.M. and the Marshall Tucker Band. "The other guys in Hootie were into rock," Rucker says. "I brought the country influence."
The band came together in the late '80s at the University of South Carolina and specialized in impossibly catchy songs with considerable mainstream appeal. On the strength of radio hits including "Hold My Hand" and "Only Wanna Be With You," Hootie's 1994 album, "Cracked Rear View," reinvigorated the slumping record industry by selling 16 million copies -- a figure that ranks in the top 20 on the Recording Industry Association of America's all-time bestsellers list. Not bad for a band that critics wrote off as dull and derivative.
"We were a bar band that got lucky," Rucker says with a shrug. "We were just in the right place at the right time with the right record. People were tired of being depressed; they wanted to be happy. We told them to 'hold my hand' and we sold 16 million records." We still believe that nobody does what we do better than us. But . . . we knew we hadn't made 'Abbey Road.' "
The thing that made Hootie so successful -- the stickiness of those songs, which even detractors found impossible to forget -- eventually worked against the band, which suffered a backlash and became something of a pop-music punch line. Radio play dried up, and Hootie's album sales dropped sharply, to 5 million ("Fairweather Johnson," released in 1996), then 1 million ("Musical Chairs," 1998). None of the band's last three albums even cracked the half-million sales mark, though the group continued to thrive on tour: "We went out every summer," Rucker says, "and we made millions."
Still, seeking to shake things up, Rucker says he repeatedly pushed his country agenda on band mates Mark Bryan, Dean Felber and Jim Sonefeld. "On our last three records, the conversation was, 'Hey, man, let's do the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band thing and make country records.' I thought it was a no-brainer move. When we jam, it's bluegrass and country music. When we need to sound-check, we play country songs. But some of the guys didn't want to do it. We're a rock band; we have our niche. I understand.
"But I made it perfectly clear that I was gonna do it myself, as soon as I could."
First, though, Rucker scratched his R&B itch. Having grown up idolizing Al Green, he recorded a contemporary soul set, "Back to Then." Neosoul singer Jill Scott and rapper Snoop Dogg contributed cameos. The album, released by Scott's label in 2002, was a flop.
Then, just as Rucker was thinking about recording a country album on his own in Charleston, Capitol Records Nashville called. Rucker was incredulous.
"I didn't think anybody would give me a record deal," he says. "Hootie had run its course. We still had great touring lives, but nobody was buying Hootie & the Blowfish records. And there's a stigma about being in Hootie. I thought that would be a liability."
But Mike Dungan, the president of Capitol Nashville, wasn't worried about the specific band on Rucker's résumé. He was more concerned about his shift from rock to country, especially given how many other artists had been making the move, from Bon Jovi and Jessica Simpson to Jewel.
"I was never really sure it would work," Dungan says. "With somebody that big, you worry: Are you going to be kind of a joke coming into this format? But every time I'd see those guys on TV, I thought the black guy sounded like a country singer. I couldn't even remember his name, and I was really disinterested in those records. But Darius felt like a country singer to me, with the inflections he used. I thought that if you just tweaked this guy a little bit to the right, he'd be country."
Turns out Rucker was more country than expected: Most of the early songs he showed the label "sounded almost too country," Dungan says.
"They were Vern Gosdin-style tear-in-your-beer ballads or Texas two-step shuffles, neither of which is the flavor of the month. If we had to adjust anything in our thinking, it was to come back a little more to the pop side. I told Darius: 'You're a guy who sold 25 million in the rock format, you're doing Texas shuffles, which George Strait can't even get played on the radio -- and, gee, you're black! Don't handicap me too much here!' "
Ultimately, the album included only one shuffle, "All I Want," which features Brad Paisley on guitar and a perfectly Paisley-esque lyrical hook: "All I want you to leave me/Is alone." The lyric was written by Paisley's longtime collaborator, Frank Rogers, who produced "Learn to Live," an album that falls somewhere between traditionalism and modern country-pop.
"You'd think Darius Rucker would have a more pop-sounding record, with Rascal Flatts production," says Lou Ramirez, music director at KAJA-FM in San Antonio. "But you hear those guitars, that shuffle, Darius singing divorce songs, and you go: Where is this coming from? I was blown away. When you listen to some of the lyrics he wrote with Hootie, though, I think he's always been a frustrated country singer. He's always had that heart for country."
The country establishment quickly embraced Rucker. He has performed several times at the Grand Ole Opry, where, he says: "I didn't feel like an outsider who was trying to be there; I felt like a guy who was supposed to be there. Like: Man, I'm home."
Then came an invitation to sing at the CMAs, even though his music was released too late to be eligible for any awards. Rucker's rousing performance of "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" earned a standing ovation, a rarity at the industry event. Dungan, the Capitol Nashville chief, says he cried in the audience.
"We've skirted around the racial issue all along," he says. "I told my staff I didn't want this to be about the first black man to have a charted record in 20 years. That's demeaning to the music, that's demeaning to the man. This should compete on its own.
"But I think there was a collective pull from the community: 'Gosh, this is so great, a black man who has found success with us.' I had major superstars coming up to me after the performance -- Reba McEntire, Ronnie Dunn -- telling me he was awesome. Well, Darius has always been awesome. He just got the wrong songs."