Feature: Darius Rucker Redefined
The Charleston native and Hootie front man returns to his country music roots, taking the genre by storm
And it’s really hard to compete with Grammy Award-winning, multiplatinum, silver-throated Darius Rucker—even when you’re Darius Rucker. Which, in essence, is what he’s doing these days. This concert is his hometown debut as rock-and-roller-turned-country-crooner. And the crowd loves it. There’s no sense of betrayal or skepticism here in the land where Hootie & the Blowfish once reigned, and now Darius, heretofore the pivotal and inimitable Hootie front man, is trying to one-up himself—this time as a solo country artist. He’s left behind the ragtag straw cowboy hat that used to be his Hootie concert staple. Now it’s just Darius—accompanied by a fiddle and a steel guitar—in a black shirt and jeans, some killer cowboy boots, and that blow-your-mind baritone.
Fans are on their feet, clapping and singing along through his recent No. 1 hit, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It.” They’re smiling and swaying when Rucker roars into the feel-good “Alright,” and they’re at full tilt when he delivers one or two Hootie classics—the enduring “Hold My Hand” and “Let Her Cry”—for old-time sake. These tunes are as close as any to regional anthems, and Rucker devotees gladly pledge allegiance. “I LUUVV Charleston,” he belts out in between songs. The feeling is obviously mutual.
This concert is a homecoming for Rucker in more ways than one. “It’s great being home,” sighs the Mount Pleasant family man, who spent big chunks of the last two years in Nashville writing and recording Learn to Live with Capitol Records. Prior to its release last September, Rucker rodeoed radio station program directors from Texas to Toronto, doing PR the grueling old-fashioned way, in person, visiting four cities a day, more than 80 stations in all.
Afterwards, it was on to sing for David Letterman, Ellen Degeneres, the Country Music Awards, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and the Grand Ole Opry, among others. He’s been on one heck of a whirlwind cowboy trail, to be sure, so playing at home in Charleston is a welcome reprieve. It means Rucker gets time with his wife, Beth, and gets to tuck three-year old Jack and seven-year old Danielle in bed after the show (daughter Cary, 13, lives in Baltimore with her mother). And, it represents a coming home artistically as well.
Rucker’s country roots are right here in the Lowcountry. “I’ve always loved country music. Growing up, I listened to my Aunt Jeannette singing Willie Nelson, watched Hee Haw every Saturday night, and listened to Buck Owens on Charleston AM radio,” says Rucker, who cites Radney Foster and Dwight Yoakam as influences. Early on he tried to sway his Hootie brethren to move toward twang, to no avail. “This is really more of a return than a departure for me,” he adds. “Country is as much a part of me as R&B and rock.”
A Young Boy’s Dream
Watching his childhood friend become a music megastar hasn’t surprised David Campbell, at least not too much. “Darius always wanted to be a musician, and he’s definitely a go-getter,” notes Campbell, who grew up right across the street from Rucker in West Ashley’s Orleans Woods neighborhood. Buddies since age five, David and Darius went to Orange Grove Elementary together, then on to Wallace Middle School and Middleton High, where the easygoing, amiable Rucker, a standout with the Middleton Singers, was voted class president.
“We had a great neighborhood. We just did what kids do. We hung out, played sports,” Rucker reminisces. He and his neighborhood pals—including Campbell, Sheldon Snipe, Juan Ferguson, and Sheldon Simmons—played football and basketball together at nearby St. Andrew’s Park. Rick Johannes became good buddies with Darius and his pals during middle school. The group was, and remains, tight. “They’re my boys,” Rucker says.
Playing sports was formative for Rucker, who now at age 42 is a passionate golfer and close pal of Tiger Woods. (Johannes’ dad gave Darius his first set of clubs at age 14.) The second youngest of six, Rucker was raised by his mother and grandmother in a three-bedroom house, with lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins living nearby. “St. Andrew’s [Recreation Department] was where I got most of my adult male supervision,” he notes. When not playing ball or obsessing about the Miami Dolphins, the boys hung out on Campbell’s front porch or at Darius’ house. His mom, an Al Green fan, would be singing, Campbell says, and Darius was always listening to a wide range of music, from R&B to KISS to the Stones.
“We’d talk about our dreams—about going to college,” recalls Campbell. “Sheldon Snipe wanted to be a lawyer; Juan wanted to be a doctor; I wanted to play college ball; and Darius always wanted to be a singer. I remember once in my garage, he was belting out some Barry Manilow song, and he was so into it he started crying. I gotta give him grief about that one,” Campbell laughs.
As a postscript (file under “dreams do come true”), they all went to college: Sheldon Snipe is a lawyer in Atlanta; Juan went to Duke Medical School and now works for the Department of Social Services in Los Angeles; David, now director of community education at St. John’s High School, earned a college football scholarship; and Darius, well, he’s a singer all right, singing about those dreamy days on Campbell’s porch. The title track on Learn to Live begins with a grateful nod to David’s father: “Grandpa Campbell would sit upon his front porch/and I’d be right there just sitting on his knees….”
Take some chances
“Then I left home and went to Carolina,” the song continues (at this verse, the Charleston audience roars). And there, in a University of South Carolina dorm in 1989, is where Rucker’s dream began to take flight. Fellow freshman Mark Bryan, a budding guitarist, overheard Rucker singing and suggested they jam together. They recruited Dean Felber on bass and Jim Sonefeld on drums, and soon Hootie & the Blowfish (named after two college classmates—an owlish guy and a kid with Dizzy Gillespie cheeks) was packing campus events and Columbia bars. Their irresistible melodies attracted a widespread following and, before long, a record deal. In 1994, they released Cracked Rear View, to this day one of the recording industry’s all-time bestselling albums—16 million sold in the U.S., and counting. As David Letterman said when introducing Hootie & the Blowfish on Late Night in the mid ’90s, “If you don’t have this record, something’s wrong with you.”
“We were a bar band that got really, really lucky,” says Rucker, a veteran of more than two decades in the music biz—plenty long to get a taste of the industry’s vicissitudes. “Yeah, I think we made a great record, but 16 million? Grunge was dominating the airwaves; people were tired of being depressed; and here come these little guys from South Carolina singing ‘Hold my Hand.’ ‘Sure, I’ll hold your hand,’ they said, and they bought our record. We were at the right place at the right time.”
Indeed, Hootie has taken some hits for being lightweight (a New York Times critic dubbed them “the most popular inconsequential band”), but their enduring appeal speaks, or sings, for itself: eight albums, 25 million sold altogether, and successful tours year in and year out for 20-some years. Even now Rucker claims the gig’s not over. The band will continue to regroup to play several annual charitable events and possibly record again in the future, he says, but this is his time to chase his country dream, time to “take some chances” as the refrain in “Learn to Live” preaches. And it appears, once again, Rucker’s timing is right.
Country music today is a hotbed of crossover wannabees, rock and pop acts trying to don some boots and ride off with some bucks. Jessica Simpson, Bon Jovi, Jewel, and Kid Rock are already crowding the field, and here comes this black guy from Charleston, a guy with a big, big pop following already (i.e., a potential hard-sell to country faithful), a guy with a big, big decadent baritone—a voice that Rolling Stone described as a “warm fuzzy blanket.”
“I’m thinking about signing Darius Rucker,” Capitol records president Mike Dungan mentioned to producer/songwriter Frank Rogers one night in a Nashville restaurant. “Am I crazy?” Dungan asked. “Absolutely not,” Rogers replied. “And if you do, call me.” Dungan did.
Rogers, a South Carolina boy and Gamecock fan himself, certainly knew of Rucker (“Well, who didn’t?” he laughs). He knew “that voice, that unmistakable voice,” and he knew Rucker to be a “great interpreter of songs.” But he didn’t know the singer was so well-versed in traditional country (a la Waylon and Willie and Buck) way before “contemporary country” became popular. “After 30 minutes, we knew we could work well together. We got excited about the same type of music, we were on the same wavelength,” says Rogers, who gave Rucker’s Learn to Live the same fine tuning that he’s given to the records of Brad Paisley, Trace Adkins, and others.
It didn’t take long for Rucker to earn the respect of the Nashville establishment. Rogers and seasoned writers like Clay Mills and Chris Dubois initiated him in Country Songwriting 101, typically a collaborative effort driven by lyrics rather than melody (Hootie members usually wrote songs individually). The album’s instant country resonance proved Rucker’s knack for the genre’s narrative “hook”—he nails the bittersweet ballad (“Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It”), the hard-living humor (“Drinkin’ and Dialin’”), and the ode to innocence (“It Won’t Be Like This for Long”).
“Darius brings real excitement and honesty about making great music,” says Rogers. “He’s not just going through the motions. He’s doing this because he really loves country. He’s singing from his heart, and it shows. Here’s a guy who’s been so successful in rock but still has this incredible work ethic. The main thing I’ve learned from Darius,” Rogers continues, “is that you can be a big rock star and still be one of the nicest guys in the world. The true joy of this whole project has been getting to know him and his family.”
Rucker’s wife of eight years, Beth Leonard, was drawn to that genuineness as well. The two met in New York while Beth, a New Jersey native, was working for VH1, organizing events, dealing with artists and managers, and booking talent. Hootie & the Blowfish were regulars, and Beth was charged with keeping them happy. “I’ve got a gift for reading people,” she says, “and I had this sense that Darius was sincere. Turns out I was right. He has one of the biggest hearts I know. Yes, he’s a great singer, a great performer, and I’m incredibly proud of him, but that’s what he does, not who he is. That’s not all of the man.”
Giving Back What doesn’t get a nod at red-carpet award ceremonies or by rowdy concert ovations is Rucker’s generosity and commitment to the community. A verse in his song “If I Had Wings” asks, “What can I do while I’m here to make someone’s life better?” and it’s not just stock country sap. “Darius means it,” affirms Beth.
Over the years, The Hootie & the Blowfish Foundation has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to support public education and arts and sports programs for children throughout South Carolina. This spring, Rucker, Bryan, Felber, and Sonefeld will host the 15th annual Monday After the Masters Celebrity Pro-Am golf tournament in Myrtle Beach, usually a sold-out event that raises thousands for the foundation’s causes. Each fall, the band hosts a Homegrown Concert to gather school supplies for needy children, and Darius has performed several solo concerts in support of MUSC Children’s Hospital, where Beth serves on the board. “I’m proud of everything we’ve done: the kids we’ve helped go to college, the schools we’ve helped,” says Rucker. “But mostly I’m happy that the four of us were people who wanted to give back. I love my home state, and I want it to be the best it can be. For me, it’s like what Springsteen did for New Jersey. I want everyone to know I’m from Charleston.”
So what’s next for a guy who’s first country album soared to No. 1 on the country charts, whose career includes playing for luminaries like Big Bird and Ernie and presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; serenading Sinatra on his 80th birthday; performing in front of George Strait on the Country Music Awards; sharing the hallowed Opry stage with Charley Pride—the only other African American artist to have a No. 1 country hit. What’s the next dream for a guy who has made millions and has given millions to good causes? “Well, I’ve never played Spoleto,” Rucker demurs. “That would mean a lot, to get to play Spoleto.”
Meanwhile, Rucker will rest up after his recent three-month Paisley Party Tour (with country sensations Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley) and do what he loves most of all: hang out with his family as much as possible. “I’ve seen Darius so happy on stage singing,” says Sonefeld. “It’s damn good fun watching my buddy get what he deserves from all his hard work, using one of the best voices in the business. That’s golden to me. But to see him really light up, put him on the couch with his kids and some video games and grilled cheese sandwiches he made himself. That’s Darius happy.”
Yeah, kids on the sofa with a gooey grilled cheese—that’s “alright, alright,” as his current song affirms: “It may be a simple life but that’s okay/If you ask me baby, I think I got it made.”
Hootie & the Blowfish:
■ LIVE in Charleston
2006 | The Homegrown Concert Event
■ Looking For Lucky
2005 | Vanguard Records
■ The Best of Hootie & The Blowfish: 1993-2003
2004 | Rhino/Atlantic Records
■ Hootie & The Blowfish
2003 | Atlantic Records
■ Scattered, Smothered, & Covered 2000 | Atlantic Records
■ Musical Chairs
1998 | Atlantic Records
■ Fairweather Johnson
1996 | Atlantic Records
■ Cracked Rear View
1994 | Atlantic Records
The band’s debut album, including “Hold My Hand,” “Let Her Cry,” and “Only Wanna Be With You,” sold more than 16 million copies (and counting) in the U.S. alone.
1993 | Fishco
■ Hootie & the Blowfish (Demo)
1991 | Fishco
■ Learn to Live
2008 | Capitol Nashville
Rucker’s debut country album hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country Music Charts, as did his hit single “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It.” “It Won’t Be Like This for Long” reached the Top 10.
■ Back To Then
2002 | Hidden Beach Records
Including “Sleeping In My Bed” with Snoop Dogg
Hootie & the Blowfish Soundtracks/Compilations
■ Please No Profanity (1992) “Drowning”
■ AWARE II (1994) “The Old Man and Me”
■ White Man’s Burden (1995) “Sweet Dream Baby”
by Roy Orbison
■ Friends Television Series (1995) “I Go Blind” by 54-40 ■ Enconium, A Tribute to Led
Zeppelin (1995) “Hey, Hey What Can I Do” by Led Zeppelin
■ Sweet Relief II (1996) “Gravity of the Situation” by Vic Chestnutt
■ 1996 Grammy Nominees (1996) “Let Her Cry”
■ A Very Special Christmas 3 (1997) “The Christmas Song”
■ Mad About You: The Final Frontier (1997) “She Crawls Away”
■ The Bob Dylan Tribute (1998) “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” by Bob Dylan
■ The Civil War, The Complete Work (1998) “Freedom’s Child”
■ Atlantic Records The Gold Anniversary Collection (1998) “Hold My Hand”
■ Message in a Bottle (1999) “Only Lonely”
■ The Absolute Hits Collection (1999) “Hold My Hand”
■ Today Show, Summer Concert Series: Vol. 1 (2000) “Hold My Hand”
■ Music from and Inspired by Jesus: The Epic Mini-Series (2000) “City by a River” by Hootie & the Blowfish, featuring Bebe Winans and the Gospel Mission Choir
■ Me, Myself & Irene (2000) “Can’t Find The Time To Tell You” by Bruce Arnold, originally performed by Orpheus
■ Stop Handgun Violence (2000) “Lovely Day” by Bill Whithers
■ Shallow Hal (2001) “This Is My World” performed by Darius Rucker
Darius Rucker on Other Artists’ Albums
■ Honor Among Thieves by Edwin McCain (1995); duet on “Solitude”
■ Blue Roses From The Moons by Nanci Griffith (1997); duet on “Gulf Coast Highway”
■ Dust Bowl Symphony by Nanci Griffith (1999); duet on “Love at the
Five and Dime”