Darius Rucker says he never counted on reaching a point in country music where he would be a bona fide arena-level headliner. But with his fourth studio album, Southern Style, that’s exactly what’s happened.
This summer will see Rucker and his touring band playing premier outdoor amphitheaters (as well as a few major festivals) as he travels from coast to coast.
“It’s pretty awesome, especially when I remember six or seven years ago starting out and being the first guy on the Dierks (Bentley) and Brad (Paisley) tour and not knowing what’s going to happen, not knowing what’s going to happen with the single, just out there trudging along,” Rucker said in a late-March phone interview. “And now seven years later I’m headlining amphitheaters and arenas and stuff. It’s amazing. It’s more than I ever wished for with this. I just wanted to make a few records. I thought if they’d let me make a couple of records, that would be great. It’s great to have actually been able to make those records and have success.”
Success might be an understatement. Rucker, who first came to fame fronting the rock band Hootie & The Blowfish, made the transition to country music with his 2008 album, Learn To Live.
He didn’t have to worry for long about whether his music would register with country fans. Learn To Live sold more than a
million copies while producing three No. 1 country singles – Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It, It Won’t Be Like This For Long and Alright.
His 2010 second album, Charleston, SC 1966, added two more chart-topping singles to Rucker’s country résumé and went platinum.
Then came the 2013 album True Believers, which cemented Rucker’s place as one of country’s leading men. It’s lead single, Wagon Wheel, topped Billboard magazine’s country singles chart and won a Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance. A follow-up single, Radio, went top five.
Now comes Southern Style, whose March 31 release was preceded by the single Homegrown Honey. That tune is poised to break into the top five on Billboard magazine’s Hot Country singles chart.
Rucker’s official tour behind the new album won’t begin until May, but his Tuesday, April 7, headlining appearance at the 11th annual Drive for Show, Rock Fore! Dough benefit in Evans will provide a preview.
“We’ll definitely put together a set that, if it’s not THE set for (the summer shows) it will be close,” Rucker said. “You know you’re going to play the hits and all that stuff, but you’ve got to figure out what album tracks to play. I want to bring back some songs from the first record, the second record and there are probably four or five songs on the new record that I want to play. So it’s really tough. You’ve got put it all together right so people, they want to hear the songs they want to hear. So you put it together right, but you also want to have a blast and play the songs you want to play … It’ll be fun. I know that.”
Rucker has become a frequent presence at Rock Fore! Dough – this will be his eighth performance at the event that has raised more than $1 million for First Tee of Augusta, a nonprofit that teaches golf to youth.
“It’s been quite a few, between Hootie and me (solo) it’s been quite a few I’ve played. It’s always a good time. That’s why we keep coming back. So every now and then they want to mix it up and have somebody else. We’re always cool with that. We understand that. But for me, it’s just a fun show, it’s a great cause.”
Rucker’s success is especially noteworthy because he’s African-American. The only other major African-American star in recent country history was Charley Pride, who was one of the genre’s leaders from the late 1960s into the early 1980s.
There was talk when Rucker signed to Capitol Records Nashville that he would face long odds to success in country.
“I think there were some people in the business, in country music, that thought it wouldn’t work,” Rucker said. “One guy, I won’t say any names or where he worked, but he was one of my good friends. And he said to me ‘Dude, I just didn’t think it was going to work. I didn’t know if people would accept an African-American country singer. And I was wrong.’
“It’s amazing how universally it’s accepted,” he said. “It’s like it’s no big deal to the fans. It’s like they just hear good music, and when they hear good music, they want to go buy it. And if they like your voice, they’re going to buy it. And if they see you and you’re good, they’re going to come back again. The fans just want music. Ninety percent of the fans, all they care about is the music. So those are the people I’m trying to reach. Anybody that it matters to them, that the color of my skin makes them not want to listen to my music, I don’t want them to listen to my music anyway.”
Southern Style stays true, for the most part, to Rucker’s first three albums, with a rootsy sound built around his warm baritone vocals. But it’s not a carbon copy of his earlier music, either.
For one thing, Rucker considers it his “countriest” album yet.
“I thought all of my last three records were country, but this one just seems to twang a little more than the other three, I think,” Rucker said.
In particular, the frisky Good For A Good Time, with its Texas swing tempo, fiddle and twangy guitar, and the ballad Low Country, with its weeping slide guitar and rustic sound, push traditional country elements to the forefront of the songs.
There’s also a bigger presence of acoustic instruments, such as guitar, mandolin and fiddle.
“I think we got a little more organic with the instrumentation on this record, and I thought that was cool,” Rucker said.
What’s also different is the mood of Southern Style. This is a decidedly upbeat album about good times (on the town or with that special someone), good loving (Perfect is about Rucker’s wife of 15 years and mother of his three children, Beth) and making good music (You, Me, And My Guitar).
“I love True Believers, and it was such an important record and I think it did so much for my career and everything. But it was such a serious record,” Rucker said. “But with this record, it was more let’s have fun. Let’s have as much fun as we can.”