Darius Rucker says his current album, True Believers, is the most important album he’s made in his career.
That’s quite a statement for a guy who 17 years ago, as frontman of Hootie & The Blowfish, faced following up the album Cracked Rear View, which sold 16 million copies in the United States alone, and five years ago tackled the challenge of being one of the rare artists to successfully move from rock into the country genre.
But Rucker has his reasons for seeing True Believers, his third country album, as such a high-stakes project.
“When I started in the country world, there were the naysayers that said that I was just going to come in and have a hit and leave,” Rucker said in a phone interview. “This record, I call it my cement record. It’s the record I want to solidify my country career, and I have to let people know that I’m here for the long haul.
“This record had to be great because I felt like it just had to, I’m not the new guy anymore,” he said. “The other records were trying to prove I can be here. Now I’m proving that I belong here and I’m going to be here for the long haul.”
True Believers has probably accomplished that goal. The lead single from the album, Wagon Wheel, topped Billboard magazine’s country singles chart and in February won a Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance. A follow-up single, Radio, went top five.
The top of the country singles chart isn’t unfamiliar territory for Rucker. His first two albums, Learn to Live (2008) and Charleston, SC 1966 (2010) produced five No. 1 singles and each album went platinum, as Rucker gave fans every indication that he was as suited to country as he was to the rock world with Hootie & The Blowfish.
But the greater effort that went into True Believers is an indication that Rucker was making a big investment in the album.
“We really took our time, took a couple of years to get this record, and it was because we wanted great songs,” Rucker said. “I think we had great songs on the other records, but we just tried to take a step up and do something different. And the sound was a big thing for us. We wanted it to sound brighter and come off the stereo.”
Rucker didn’t have the luxury of time with his first two albums. He noted that he was touring with Hootie & the Blowfish when he did the co-writing for Learn to Live. Then with its success, he was under pressure to get a second album finished and released to capitalize on the momentum.
One way Rucker used the extra time he had for True Believers was to do writing sessions with a number of country tunesmiths he had never written with before. In fact, only three songwriters who worked with Rucker on the first two albums have credits on the new album – Frank Rogers (who is also Rucker’s producer), Ashley Gorley and Monty Criswell.
One of the most notable new co-writers is Josh Kear, who wrote Lady Antebellum’s smash hit Need You Now and Carrie Underwood’s Before He Cheats. Rucker and Kear co-wrote the song True Believers and I Will Love You Still.
“I love all the guys I wrote with and girls I wrote with,” Rucker said. “But you know what, I’d hear some songs and go ‘Who was that?’ I want to write with that guy.’ Like with Josh Kear, all that Lady A stuff was so great. I was like ‘Give me that kid. He’s an amazing songwriter.’ That was the whole thing. You want to write with some guys that you know, but I also wanted to spread out and see what I could do.”
Rucker also put himself in a comfort zone by writing at home in Charleston, S.C.
“It was so much more relaxing for me to be able to be in Charleston writing songs and not rushing around Nashville, just really sitting at home taking our time doing it,” Rucker said. “And the big difference was I think with the first record, and even the second record, the guys I was writing with didn’t know me. They didn’t know what I wanted. Like with the first record, we had a big problem with guys coming in with big pop songs, these pop ideas. We were like that’s not what we’re doing. With this record, everybody knew who I was and what I’m doing and what I want to do and how country I want to be. So it was probably easier because everybody knew what I wanted to do.”
For all of the emphasis on co-writing, the songs that might make the biggest impact from True Believers are covers.
Wagon Wheel is one of those songs. It was started, but never completed, by Bob Dylan during sessions for the 1973 soundtrack album to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. That songwriting great is responsible for the refrain, “Rock me mama.” The tune was completed by Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show and became a favorite from that group’s 2004 debut album, O.C.M.S.
Rucker was very familiar with the song, but it wasn’t the recorded version that made him think of covering the tune.
“I heard it at my daughter’s high school talent show,” he said. “The faculty band got up and started playing Wagon Wheel. And I thought, wow, that would be a great bluegrass song to take and make it country. And that was our big goal, the big thing with it. We knew it couldn’t touch the Old Crow version. It’s such a great bluegrass song.”
What really transformed the song was getting the members of Lady Antebellum (whom Rucker had toured with) to sing the background vocals on the song.
“Before they got on it, I really thought it was going to be maybe the last song on the record, to close the record out,” Rucker said. “I didn’t think it would be a single. But then when they got on it, it just went to a whole new level. When you heard it (the finished version), you just knew it could be a really big song,” he said.
Another high-profile guest is Sheryl Crow, whose vocal on Love Without You is a major addition.
“I’ve wanted to sing with Sheryl since October ’94, when I first saw her play. Now here we are 20 years later doing it in the country world,” Rucker said. “Every time I hear that song, when I listen to it in the car, I get chilled because I think she’s so great.”
Rucker is trying to build on the excitement he feels for True Believers with a new run of headlining shows. As a headliner, he’ll have the time to showcase songs from his solo career, plus a few Hootie & The Blowfish favorites – and create the vibe he wants.
“My goal in the whole thing, is to make sure people, if they’re going, (they think) that was a party; I want to do it again,” he said.