To understand country and pop star Darius Rucker, one must understand his beloved hometown, Charleston, South Carolina. He grew up in a neighborhood grounded in family, friends and the church. His sister still lives in the house he grew up in and among his best friends are the five he’s known since kindergarten.
It was that close knit group and their parents, including Rucker’s mother Carolyn, a nurse, who were all just “trying to make it in the world” that helped form Rucker’s early years. Those parents, he says, “simply refused to let any of us fall by the wayside.”
And, none of them did. Rucker realized his dream of being a singer — except he thought he’d be signed by Berry Gordy Jr. at Motown instead of become a country singer signed by Mike Dugan of Capital Nashville.
To date, Rucker has released four country albums (Learn to Live, Charleston, SC 1966, True Believers and Southern Style) that have gone to the top of the charts. He is currently recording his fifth. He kicks off his tour, Good for a Good Time Tour, in June. He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and won a Grammy Award for Best Country Solo Performance for “Wagon Wheel.”
"As a kid, I was big into Al Green, Gladys Knight and the Pips but as I got older I started listening to all sorts of music, including country," he says. "I’m doing what I always thought I’d be doing, making records and touring.”
After a sensational career with Hootie & the Blowfish, in 2008 Rucker turned his sights and distinctive baritone toward country music. Whether singing rock, pop, country or R&B, Rucker says it's ultimately about connecting to the emotion of the song. “Whenever I sing any of those genres, I’m singing about what the music makes me feel," he says. "Now, when I write country songs, there is a difference because a country audience wants a story every time. They want a movie or a book put into three-and-a-half minutes. They want to feel connected. With rock you can write about anything. There are rock songs I still don’t know what they’re singing about, but you want to get up and dance.”
Rucker approached breaking into the tight-knit country music scene the old fashioned way. He hit the road and visited 115 country radio stations. “I went in shook hands, signed records, kissed babies," Rucker remembers. "It was just me and they realized that I loved country music. I wasn’t some pop guy coming in and doing a pop song with a slide guitar.”
His deep connection to country music helped him forge relationships with audiences. He heard stories that when pop singers who went country were asked to name their favorite country artists their answers would be the marquee names. “They’d say Dolly Parton or Kenny Rogers. I love them too but I talked about Radney Foster, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, more of the fringe artists," says Rucker. "They knew I knew country music and loved it.”
Surprisingly, Rucker didn’t think about being an African-American in a mainly white format until he became successful in it. His first album produced three hits. “When that happened, the Billboard article would say that it was the first song by an African-American to hit the Top 20 since the 80s, then make number one," he says. "I’m proud to be following Charley Pride but he was in the 1980s.”
Rucker was the first African-American artist to win the New Artist of the Year Award from the Country Music Association, only the second to win any award from that association. He is the third African-American inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. “Just talking about that still gives me chills,” he says of the 2012 induction. “When I came to Nashville, I didn’t know if I was going to be accepted or thought of as a carpetbagger. I worked my butt off and always played the Opry. So being inducted was an acknowledgement that I was part of country music.”
With the exception of paying tribute to the victims of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston in 2015, Rucker doesn’t use his platform for political or social causes. “I know who I’m voting for but I don’t want some 18-year-old Darius Rucker fan voting for my candidate. I want that person to understand the issues and vote for what he or she believes in. I had to speak out on Charleston because that was my hometown.”
He doesn’t downplay racism. “I’d be lying to say I’ve not experienced a lot of racism in my life; it’s very much alive. I don’t let it bother me. I couldn’t be the singer I am if I didn’t let it go,” he says. “And, the thing that’s wild is that it’s not just coming from the white side . . . Believe it or not I’ve had black folks tell me I should not be doing country. That’s stereotyping. It’s both sides.”
Rucker has always broken stereotypes in his musical career. Hootie & the Blowfish was unique because it was a white Southern rock-pop band fronted by an African-American. It started when Rucker attended the University of South Carolina where fellow student Mark Bryan, who was 18 to Rucker’s 19, heard him sing and suggested they play music together. Hootie & the Blowfish, with Dean Delber, was formed in 1986.
“At first it was just let’s play music, drink a lot of beer and meet girls,” he says. After a couple of years of touring the band got into a massive fight while interviewing drummers [Jim “Soni” Sonefeld joined in 1989]. “I don’t remember what started it but it was big," he says. "That is when we decided we were going to make it as a band or die trying. We dedicated ourselves to it.”
The former cover band, with a few self-penned songs, wrote all their own songs, hired a lawyer, accountant, manager and took themselves seriously.
They scored a record deal but even the label didn’t have high hopes. Grunge ruled and the melodic tunes of a band that looked they like still belonged in a Southern fraternity weren’t exactly marketable.
A radio station in New York played one of their songs — twice. But, as they say, all it takes is one. David Letterman, driving home on a Tuesday, heard the song, pulled over, called his staff and told them to book the band. The band appeared that Friday night and by Saturday the whole world knew and wanted some Hootie & the Blowfish.
Rucker, both with the band and as a solo act, played Letterman throughout the years, including the last week of Letterman’s show. “I would not be here 20 years later if David Letterman hadn’t taken a chance on this kid," he says. "He loved us.”
The experience taught him a lifelong lesson: “I’m good, the band was good and our songs were good. But everyone is good. It also comes down to being in the right place at the right time. Yeah, I’ve managed to stay where I am, but luck helps a lot.”
Hootie & the Blowfish ended up being one of the best selling bands of the 90’s, with five studio albums, 16 songs on the Billboard charts and winning best new artist at the Grammy Awards. Cracked Rear View was certified platinum 16 times.
When not touring, Rucker is home or on the golf course. He lends his time and name to causes such as Medical University of South Carolina’s Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital and Pattinson’s D.R.E.A.M. Academy, which helps children with disabilities, both in Charleston, and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis. In addition, the band unites several times a year for various charities, often for education.
From the time he was a lad in Charleston, all Rucker wanted to do was play music and tour. Starting from his college days to national stardom with a pop band to new heights with country music, Rucker has shared his musical soul and talents with millions.
“I love making music and I love touring. I love that I get to wake up and play music. I don’t like being away from my wife and kids,” he says. “I play music and then go back to Charleston, which as I always say, is home.”