The Country Music Association nominated Darius Rucker as a New Artist of the Year last week.
It kind of makes you wonder where they’ve been.
As frontman for Hootie & the Blowfish, after all, Rucker has been around since 1986 and has sold more than 20 million albums — including “Cracked Rear View” in 1994, which sold more than 16 million copies in the U.S. and launched four Top 20 singles. He already has a Grammy Award for Best New Artist. But he still counts as a country newcomer.
Rucker’s second solo album, “Learn to Live,” was his first as a country artist — and has made him thank God, and a family that watched “Hee-Haw” when he was growing up, that he’s a country boy. The album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart last year and has launched three chart- — “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” “It Won’t Be Like This For Long” and “Alright” — with a fourth, “History in the Making,” currently on the ascent.
Those made him the first black artist to score a No. 1 country single since Charlie Pride’s “Night Games” 26 years ago, and one of only four acts — along with Clint Black, Brooks & Dunn, and Wynonna — to have their first three singles reach that summit.
And in addition to open airwaves, he also was welcomed with open arms at the Grand Ole Opry, where he’s performed several times.
“The acceptance has been really great, much more than I ever expected,” Rucker, 43, says of his reception from the country audience. “I think part of it is that I’ve been going to Nashville for so long, and I’m on a Nancy Griffith record and the Radney Foster records and I worked with Mark O’Connor. I’ve been writing songs with people there and just have been around the whole country music world.
“It wasn’t that I was part of the scene, but I knew a lot of people that were. So I think when (‘Learn to Live’) came out, it wasn’t like, ‘What’s this guy doing making a country record?!’ I already had some credibility there, and I really love the music.”
That affinity was kindled while Rucker was growing up in Charleston, S.C., where TV’s “Hee-Haw” “was big for us,” while a general interest in music added depth to his appreciation of country.
“I don’t care about genres,” Rucker explains. “I was the one who sat in front of the AM radio and flipped through channels until I heard a song I liked. Back in the early ’70s, mid-’70s, on AM radio there were stations where you’d hear Stevie Wonder, then they’d play Buck Owens.
“And,” Rucker adds with a laugh, “you could always hear (C.W. McCall’s 1975 hit) ‘Convoy.’ I still have the ‘Convoy’ album — on 8-track!”
Later on, however, his country tastes began to expand.
“In the early and mid-’80s,” Rucker says, “I discovered those ‘fringe’ artists like Lyle Lovett and Dwight Yoakam and Nancy Griffith and especially Foster & Lloyd. That was a big, big, big, big moment for me when I discovered Foster & Lloyd; that was the kind of country music I could hear myself singing.”
Country has, in fact, become his home at this point. Hootie & the Blowfish is currently on hiatus, though Rucker — whose first solo album, the R&Bflavored “The Return of Mongo Slade,” came out in 2001 — says the group has not broken up. “We’re still a band,” he notes. “We’ve been doing this more than half our lives. Even if something were to happen and we didn’t play for years, we would still consider ourselves a band.
“We’ll make another record some time down the road. It’s not going to be this year or next year, but I’m sure we will.”
First, however, is likely the task of following up “Learn to Live,” although Rucker says he’s not necessarily going to rush that process.
“The (record company) ... knows how to do their stuff better than I do. I’m just going to keep putting out singles and stay on the road as long as they want me to,” he says. But with 60 songs written for “Learn to Live” and more new material still being written, Rucker is confident he has the goods for whenever it’s time to hit the studio again.
“Really, I’m just excited to be touring and seeing so many people getting into this music I’m making now,” Rucker says. “But I’m ready to start writing and ready to record the next album, too. I want to start building a home for myself in this (country) music.”
Darius Rucker and Luke Bryan perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 17) at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $25 pavilion, $10 lawn. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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