On the closing track of his sophomore country album, Darius Rucker proclaims “Sometimes I want to be George Jones, sometimes Charley Pride.” For better or for worse, the changing politics and tastes of mainstream record labels and radio have reshaped the singer’s country career into something that’s less No Show Jones and more No More Tears baby shampoo.
Call it sippy-cup, Lonestar 2.0 or adult contemporary with a twang—regardless of any sarcastic moniker, Rucker does this brand of country music quite well. Forget a mid-life crisis—Rucker must be enjoying a mid-life celebration, which comes through on the joy and ease of Charleston, SC 1966.
Rucker began crafting his second country album just two months after the now-platinum Learn to Live was released, a fact evident in the songs’ similarly safe approach. Nothing here will surprise or challenge current fans, and nothing will draw in Hootie-at-a-Hoedown skeptics. The record’s upbeat messages and wink-wink quips seem tailor-made to complement the keyboard peckings of daddy bloggers and will play seamlessly behind the sizzle of a family dinner preperations.
Cases in point: The Radney Foster co-write “Might Get Lucky” speaks to the challenges of making whoopee in the presence of wee ones. With that narrow window of opportunity, however, also comes a narrow appeal—for anyone sans children, the song turns cheesy and cringe-worthy, complete with a clap-along background. Similarly, cloying opener “This” layers a lyrical Garth Brooks retread over serviceable strains of steel.
While the comfort of family is a major theme, the album finds its best friend in producer Frank Rogers, who shows up as frequent collaborator on the album’s strongest tracks and returns as producer. And what a friend, indeed: Rogers manages to spit-shine the album’s 13 songs into one cohesive, modern country aesthetic that—sonically, at least—sounds fresh and well-developed.
“Love Will Do That” features the album’s three best instruments—Bela Fleck’s banjo, Sam Bush’s mandolin and Rucker’s gleefully gritty voice—in a frenzied ode to love that finally rises above Rucker’s name recognition. Throughout his catalog of country songs, there remains an uneasy feeling that Darius Rucker the voice (not the artist or songwriter) takes precedence over any complete performance. This tune cuts through that haze as an unapologetic, layered romp that transcends a feel-good singing exercise for a full-on musical experience.
“Love Will Do That” aside, songs such as “Whiskey and You,” which lives up to its modern Merle Haggard hype, “I Got Nothin’” and “Things I’d Never Do” shine welcome lights on Rucker’s darker side. Without resorting to stumbling over cutesy references to Chardonnay or awkward comparisons to his lover and a field of wheat, these songs about pain put a much-needed crack in the shiny veneer of the album’s doting domestic bliss.
While he sounds best on these Darius Downer tunes, Rucker’s voice has a well-worn rawness that consistently proves to (barely) be his saving grace from the album’s largely saccharine song selection. Still, it’s hard not to wonder what the talented singer could have run with if he’d been able to make the traditional country album he professed to want.
That potential is perhaps unwittingly lamented on Charleston, SC 1966’s somewhat ironic “Southern State of Mind,” a tune that finds Rucker apologizing for his Southern leanings—in a sense, a reflection on the artistic concessions he has inevitably made for his country music success.