Darius Rucker has always loved country music. He cut his teeth on Buck Owens, and later fell in love with the music of Radney Foster. But while studying at the University of South Carolina, his musical path took a different direction when he joined up with a group of guys who would become one of the best-selling rock bands of the 90s.
As lead singer of Hootie & the Blowfish, Rucker sold over 21 million albums (including 16 million copies of the now-ubiquitous Cracked Rear View). Those albums were steeped in the group’s collective rock influences, to be sure, but they were also laced with Rucker’s country sensibilities.
So consider Learn To Live — his first true country record — an album a long time in the making. 20 years since Hootie & the Blowfish struck its first chord, Rucker is finally returning to his roots.
Jim Malec: Your people tell me you’ve just finished eating brunch. Did you, by any chance, have a Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch?
Darius Rucker: [Laughter] No, not today. But I’ve had my share, needless to say.
Malec: I know you’ve been a fan of country music for a long time. Is there a difference between the kind of country music you grew up listening to and the country music you hear being made today? And if so, where do you fit in to all of that?
Rucker: Of course, country music’s changed a lot since I was a younger kid growing up listening to Buck Owens and stuff like that. I think today the production’s a lot different. I think country’s gotten a little poppier.
I wanted to fit into the more traditional country thing. That’s what we tried to do with the record. We didn’t really want to make a pop record with fiddle and lap steel and call it a country record, so we tried to write really country songs and record ‘em that way.
Malec: Do you feel like you were successful? I know artists sometimes feel a lot of pressure to gloss things over a bit, to try and make the music more commercial. To make things poppier, as you say.
Rucker: No one ever said anything like that to me. For me, it was always “The countrier the better,” and that’s what I always said to the musicians and everyone. Capitol was really cool about it. They let me make the record I wanted to make. I think they were actually surprised when I brought the first two songs in, because it was a lot more country than I think they thought it was gonna be.
Malec: Why is the timing right for this project?
Rucker: Hootie & the Blowfish, we’ve been together for a long time, and we’ve been on the road so much, and it was time for us to take a break.
I’ve been talkin’ about this record with my friends and with my band and with people so long that when I actually finally got the chance, when Capitol gave me a record deal — which still shocks me to this day — I was just really excited, and the timing just worked perfect. And now everything’s going well.
Malec: How is making a country record different than making a rock record?
Rucker: For me, the big difference was that when Hootie & the Blowfish make a record, we might write a song then go out and play it for a few weeks and then come home and go in the studio. And, you know, it’ll take us 12 takes before we have a track that we can use. These country guys, you get in [the studio] and they listen to the song once — they’ve never heard it before — and the third time you play it, it’s perfect. I can make records like that forever. That was fun.
Malec: The good ole’ Nashville Numbers system…
Rucker: Yeah! You know, I’m a guitar player, but that Numbers thing is so far beyond me. Play the 6sus7? OK, man.
Malec: You called playing the Opry among your greatest musical moments. What made that so special for you?
Rucker: Hootie & the Blowfish wanted to play the Opry, but it never happened for us, and it was one of those things that when I got called I was just shocked. And then I get there, and I was doing a sound check — I wasn’t supposed to get a sound check and they gave me one — and I took my guitar out and I was playing Josh Turner’s “Me and God.” It was one of those moments… I got off the stage and went, “I’m playing the Grand Ole Opry.” It was one of the four great musical moments of my life.
Malec: What are the other three?
Rucker: Playing the Apollo. That’s one. Playing with Al Green at the Billboard Music Awards; Al Green came out and we did a medley of “Hold My Hand” and “Take Me To The River,” and that was absolutely unbelievable. And jammin’ with Doc Watson, that was just probably the coolest thing I’ve ever gotten to do.
Malec: I saw the clip of you doing “Me and God,” and as I watched that I thought to myself, “Man, I hope there’s more music like this on the record.” It sounded great.
Rucker: That’s the kind of stuff that’s on my record. The shuffles, the Texas Shuffle. It’s a throwback to the older feel, I think. I just can’t wait for people to get it.
Malec: What’s your favorite country song?
Rucker: Oh God, there’s a lot. I guess right now… I guess my favorite song right now is “Take Me There” by Rascal Flatts. I listen to that every day. That song and “Letter To Me,” by Brad Paisley.
Malec: Tell me about the song “It Won’t Be like This For Long,” which is on the new album. You wrote that for your daughters, is that right?
Rucker: It’s a ballad I wrote for my daughters with Chris Dubois and Ashley Gorley, and it’s one of those songs… we did a radio tour and we played it every day on the radio tour and every day we played it, at least three people cried. And it’s just one of those songs that, you know, parents really can relate to. I’m really proud of that song, actually.
Malec: Will Learn To Live sell 16 million copies? And if it doesn’t, what will it take — sales figures or otherwise — for you to consider it a success?
Rucker: Gold or platinum records are success. That’s the thing I always have going for me, I’m always competing against Hootie & the Blowfish. That’s one thing we have against ourselves, we’re always competing with ourselves. 2 million to most people would be an absolute huge hit, but I guess, for me, people would look at it as not that big a hit because I sold 16 million. So, you know, I don’t really care about that. Success… it’s not really about the record sales, but just when we see if people like it or not. And I’m just gonna wait ‘till that time. I’m not gonna play the expectations game.
But no, I don’t expect it to sell 16 million.
Malec: What is country music?
Rucker: Oh, good question. Country music is life. Country music is a bunch of songs about life. And that’s why I think it’s so great, and why country music fans are so loyal — country singers sing about their lives and about what’s goin’ on. So I would say country music is life.
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