CMA New Artist Winner Darius Rucker

By Bob Doerschuk

One of the most surprising moments at the 2009 CMA Awards last November came early in the evening, shortly after Darius Rucker had launched into “Alright,” which along with “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” and “It Won’t Be Like This for Long” adds up to three consecutive No. 1 hits released from his Platinum-selling debut album, Learn to Live.

As if unable to confine his enthusiasm to the stage, he jumped down to the arena floor and, still singing into his wireless microphone, strode past the front row seats, slapping or locking hands with his fellow artists. That was entertaining enough, but when he then climbed up into the stands to greet his fans directly, accepting their back slaps and embraces without missing a note of his vocals, the moment took on an additional and special meaning.

“I just have so much respect for all the artists and everybody that was there,” Rucker said, looking back on that exhilarating performance. “But I wanted to play to the people, to the fans. To do that, I had to go up there. Radio has been amazing to me, and if those people weren’t calling into radio and asking for my songs, I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”

That, in a nutshell, is the story of Rucker’s rise to success as a Country artist, an ascent confirmed by his announcement later that night as CMA New Artist of the Year. Like all who have earned this distinction through the years, Rucker was recognized for the unique talent that he brings to the table an artist — yet in several significant ways, he stands out even in this stellar company. Unlike previous winners, he came to Country Music as a performer already familiar to the general public. And not just familiar: He had earned worldwide recognition as lead singer with Hootie & The Blowfish, who parlayed years of working the Southern bar circuit into a supernova exploding with sales of their album Cracked Rear View topping 16 million copies in the United States alone.

“That was certainly a double-edged sword,” admitted Mike Dungan, President and CEO of Capitol Records Nashville, which released Learn to Live in September 2008. “What was really attractive about it was that Darius has always had an immediately recognizable voice. That is such a valuable commodity in anything, to know what it is right away. The difficult thing was, when you come from another format, and especially when you have the kind of magnificent sales that Hootie & The Blowfish had, there were a lot of skeptics in the world of gatekeepers — Country radio. Several applauded and cheered, but many more did not think we would be able to deliver the kind of music that would get his career up and running. In the end, I think the music itself made fans out of all the skeptics in the radio world.”

“That was a big thing because a lot of program directors were saying, ‘Darius is coming out with a Country record,’” Rucker agreed. “But it was really just an industry thing. I’m sure these people were expecting to hear ‘Hold My Hand’ or ‘Only Wanna Be with You’ with a lap steel or a fiddle.”

But instead of refried Hootie hits, Learn to Live delivered 14 songs, all but one written or co-written by Rucker with a complete and real Country aesthetic, drawn from his eclectic listening tastes while growing up in South Carolina. “In the ’70s you had one or two AM stations in your town that played The Beatles and early Stevie Wonder,” he remembered. “They played it all. And I sang along to it all. I was in my early 20s before I realized that everybody who sings can’t sing everything. I mean, even now I put together a 20-piece orchestra and do all Sinatra songs once a year for the (Medical University of South Carolina) Children’s Hospital in Charleston. But I can’t get out of my brain this old Kitty Wells song called ‘Will Your Lawyer Talk to God?’ I’m cutting it!”

For years Rucker felt the call to draw more Country into his music, especially when it became clear that this wasn’t an option for the band he had helped take to the top. “The last three or four Hootie records, I said to the band, ‘Look, let’s do the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band thing. Let’s go and play Country Music,’” he recalled. “I always thought we were pretty close to it. We listened to it on the side. But they all wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll. I understand that; that’s what we were. But I just wanted to make a record I wanted to make.”

He shared this thought with Doc McGhee, whose client list over the years has stretched from Hootie, Bon Jovi, KISS and Mötley Crüe to Chris Cagle and Jypsi. The legendary manager expressed skepticism at being able to find a major record label that would sign the singer as a Country artist. But as Rucker remembered, that changed during a conversation with Dungan.

“Doc was bragging about how great the Hootie tour was doing, and Mike said, ‘How do you know that?’” Rucker recalled. “Doc said, ‘Well, I manage those guys.’ And out of the blue, Dungan went, ‘I always thought the black guy was a Country singer.’”

“That’s exactly what I said,” Dungan confirmed, with a laugh. “I don’t know if it was so much from the music that I heard them do on the radio, but when I saw them on television Darius felt like he had the sense and sensibility of a Country singer in the way he emoted. The feeling, the phrasing, everything about him felt very comfortable to me, like one of the greatest singers.”

Negotiations led briskly toward Rucker’s welcome to Capitol Records Nashville. The search for a producer ended nearly as quickly, right after his introduction to fellow South Carolina native Frank Rogers. “He came out to meet me on the road in the middle of the Hootie tour,” Rucker said. “Fifteen minutes after we met, we were talking about what kind of record I want to make. I remember saying, ‘I want to make a record that, whether the people like it or not, they have to admit that it’s a Country record.’”

With that assurance, they went to work, beginning with a title that Rogers had come up with: “All I Want.” Forty minutes later they had built a song around it; recorded with Brad Paisley sitting in on guitar, it would make the final cut for Learn to Live.

These performances, and these co-writes that teamed Rucker with Dave Berg, Chris DuBois, Ashley Gorley, Clay Mills, Rivers Rutherford, Chris Stapleton and other celebrated Nashville composers, connected emphatically with Country fans. Specifically, the songs tapped into his urge to tell stories through lyrics. “A Country song is a story song,” Rucker said. “If you have a hit on the radio, it’s a song that says something in its lyrics. You can’t just make up words and have funky chords; it’s not going to work that way. You’ve got to move people.”

Equally important, these songs eased his access to the airwaves with help from Rucker’s willingness to meet PDs and fans face to face on radio tours. That connection, symbolized in the outreach of his CMA Awards performance, was as good a fit for Rucker personally as his talents are to the format that has returned his embrace.

“It’s my personality!” he insisted. “I love talking to people. It’s not a chore for me to go out after a show and meet people. I still can’t believe they want my autograph! Everybody used to say to me, ‘How could you be so happy here? You were in the biggest band in the world!’ But in all that, there were peaks and valleys. All you guys remember are the peaks; we remember the valleys.”

Relationships with fans and peers are central to Rucker’s plans as he starts on his sophomore album, with sessions that began in January and a release scheduled tentatively for the fall. He is, for example, in no great hurry to battle up toward top billing on arena tours. “I’m not interested,” he said, looking ahead to opening for Rascal Flatts on the road. “Sure, don’t get me wrong. I will be headlining arenas, but it doesn’t have to be this year. I just don’t need yet to get excited when we sell out and not excited when we’re half full. I just play.”

“Besides,” he continued, “Country Music is a whole different platform. Country Music fans are going to love you until you give them a reason not to. Pop fans are looking for the next big thing; they’re in awe of you. Country fans want to be your best friend. They walk up to you in Nashville and go, ‘Hey, let’s go have a beer!’ And I say, ‘Well, come and take my picture,’” he said, laughing. “And that’s awesome.”

© 2010 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music association®, Inc.

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