When Darius Rucker made the jump to country music in 2008, it was a move that surprised many at first. After all, as the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, Rucker was known as a rock singer and pop star. If you listened to both projects, though, it became clear that this was a fairly simple transition. After all, Hootie's forte was story-driven songs that could easily be stripped back to their acoustic base and still stand strong on their own.
As such, the transition into the country market was a relatively smooth one. According to Rucker, he was just happy to be writing again and, as a native of South Carolina, country was just as much a part of his musical vocabulary growing up as pop or soul.
Perhaps he explained it best last January, as he came to Tulsa as an opener for Lady Antebellum. At that time, Rucker told me, "It's not like it's all that different -- I always felt like Hootie was about as close to country as you could get and still be pop."
With the current trends in contemporary country, Rucker's songs fit the format incredibly well, presented with a pop polish but more poignant lyrics than many of his peers. As such, his success in the country market was immediate and more than a passing fancy. His first two albums charted five No. 1 singles, all of which he co-wrote. Rucker also garnered ASCAP Song of the Year accolades for "Alright" and "I Ain't Got Nothin'".
Last year proved to be a busy one for Rucker as he not only toured with Lady Antebellum on one of the biggest country tours of the year, but also spent a considerable amount of time in the studio. Before diving into his third country album, however, Rucker got a phone call to accompany Lionel Richie on a track for Richie's country album, Tuskegee.
When asked about receiving what one could only imagine was an opportunity he couldn't turn down, Rucker laughed as he shared, "Yeah, it was pretty much 'Of course -- I'll cancel everything else to do it.'"
As the year progressed, Rucker began work on his next album, which is due to be released later this year. The title track, "True Believers," was released late in 2012 and proved to be a perfect slice of what he has become known for: a touching story delivered with a sense of hope and Rucker's velvety smooth baritone.
The follow up single, however, came as something of a surprise as Rucker chose to cover "Wagon Wheel," the song that Old Crow Medicine Show penned around the original demos and song sketches by Bob Dylan.
When asked about his decision to tackle the song, Rucker said, "It all came about rather innocently. I was at my daughter's high school talent show and the faculty band got up and played 'Wagon Wheel.' Everyone responded really well and I go to thinking, there's a whole generation that hasn't heard this song, so it would be great to have it on my album and hopefully expose it to another generation of listeners."
Rucker's version stays true to the original, although it packs in a couple of guests to add to its impact. Charles Kelly and Hillary Scott (of Lady Antebellum) add background vocals to the song and additional friends appear on the new album, including Sheryl Crow and Dave Haywood. Of course, Rucker has made appearances on other artists' albums as well, so I had to ask if when working on his album, he ever felt like it was time to call in his own favors and "cash in his chips," so to speak.
Rucker laughed at the notion and agreed that it might cross his mind, if only a little.
"The funny thing with that is it really all comes together after you record," he shared. "With 'Wagon Wheel,' we'd already finished recording it and came back and decided it needed some background vocals. The first people I thought of for the song were Lady Antebellum. The thing is, in country music and Nashville, you don't really have to go through managers - you just make a phone call. Two days later, they came into the studio and it was all done and finished."
Making a guest appearance and recording a new album weren't the only big events for Rucker in 2012, however. In October, he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. When asked about the experience, Rucker's delight was still evident. "As soon as I started, becoming a part of the Opry was one of my goals, so it's really special. I love it and being a part of it. I grew up listening to country music, so I've always looked up to the Opry. It was one of my bigger goals, and it's been great.
Even with a busy year in 2012, the new year promises to be even bigger for Rucker. His latest album, True Believers, is finished and scheduled to be released in May, coinciding with his first headline tour, which was just announced last week.
When asked about tackling a headline spot, Rucker said "I've been opening for five years now -- and don't get me wrong, I've loved it and would be happy to keep doing that, but it really just comes time to headline. I'm looking forward to it, because we've got a great lineup. It's me and Rodney Atkins, Justin Moore and Jana Kramer. Rodney's a great guy and has a new album coming and Jana is really hot right now and doing well. And Justin's my boy, so this tour should be a lot of fun. I'm really excited and looking forward to it."
The True Believers tour kicks off on May 9 in Florida and will run through June 30, with Rucker's new album currently scheduled for release on May 14. Before tackling his first headline tour, however, Rucker will be fine tuning his live show with a handful of additional dates, including an appearance at the Stagecoach festival in April.
The current schedule calls for a batch of smaller, more intimate shows, however, including a stop at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino this Friday night. This show will be a great opportunity to hear a cross-section of Rucker's solo hits and preview tunes from the forthcoming album, as well as a couple of hits from his Hootie days, slightly rearranged to fit his country show. A limited number of tickets are still available as of press time for the 8pm show, with prices ranging from $50 to $60.
If you've yet to catch Rucker as a solo artist, now is the perfect time. When discussing the new album, Rucker said, "I wanted it to sound a little different, so it's a little more country than the first two albums. I think this one is better than what I've done before. I really took my time to get what I wanted, and I'm really proud of it." When paired with a year that saw him inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, all the pieces are coming together as he really finds his comfort zone. As a result, 2013 should be even bigger, vaulting him to the next level as one of country music's latest superstars.
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