With a Little Love, and Some Tenderness

How Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker remade himself as a country star.

Musician Darius Rucker performs onstage during 2013 Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival.

Darius Rucker performs onstage during 2013 Stagecoach: California’s Country Music Festival on April 28 in Indio, Calif.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Stagecoach

This may come as a surprise to you, but I don’t typically think much about Hootie & the Blowfish, at least not any more than I think about the Spin Doctors, Sister Hazel, or G-Love & Special Sauce. Which is to say, I don’t think about them at all. Sure, I bought Hootie’s first album, Cracked Rear View, when I was 10 years old, and this, without question, was a positive experience. I listened to that improbably catchy single, “Hold My Hand,” on repeat, and I grinned and sang along and, overcome with the religious ecstasy of a gospel-inspired chorus, may have even danced a reckless, unironic jig. Then somebody told me it was 1994; apparently Hootie was about as cool as a pair of neon rollerblades; and I was left with little choice but to publicly sacrifice the album in front of my friends. We played hockey with the CD in the schoolyard, but not before I wrote, “this band sucks rockets” on the cover.

Hootie was a victim of the times—born 20 years too early. Unabashedly sweet and wholesome, the band was grunge’s antithesis, destined to become a cultural punch line just as quickly as they became a hit. If they were born now, they might be right at home opening for Mumford & Sons. But in an era of distortion, disaffection, and punk gestures, they were the sunny, preening virgin in a country dress, beloved by the sort of sensitive meathead who belts “Drops of Jupiter” with his backslapping buddies at 3 in the morning. What’s more, their lead singer, Darius Rucker, is black, which called attention to the band at a moment when gangster rap was ascendant. Rucker was thus playing the wrong kind of white music and the wrong kind of black music.

For his trouble, he was thoroughly mocked, perhaps most acutely by Saturday Night Live. A year after Hootie’s debut, in a sketch described in the Times by critic Ann Powers, Rucker was portrayed by Tim Meadows “as a gimme-cap-wearing, beer-swilling Louis Farrakhan, leading a nation of white fraternity boys in a boisterous march to celebrate their solidarity in privileged obnoxiousness.” In retrospect, however, he might have been the only real punk act in the United States of America, a true nonconformist defying every cultural expectation. I can’t say I like Hootie much now—I’m not that perverse (or is it courageous?)—but I do respect an artist who remains faithful to his vision, regardless of the times.

Which is not to say Rucker never slipped. In 2002, after Hootie & the Blowfish decided to take a break, he betrayed his core sensibility, and, attempting to get onboard with the zeitgeist, recorded a neo-soul album called Back to Then. He was hardly the only member of his generation to make such a move: After spending years writing friendly coffee shop folk tunes, Jewel suddenly woke up as a sex kitten club banger, the commercial intent calculated, transparent, and shameless. Predictably, Rucker sounded fraudulent, trying to give people what he thought they wanted rather than obeying his creative instincts.

I would have guessed, after this mishap, that Rucker would have called up the Blowfish and embarked on a depressing nostalgia tour of America’s finer regional casinos—50 fans, fatter and balder than they were in college, screaming for the classics, money rolls going off in the background. Instead, he tapped his Southern roots and dove headfirst into country (whereas before, with the Blowfish, he’d stood in the shallow end, the water hardly covering his feet). The result, 2008’s Learn to Live, was as audacious as it was honest—a convincing debut in the genre, and a huge success. The album yielded three No. 1 hits, including the single “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” an upbeat song concerning a man who regrets leaving his woman, tempered by a pedal steel guitar flashing despair into the open spaces. Not exactly groundbreaking territory, but the song felt like the work of an expert craftsman, and made Rucker the first African-American to top the country charts since Charley Pride, in 1983.

Now he’s completed True Believers, his third cowboy record in five years. The album already has a hit—a cover of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.”* Rucker doesn’t mess with the song’s arrangement, or reinterpret the material, which requires no reinterpreting. That work was already done by Old Crowe, who took a Bob Dylan toss-off—a sketch—and, after some tinkering, created a new mainstream folk movement. The song remains a slow, rocking thing, like a docked canoe on calm water, the pretty, elegiac melody colored in with banjo and fiddle. There’s nothing wrong with Rucker’s version, per se, but his voice is too pleasant to adequately express the haunted quality of the lyrics. 

Yet “Wagon Wheel” really stands out because it belongs elsewhere, to the itinerant, Woody Guthrie tradition of American songwriting, while Rucker has more to do with Garth Brooks—his concerns and themes are domestic. Indeed, True Believers is a profoundly domestic album, full of love songs that either celebrate the tiny triumphs of monogamy or assuage its attendant difficulties with hope and optimism.

The title track, for instance, tips the listener off that he is not in for a bumpy ride. Like most songwriters who think it is enough to be earnest—to “sing from the heart”—Rucker is vulnerable to assault by quotation. In this song alone he croons, “We are one heartbeat in the darkness,” and “We are one road when the going gets rough,” and “You were the rock I built my world around.” (In another song, “Shine,” he sings about the ethereal sparkle of a diamond wedding ring.) But Rucker comes by these clichés honestly, and True Believers clearly wasn’t composed with cynics in mind—it was made for a fan base who, one presumes, is not self-conscious about seeking transcendence by way of holding hands. For the rest of us, the album is an irony-free zone, and, like a tanning bed, should only be occupied for so long. But when used properly, the results can be reinvigorating.  

Rucker doesn’t have the cleverness of his pal Brad Paisley, or the McCartney-esque chops of the prolific Taylor Swift. Unlike many of his peers, however, he avoids clutter, giving his songs plenty of room to breathe, build, and swell, the choruses typically a big, joyful, harmonic noise. The effect is reliably exhilarating, as in “Radio,” which conveys the now almost-forgotten pleasure of hearing your favorite song on the FM, and is surely destined to become a summer anthem for giddy teenagers who don’t hate their parents. 

Perhaps most importantly, on True Believers you can detect Rucker’s early exposure to gospel and Al Green; this is a brand of country replete with funky Wurlitzers and B-3 organs. This, also, is a defiant gesture—a feat of integration in a genre known for being, sometimes proudly, sometimes accidentally, monochromatic. Still, for all its apparent exclusiveness, country has always been accepting of squares, outcasts, and has-beens. In country, you live and die by the sound of your song. It’s one reason the genre remains robust in an otherwise diminishing music industry. And it’s why Darius Rucker has a career in the present tense.

Correction, May 23, 2013: This article originally misspelled Old Crow Medicine Show as Old Crowe Medicine Show. (Return to the corrected sentence.)