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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Darius Rucker's musical journey from pop superstardom to the country charts

He plays Virgina Tech Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. More information: www.uusa.vt.edu

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In the mid-1990s, there was no pop music act hotter than Hootie and the Blowfish.

From one record -- the multi-platinum selling "Cracked Rear View" -- the South Carolina band had hit single after hit single. "Hold My Hand," "Let Her Cry" and "I Only Wanna Be With You" were major parts of that era's soundtrack.

Who knew that the whole time, Hootie's lead singer, Darius Rucker, was thinking about singing and playing country music? Yet more than a decade past Hootie's glory days, Rucker is back in the charts -- the country charts.

On the same week late last September, his new CD, "Learn to Live," and single, "Don't Think I Don't Think About It," were No. 1 on both the country albums and singles charts. It was the first time since 1983 that a black performer has had a No. 1 country single. That year, Charley Pride was atop the list with "Night Games."

Rucker, who performs Wednesday at Virginia Tech's Burruss Auditorium, said he had thought for years about doing some country, but always expected he would record and release it on his own. He said he was surprised to get a record deal and is shocked at his new success.

"The record I wanted to make is also the record that people wanted to hear," Rucker said in a phone interview from the road last week. "And that's a cool thing."

Radio days

Rucker, 42, grew up and still lives in Charleston, S.C. He remembers sitting with the family hi-fi system and turning the AM radio dial.

"When I was real young, AM radio in South Carolina, you could hear country and R&B, Stevie Wonder and Buck Owens, on the same channel," he said.

"Hee Haw," the country music and corn pone comedy show that Owens co-hosted, was also big for Rucker. But it wasn't until about 1987, when he heard a Foster & Lloyd song, that he was completely hooked.

"That was like hearing R.E.M." for the first time, he said. "Those are days I'll never forget.

"I was just watching TV in my apartment, and there comes on this video for 'Crazy Over You.' And I'm like 'Wow. Who is that? What is that? And I want to do that.'"

Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, New Grass Revival and Dwight Yoakam were other performers who made a big impression.

"Ever since then, I've been talking about doing a record, and I finally got to do that."

But first, he had that pop superstar track to get on. Hootie and the Blowfish had formed by then at the University of South Carolina, and the band was quickly hard at it on the rock 'n' roll dive circuit. A favorite tour stop? The old South Main Cafe in Blacksburg.

"And we played there a million times," he said. He added that a few weeks ago, the band was together and recounted one of their favorite stories.

"We're in South Main Cafe ... and it was a packed crowd. And this girl is right in front of [guitarist] Mark [Bryan], and she is just having the time of her life, but she's hammered.

"She's having fun with the words of 'Let Her Cry.' And we're about to hit the big solo on 'Let Her Cry,' and sure enough, she looks up at Mark and she just throws up right into his monitor. He's playing the solo, and the four of us are onstage just peeing our pants. ... And of course we played the rest of the night with that stench.

"One of my favorite places. South Main was awesome."

Places like that were too small to hold Hootie fans by 1994, when "Cracked Rear View" hit radio stations and the pop charts. And while the band was never able to equal that success, it set them up for life.

Hootie never broke up, but recently the band decided to take a break from touring. Rucker said it seemed like a good time to try to make that country record.

Lucky timing

These days, country music radio doesn't sound that much different than adult contemporary and pop radio stations from the Hootie era. It's a pretty good bet that plenty of people who have bought Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood records also have an old copy of "Cracked Rear View" in their CD collection.

"That's probably why [Capital Records Nashville president] Mike Dungan took a chance and signed me," Rucker said. "I wasn't thinking that way. I just knew that Hootie had been on the road forever and a couple of guys had called a meeting because they wanted to take a break, and I was like, yeah, I'd like to take a break, too.

"I just wanted to make a record that people wanted to hear. That's all I wanted to do."

In between, he made a now-famous Burger King commercial. With a guitar strapped on and dressed like Cowboy Curtis from "Pee Wee's Playhouse," Rucker sang an ode to the Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch sandwich to the tune of the old folk song, "Big Rock Candy Mountain."

"I love the Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch/The breasts they grow on trees/And streams of bacon ranch dressing/Flow right up to your knees," he sang as a wild fantasy scene played out in the David LaChappelle-directed ad.

"I said no for a while," he said of the commercial. "We talked about it and said no and no. But when I really got what they were doing ... I thought it would be cool and funny.

"It's such a parody of what advertising is today. ... If you got it, you got it. If you didn't, you thought I was an idiot."

Making history

Rare is the African-American who even attempts a country music career, much less hits the heights. The aforementioned Pride is in the Country Music Hall of Fame. DeFord Bailey, an early 20th-century harmonica player, was inducted into the hall in 2005, more than 20 years after his death. And that's it for black performers in that hall of fame.

Rucker is finding the going a good deal easier, even as an opening act on tour with well-established acts.

"It's been awesome," he said of country fans' reception. "Right now I'm on tour with Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley, and you would think that when I went on stage that it was my show. Everybody's in their seat, 12,000-seater [concert hall] ... standing up, dancing, partying and having a great time. My 30 minutes is up, and I want to keep playing.

"It's been awesome. And it started from the grass roots. It started from radio."

He said his early radio promotional touring took him to Texas, and he wasn't sure how it would go.

"It was amazing to me, from the time I went in to those stations and took my record to them, nobody had any preconceived notions ... They sat down and listened to it with an open mind and said, 'Hey, that's country.'"

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