Music freezes moments in time: a song, a kiss, a concert, a group of friends. An album cover, captured forever at that point in its creativity.
Most people wanted Darius Rucker to remain the frontman for Hootie & the Blowfish, the pop-rock band that started at the University of South Carolina in 1986 when Mark Bryan heard Rucker singing in the shower of their dorm. The band’s first album, Cracked Rear View, spent two months at the top of the Billboard charts in 1995 and spawned three top-10 hits. By 2006, the band had sold 26 million records, won Grammy Awards and filled U.S. arenas with screaming fans. But Rucker was ready to sing a different song.
He just wanted to play the music he’d loved since he was a kid. By 2008, Rucker had ditched the rock-star life for more down-home sensibilities, signing as a solo artist with Capitol Nashville records. Despite an industry skeptical of a rock-star crossover – especially an African American rock star – Rucker’s first country album, Learn to Live, caught the public’s attention. The first single, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About it,” went to No. 1, making him the first African American to top the charts since country icon Charley Pride did it in 1983. With two more No. 1 hits, the album went platinum. Now he’s a Grammy-winning country star, finishing his next album and hoping that his new single, “If I Told You,” becomes his seventh No. 1 country hit.
“We still play four or five shows a year together. They are my friends,” the Charleston, S.C., native said of his former bandmates. “I know we will do something again one of these days and I totally get how connected people were with our music. It is a great feeling to know that we mattered to so many people, but country music is my day job now.”
Actually, country music is Rucker’s night job, especially when he’s headlining sold-out shows across the country. That means he’s got plenty of time for his daytime passion: golf.
“Right now, my Handicap Index is 5.6. I can shoot either a 73 or an 84,” he said. “I never know what it is going to be from one day to the next, but I post every score. I am serious about maintaining my handicap.”
Rucker says he tees it up three or four times a week, especially when he is home in Charleston. The devoted family man is happiest there, with his wife, Beth Leonard, and the children, Caroline, 21; Daniella, 15; and Jack, 11.
Aside from the whole living-out-our-fantasy role model, Rucker is just a guy who thought he was going to be a sportscaster. As he prepared to play a show at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. – “I love playing here because it’s close to where my wife grew up” – Rucker talked music, golf and sports:
1) Your new song, If I Told You, seems deeply personal. Is this the most you’ve shared in your country work? What will the rest of the album be like? When is it due?
We went into the studio to start working on the album. In our first session, we recorded six songs and “If I Told You” just shined from the start. It is so well-written [by Ross Cooperman, Shane McAnally and Jon Nite]. It blew me away. It feels so personal and we started building the album around it. We always try for the best mix of stories to tell, well-written up-tempo songs with some mid-tempo tunes and ballads. We hope to have it ready by early next year.
2) You’ve said that you remember gravitating to country music when you were a kid. Are you home or do you still feel the pull of doing a Hootie & the Blowfish collaboration?
I used to love watching Hee Haw on TV when I was a kid. My brothers and sisters weren’t happy about it, but I just loved the music. Back then, it was easier to listen to a lot of different music. I had an AM radio and listened to Al Green, Kenny Rogers, Stevie Wonder, Charley Pride and Cheap Trick – sometimes in the same hour on the same station! That is why it felt so natural to play pop and rock when we started in college. Even when we got popular, I kept saying, ‘Hey, let’s play country music.’ The guys were like, ‘I don’t know about that…’ In 1999, I started saying that I was going to make a country record, but I just thought it would be me and some friends and it wouldn’t sell.
3) What does your success with country music, including your membership in the Grand Old Opry, mean to you?
It’s hard to put into words. It was scary. There were a lot of people, then and now, who didn’t believe it would work, including me. The fans have been so supportive. It’s about the music, not the color of the person playing the music. To be one of three African Americans in the Opry is such an honor. I always say that nothing I deal with is close to what Charley and DeFord Bailey endured.
4) How did you get started playing golf?
I was 14 years old. I spent a lot of time with my friend, Rick Johannes. His dad was a captain in the U.S. Navy, stationed at the base in North Charleston. That family was a huge part of my upbringing. I was at their house for dinner and they were talking about playing at Wrenwoods Golf Course on the base. They said, “Darius, do you want to come with us?” His dad said, “You are coordinated. Hit it hard and hit it far. Then do it again.” I was hooked right away. Rick is a doctor in Boston and we get together whenever we can. I talked to his dad recently; he taught me about many things. I especially owe him for getting me into the game.