Darius Rucker on country music, race and drugs: ‘I don’t think anyone went harder than us’

Estimated read time 9 min read

Darius Rucker will be the first to admit his memory can be hazy – he says on page one of his memoir that his years as the lead singer of the American rock band Hootie & Blowfish were a blur of fame, drugs and his “close personal friend Jim Beam” – but he’s still armed with numbers. There’s the wild success of the band’s debut album Cracked Rear View, which became the most popular record of 1994 and remains the 11th bestselling album of all time in the US. There’s the backlash to the band’s mid-90s ubiquity and their precipitous downslide in fame, playing to 8,000 people in a 14,000-seater just two years after rocking stadiums. Then there are the odds Rucker faced as a middle-aged Black man trying a second career in country music, when he became the first Black artist to score a #1 hit in 25 years.

Rucker, now in the second decade of his country career and a bona fide Nashville star, deploys these figures and more casually in Life’s Too Short, his new memoir, and in amiable conversation peppered with a barreling laugh. Among them: the number of times he sang Nanci Griffith’s I Wish It Would Rain on his mother’s deathbed (at least 100); the amount his largely absent father asked for when he got back in touch at the height of the band’s popularity ($50k); the number of radio stations he personally visited in 2008 to get his first country single any airplay (110); the number of ecstasy pills bought off a dealer on a whim during a Hootie stadium tour (2,000, for $30,000 in cash – “and we did ‘em all”, he laughs over Zoom from his home in Nashville). “I thought about about taming it down, but then I always said if I wrote the book I was going to tell the truth,” he says of that last stat, “and the truth is when we were going, I don’t think anybody went harder than us.”

The truth is also that Hootie & the Blowfish, though much maligned in its time – too middlebrow, too nice, too fratty – is one of the great American rock bands, and Rucker one of its most versatile, powerful singers. Released in July 1994, three months after the death of Kurt Cobain, Cracked Rear View ushered in a new era of more earnest, ragged roots rock, to word-of-mouth popularity and the chagrin of critics. (“Grunge was beloved by the critics, and we were the band that started the downfall of that. So we had no chance with the critics,” Rucker says matter-of-factly.) Yet the album scored three Top 10 hits – Hold My Hand, Only Wanna Be with You and Let Her Cry – and two Grammys, including best new artist. A college bar band at heart, Hootie’s image was laid-back and unassuming, their music loose, lived-in, unfussy. The type on easy, permanent rotation in my dad’s car, in my friend’s dad’s car, eventually my car. But Rucker’s voice, a full, woody baritone, gave the songs weight. Just listen to Let Her Cry, a bluesy ballad about losing someone to their demons that, as sung by Rucker, feels like a downpour.

Rucker knew he wanted to be a singer from the age of six, when he performed an entire Al Green album for his mother and her friends in the living room with a salt shaker mic. The fourth of five children, Rucker grew up in a crowded, raucous household in Charleston, South Carolina, with little money but constant music. His mother Carolyn was a nurse; his father made very rare, disappointing appearances, though he lived in town. Rucker’s music taste was voracious and eclectic – Al Green, Kiss, REM, Radney Foster. His most prized possession was his boombox, until it was stolen and sold by his elder brother, a drug addict he writes about sparingly. He regularly listened to records dozens of times in a row, memorizing every nuance and breath.

In 1986, at the University of South Carolina, the guitarist Mark Bryan overheard Rucker singing Billy Joel in the shower and invited him to jam over beer; the two started playing impromptu covers out of their dorm. They graduated to a local bar, along with the bassist Dean Felber and eventually drummer Jim “Soni” Sonefeld. Then frat parties, then bigger bars and clubs throughout the south-east. Along the way, the group adopted their distinctive, arguably terrible name, the portmanteau of two classmates’ nicknames. Hootie & the Blowfish started performing original music and gained a regional following through relentless touring and persistence in overwhelmingly white spaces. “I was the only Black face everywhere we went,” says Rucker. (The other band members are white.) “So we had to work harder, and we did.”

A performance on Letterman in October 1994 sent them stratospheric – 1m records a month, an international tour, performing for Frank Sinatra. “We experienced what artists are experiencing now, that viral moment where you’re literally the biggest thing in the world, and then all of a sudden your label backs off and things back off and you’re struggling to get by,” Rucker says. The rise was swift, and so was the backlash. (“Death to Hootie & the Blowfish,” said Trent Reznor to Rolling Stone, for example.) The band’s second album, Fairweather Johnson, released in 1996, sold 2m copies but was considered a flop; ticket and record sales declined precipitously thereafter.

man with a guitar singing on stageView image in fullscreen

Rucker is “at peace” now with their vertiginous arc – “I think anything that big has to experience backlash,” he says – though he’s openly frustrated by critics’ reluctance to reappraise their significance, a glowing 2019 New York Times piece for Cracked’s 25th anniversary notwithstanding. “The fact that it’s been six years, and we’ve never been on the ballot for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? I mean, that’s crazy to me. CNN can do a show about 90s music and never mention Hootie & the Blowfish. That’s crazy to me,” he says. Cracked has just hit 22m units sold all time, he notes. “You just go, okay, that record mattered. People still want it. They still want to hear it. They’re still streaming it.”

As the band wound down, Rucker nursed a longstanding desire to shift to Nashville – a steep hill to climb, given the industry’s wariness of outsiders and general hostility to anyone other than white men, despite the genre’s roots in African American musical traditions. Rucker wasn’t naive; “I’m certain the powers that be in country music have purposely kept Black artists out of the business after Charley Pride,” he writes. The gatekeeping was tough. He frequently heard that white audiences would not listen to a Black country artist. “I’d be in a radio station and somebody would say it to my face,” he recalls. “It wasn’t like they were hiding it – ‘I’ll play your song, but I don’t think my audience will accept a Black country singer.’”

Rucker considers himself lucky. He promoted relentlessly, and found success quickly: his first country single went to number one, as did nine subsequent songs; his cover of Old Crow Medicine Show’s Wagon Wheel is one of the bestselling country songs of all time; he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2012. But country music, as an industry, has been slow to change. Female artists received just 11% of all radio airplay in 2022; women of color and LGBTQ+ artists earned less than 1%. It took until this year for a Black woman to score a No 1 country hit, and that woman was Beyoncé, for Texas Hold ‘Em. Still, Rucker is optimistic at the change he has seen in his time, citing numerous Black artists staking claims to Nashville – Kane Brown, Mickey Guyton, Rhiannon Giddens, Brittney Spencer, Chapel Hart, the War and Treaty, Willie Jones and more. “I want country music to look more like America,” he says. “I think it’s going to keep evolving. I think more and more people of color are going to be getting chances and record deals.” He also recalls advising Chapel Hart, a vocal group of three Black women from Mississippi, to “work your ass off” when they got the chance. “Because we have to work harder than them, we just do.”

man singingView image in fullscreen

The advice is of a piece with how Rucker approaches the subject of race in his memoir – direct but curt, not sidestepping it but not dwelling on it, either. “I didn’t want to come out like I was preaching about all the discrimination that I felt or that was around me because I fought through it,” he says when I ask about it. “Just say what happened and then move on. That’s how I approached it. I don’t want people to come away from this book thinking that I felt sorry for myself or something, because I understood. It’s America. It’s the way it’s always been. Alright, now I gotta just work hard and get through that.”

Life’s Too Short goes up through 2015, when Hootie reunited to perform for the final week of Letterman’s show, and includes figures from “larger than life” moments – a near-drowning experience with Woody Harrelson, a close friend; singing for Tiger Woods, also a friend; Taylor Swift, whom he met when she was coming up in country music; Adele, with whom he performed at the 2010 CMT Awards. He dedicates the book to his family, including his three adult children, and credits Beth Leonard, his wife of 20 years before they separated in 2020, with saving his life. But their lives are their stories to tell, he says. These stories – the dream, the road, the rise and fall and redemption, and most of all the music – were his. “I hope people hear this story and see how honest I was in the book,” he says as we wrap up our conversation. And ever representing Hootie, he adds: “I hope they walk away going, ‘you know, he’s a pretty nice dude.’”

  • Life’s Too Short is out now

Source: theguardian.com

You May Also Like

More From Author