By Brian Ives
“If I Told You” continues Darius Rucker’s string of successful country singles; he’s enjoying one of the few great “second acts” in the music industry. Many other singers have tried to transition into country, but Rucker is one of the few who has pulled it off. In this extensive interview, he discusses how he did it, as well as what the future holds for Hootie and the Blowfish.
What’s the story behind your new song with Robert Randolph, “Love Do What It Do”?
I’ve been a Robert Randolph fan forever, since 2001. I just thought he was so cool; you don’t see a black kid playing the slide the way he plays. No one plays like Robert. I’ve been a fan forever, and we met a few times, we were friends, and he came to me with that song, and I loved it. It’s so funky, man. Just hearing him, what he plays on the slide, there’s nobody like that guy. Nobody. And Robert’s shows are just great because that band is so good. You can tell they’re family members. You can tell they’ve all known each other a long time, and they’re so tight. The jam band thing is just never thought out, and they just go with it.
They’re often classified in the “jam band” scene, but they’re really on another level. A lot of jam bands, after a while, you forget what song they’re playing.
I was totally into the jam band things, went to see everybody, but that’s so true. They get lost sometimes in what the song is, and it’ll be twelve minutes in and you’re like, “Okay, what song are they playing again?” I love jam bands, but I still like a three and a half-minute rock song. That’s still what gets my rocks off. But Robert, his feel is so good, and the band is so with him that you always know exactly where you are.
In the song “If I Told You” the line, “‘The man I got my name from, I don’t even know where he is now,” is pretty heavy.
Being a guy who grew up without a dad, that was a line that caught me instantly. I think it’s the second line of the song, and it caught me instantly. “The man I got my name from, I don’t even know where he is now.” I thought, “That’s my life. I’ve lived that life since I was a baby.”
And “What if I told you sometimes I lose my faith, I wonder why someone like you would talk to me.” To this day that’s how I feel about life. That was the thing that just kept coming back every time I heard a line, I went, “That’s me. That’s me.”
And that’s why it was so easy to sing that song for me. When we started cutting it I felt like I’d written it, and I didn’t, but it was one of the songs I felt like, “I wrote this song.”
There are probably lots of people who also feel like that they’ve lived that line, people who didn’t grow up with their fathers.
People come up to you, and when you talk to people at the shows they start telling you stories about—and even like young couples with this song, telling you stories about “I told him who I really was, and he left me.” And that for me, that’s the whole gist of the song, “Will you love me anyway?” Because everybody’s got problems. Everybody’s got problems, and if you’re gonna leave somebody because they have problems, you’re gonna be alone for a long time.
You’ve said that the demo affected profoundly, and you compared it to the Black Crowes’ “She Talks To Angels.”
Oh, yeah. “She Talks to Angels” is one of my all-time favorite songs. It was the song that inspired me to write “Let Her Cry” back in the day. [Black Crowes singer] Chris Robinson’s so in love with the girl in “She Talks to Angels.” You can tell by the way he sings it, by the way the words are that “Yeah, this girl’s a heroin addict, but I love her.”
And this song was that for me, and it wasn’t so much the drug thing as this guy’s got real problems, whatever they are. Dad left when he was a kid, he had a hard life, he doesn’t wanna stay where he is, wants to get out of this town, but really wants you to come with him. And asking the girl, “Will you love me anyway?”
You’d said that you wrote “Let Her Cry” with Bonnie Raitt in mind.
Oh, totally. When I wrote “Let Her Cry” I was telling myself I’m writing “She Talks to Angels,” and I’m gonna give it to Bonnie Raitt to cut it someday. I was still playing to 400 people in clubs. I’m a huge Bonnie Raitt fan, always have been, and back then I was really into Give It Up  and Home Plate . I was listening to them every day. I just remember sitting down at my 4-track and saying, “I’m gonna write ‘She Talks to Angels’ for Bonnie Raitt,” and it ended up being “Let Her Cry.” I didn’t know her personally, but in my mind she was gonna cut “Let Her Cry” someday. It’s so funny, every time I see her I always think of Chris Robinson, I have to thank them for my GRAMMY. Because I was like, “This song’s for you, Bonnie.” Even still when I sing it I hear Bonnie singing it.
She does a lot of covers…
Oh, if she cut that song, I might retire. That might be the ultimate bucket list for me if she ever did that.
So you said that “She Talks To Angels” inspired you to write “Let Her Cry.” Did the demo of “If I Told You” inspire you to start writing more songs?
Yeah. Actually, it really did. I think this is the first record of all my country records there’s a song or two I wrote by myself on them just because that demo get me to start writing songs. Really, I was listening to songs like that and, “I should’ve written that song.” It started me back going home and sitting down with my guitar and just writing songs again. I loved it.
Is that why the album has been delayed?
Yeah, and I had a record kind of ready, but I started getting outside songs too that were like, “Wow.” Then I wrote a couple things that really blew my mind, and I really wanted them on the record, so we had to go back and cut those and mixing and all that stuff takes time. So yeah, it was one of those things where we were about ready, but then I was like, “Hold on a second. I don’t think I’m ready yet.” The label’s always pretty cool with me, so we went back in the studio.
So when will it be out?
I think it’s gonna be out in the middle of the summer, maybe at the end, but I think August at the latest.
Your upcoming list of tour dates looks like you don’t have time to go into the studio for weeks on end.
See, I don’t like going in for weeks anymore. That’s a rock ’n’ roll thing. I like going in for a couple [of] days because when we went in for the first batch of songs we cut seven songs in one day, and they were all great. When the musicians are just that good, you’re just cutting songs.
And then with the second batch, I’d written a couple songs with Dean Dillon that blew my mind. Dean Dillon and Josh Thompson, we wrote together, and it blew my mind. I wanted to put those on the record.
The hard thing about going in the studio was doing the vocals—because the music—you just go in and these cats are crazy. They’re crazy musicians. I’ll never forget making my first [country] record. With Hootie, we’d do a song a day or something. And I’m in making my first [country] record, and the guys had never heard the song before. And we give it to them and they play it four times, and the producer goes, “All right, let’s do some overdubs.” I’m like, “We’re done?” It sounded great, but we’re done, and then you go and you have a record.
There doesn’t seem to be a huge different between country music and what you were doing in Hootie & the Blowfish, but, culturally, the country music business is much different than any other part of the music business. On top of that, you were going from being the guy who sold twenty million albums to being a rookie.
I was a rookie. We finished the last Hootie tour, and I was making my [first country] record during the last Hootie tour, and we were still playing arenas. We were [still] doing well, playing arenas. And I get off the Hootie tour and I have to do a radio tour. I’m telling you, when Hootie was as big as we’d ever been, I didn’t know anybody in radio. You’d go visit a radio station or they’d come visit you during a show, but it wasn’t like you were friends.
And I went and did a radio tour for country, and I went one hundred and ten radio stations or something. And people wanna be your friend. You’re exchanging numbers, and you’re becoming friends. To this day I have people that when I went to see them told me, “I thought I’d never play you,” who were my best friends in the business.
And it really freaked me out, I’ll never forget this: finally I finish the radio tour and my single is coming out, and I take the Brad Paisley-Dierks Bentley tour. And we were in an arena that I’d played six months before with Hootie and the Blowfish, and here I am being a baby band. I was the first band, played thirty minutes at the beginning of the show on the Dierks Bentley-Brad Paisley tour. And I remember walking onstage just laughing, going, “Man, I’m back to square one.”
But it was worth it. I think it was why I had success because I was willing to go back to square one and do the things I needed to do and didn’t walk in saying, “Hey, man, I’m Darius from Hootie and the Blowfish, you all should be playing my records.” I went in and shook hands and kissed babies and said, “Hey man, here’s my record. If you like it, play it; if not, I understand.”
There’s been a lot of non-country singers who have tried to throw their hat in the ring, if you’ll excuse the expression, of country music. It hardly ever works. But your first country single went to number one.
Oh, it was truly one of those unbelievable things. We watched it climb the charts. This country thing… I was gonna do [it] in the basement with my buddies because I honestly didn’t think I could get a record deal. I say to this day that if I was my brother and I was head of Capitol Nashville, and me being Darius, the black singer from Hootie and the Blowfish came into my office and said, “Hey, buddy, hey bro, I wanna make a country record,” I wouldn’t have given me a record deal. I really wouldn’t have. When Doc McGhee got me a record deal with Capitol, it was shocking; it was over a drink and over dinner one night just throwing it out there, and Mike Dungen just happened to think I was a country singer and gave me a record deal.
But even when I got the record deal I was just happy that somebody else was gonna pay for my record, and I was hoping they’d let me make another one. I didn’t expect my first single to go to number one. When we were out there working it and watching it and it did go to number one, it was really one of those things I was like, “Wow, this might happen.”
Then the next single [“It Won’t Be Like This For Long”] went to number one, and then the next single [“Alright”] went to number one. You’re like, “This is actually happening.” And it was unbelievably awesome just to know that I was putting out stuff that people wanted to listen to again, and that was pretty awesome.
But again, your music with Hootie isn’t incredibly different than country music.
I don’t think it’s that much different either. If [1994’s 16x platinum] Cracked Rear View came out today that would be a country record. It would have to be.
I feel like a lot of the artists on country radio, if they came out in the ’70s, would be played on rock radio stations between Bob Seger and Jackson Browne.
That’s the saddest part about looking at pop music today is there’s no place for rock and roll. Even the bands that were once rock are playing pop stuff now to get on the radio. It’s sad because I remember—like the Robert Randolph song that I’m on, I was saying to some of my guys today, I was like, “In the nineties that song would be huge.” That song would’ve been huge in the nineties, man, because there was a place for it on the radio. Now it’s just, pop radio’s so urban-driven and so beat-driven that there’s no room for rock and roll, and that saddens me because I still love rock and roll.
I’ve been in this business for twenty-five years now on the big scale. And I’m still relevant, I’m still putting butts in the seats, I’m still selling records, I’m still getting on the radio, and it’s all because I went to country music.
And I had a hundred times more people tell me it was never gonna work then told me I had a shot. I could probably count the people that really said “you have a shot” on one hand. I look back at it now and I’ve had a great career. Even if right now it was over, I had a great career, a career like not a lot of people can say they had. Reinventing yourself is one thing when you’re doing it in the same genre of music, but to actually throw that thing out there, that lifeline and everybody saying, “Never gonna work, never gonna work, never gonna work” and to have it work is pretty cool.
The odds against having a career in music—even as a studio musician, much less as someone who sings hit singles—are huge. And even when you started Hootie there weren’t a lot of rock stations playing bands with black singers.
And when I started in Nashville there wasn’t any African Americans on the radio doing any. Maybe Cowboy Troy on a couple Big and Rich songs. And so trust me, I had people that right now if I had a record that needed to go number one I could call them and go, “Hey man, will you spin it again?” and they’ll spin it two times in a row. But when I came on, some of those same people told me, “I truly thought I would never play it.” I had one guy tell me “I didn’t think my audience would ever accept you.”
I was like, wow. Because I’m always a believer that music’s music. Great music will always rise to the top if you give it a chance. It was an uphill battle. That radio tour did wonders for me, just to walk in there and let people know this is who I am, and sit down with them and go to dinner with them or go to lunch with them and talk to them. That was huge. That really got people on my side that wouldn’t have been on my side.
It was pretty funny for me, because the people who are in country radio in the mid-nineties, there’s something I didn’t know. There was a decline in country radio in the mid-nineties, and people blamed Hootie and the Blowfish. And I didn’t know that, and I was like “Really?” It was like, “Yeah, we blame you guys for taking our audience away.” I was like “Wow, okay. Hope I can bring a couple people back I guess.” But that was crazy, because our music wasn’t that much different than country music.
At some point, once your first single blew up, you had to have the talk with other guys in Hootie & the Blowfish and let them know that the country thing is getting serious. Did you have to say something like, “I don’t want to break up, but I don’t know when I’m coming back”?
No. I honestly got lucky, because we toured, we went out every summer. That was our job, that’s what we did every summer. And one of the guys in the band just out of the blue said, “Hey man, I’m tired of touring every year.” And if that hadn’t happened we’d probably still be doing the same thing. When that was said to me I just remember thinking, sitting on the bus thinking, “Well, I guess I get to do my country record now.”
And once it started taking off it wasn’t really any conversation to have. That was my day job, this is what I’m doing. And the next time we did something with Hootie it would be a one-off, or it would be just a thing we’re doing just because we wanted to do it. Country music is my day job now.
You guys do a few gigs every year. Will you ever do a new record or a new song?
Someday I’m sure we’ll do something, and I really think we’ll all know when the time is right. I don’t think anybody feels like the time is even close to right, right now because of where everybody is in their lives and what I’m doing in my career and everything. It’s just like everybody’s doing fine, everybody’s good, everybody’s happy. But I think that time the four of us realized, “All right, let’s do it one more time. We’ll do it one more time.”
I truly believe we’re gonna know. It’s gonna be one of those things we’re all together and somebody goes, “I got this song,” or we know, “Okay. Let’s start working on this and get this done and get a manager and get a label, and let’s go do this.”
But right now we’re just so content with the three or four shows a year, and I’m out all the time. And like Soni [drummer Jim Sonefeld]said, “You’re out keeping Hootie and the Blowfish alive.” When I play those three or four songs I play, people are reminded of what we were and what we did.
The BBC recently did a Genesis documentary, and they were asking [keyboardist] Tony Banks about Phil Collins’ solo career and all of his success on his own. And he says, “He was our friend, we wanted him to do well.” Then he pauses and says, “Not that well.”
[Laughs] I could imagine that in their really truest moments somebody might say something like that.
It seems like you’ve been accepted by country music for a long time, but it was very cool that they included you in the “Forever Country” video last year.
Dude, I can’t tell you how amazing that made me feel as an artist, because it’s a Who’s Who of country music. And the fact that I was one of the people asked to be on that… I thought I was part of the family before that; I thought I was in before that. But when I was asked to do that I really felt like I’m doing something for the fiber of country music. If they would do this song and ask me to be there next to Garth Brooks and Keith Urban and Luke Bryan and Dolly Parton, to be put in that group of people I really felt like I’m doing something right. I’m in: I’m part of country music. I’m part of the history of country music now. Man, you have no idea. It was one of those moments where I teared up, that I was actually part of that.
Charlie Pride was in it too, one of the few other African-American country hitmakers.
Absolutely. Charlie and I are going to be linked together for the rest of our lives no matter what, and I got no problems with that. Anytime you mention me in the same sentence as Charlie I’m winning in that situation. To be on that video that he’s on and Willie’s on, man, I’m actually in this. I’m part of this. Man, that was awesome.
Your experiences are pretty specific to yourself; as a black guy fronting a band and getting massive play on rock radio, and then starting over and doing it again on country radio. You’ve played the blue audiences and to red ones. You’ve covered “God Bless the U.S.A.” and “No Diggity.” What do you know about America – what advice can you give to the country during such a sharply divided era?
The one thing that I’ve really learned about America this last few years is, that outside of politics America’s a pretty cool place. People get along. The one thing that I found in America right now that’s making people not get along is politics. Back in the fifties or forties or thirties, it was like, “I don’t wanna be friends with this guy because he’s black; I don’t wanna be friends with this because he’s white; I don’t wanna be friends with this guy because he’s Hispanic.” Now it’s “I don’t wanna be friends with this guy because he’s a liberal; I don’t wanna be friends with this guy because he’s a Republican,” and that just sounds crazy to me.
But that’s really, what I see about America is the one thing that truly divides us is politics. The one thing that bothers me [is when people say] “You don’t love America if you’re this or you’re that.” I’m like, “Yeah, I love America because I’m that.” That kind of stuff brings us together, but when you start talking politics everything falls apart.
That’s probably changed a lot: in the eighties or nineties—your politics was the seventh or eight most important thing about you. I think there was a lot more animosity between, say, Yankees and Red Sox fans, than people who voted for George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton, or Mike Dukakis or Bush.
You’re so right about that. That’s something that I’ve thought the exact same thing you’re saying is that back in the day it was really sports teams that made people not talk to each other, at least during baseball season. “I’m a Yankee fan, I can’t be friends with a Red Sox fan.” And then politics was way down there [on the list] because you voted for who you voted for, whoever that person was was our president, and we went on. And now politics is number one in those people’s minds. Number one.
The other day on Twitter… every day I put up a song of the day. And it’s just a song I like, it’s got nothing to do with politics, it’s a song I like. It was Valentine’s Day and I put up Bruce Springsteen’s “Valentine’s Day.” And this woman tweeted me. She went, “You’re dividing our country. I don’t like you anymore.”
And I went “Are you kidding me? Because I put up a Bruce Springsteen song I’m personally dividing the country because I put up a Bruce Springsteen song, and you don’t like me anymore because I like Bruce Springsteen?” Wow. That was unbelievable to me. It was unbelievable.
I’m telling you, the only thing that divides us—music brings us together, sports within your community brings you together. In that same community that the sports bring you together, the one thing that divides more people is politics.
Why do you think it’s changed so much in the past few years?
Because politics have become so extreme. Everything’s so extreme now. It’s Trump and Bernie. Most of the country used to be right in the middle and now everybody’s getting on the—I don’t think it’s so much that everybody’s getting on the fringe, I think the fringes are getting so much louder, and that’s causing a big problem.