From Hootie to country

by Alison Bonaguro
Special to the Tribune

Published September 16, 2008


Patsy Cline never listened to Hootie and the Blowfish. But frontman Darius Rucker listened to Cline. And what has become of him in the last year would do her proud.

In a call from Los Angeles, where he was taping an appearance on "The Bonnie Hunt Show," Rucker offered to sing every song on the pink "Very Best of Patsy Cline" album right there over the phone. Then he moved on to talk about this new country album of his, "Learn To Live." He's the first African-American since Charley Pride to break country music's Top 10 charts.

On pop stars going country

Jewel and Jessica Simpson threw on cowboys boots and put out "country" albums. So did Bon Jovi. But Rucker knew he had to do more than that. "I didn't feel the countriness of Bon Jovi," he said. "I wanted my first single to be so country that pop radio just couldn't play it." And Rucker's producer Frank Rogers knew that plenty of artists come to Nashville to get back to their so-called roots. "Back in 1990, when things were starting to boom here, even Vinnie Vincent [from Kiss] tried. But some situations are not as honest as others," he said. With Rucker, Rogers could hear in his voice that he was not just a rock guy trying to sing country.

On writing country songs

You can hear more of a Nashville influence than a Hootie influence on every track of the new album. Rucker says the main difference between pop and country is that storytelling is more essential in a country song. "When you can tell a story and make people feel like, 'That's me,' then that's the perfect song," he said.

One of the countriest hooks on the record is in "All I Want." This classic divorce song, heavy with steel guitar, has Rucker telling his ex that she can take everything and leave him nothing. "All I want you to leave me ... is alone," he sings. Rucker and Rogers wrote that song about a half hour after meeting each other. That's chemistry.

On the difference a genre makes

"Recording this album was so different than on my Hootie albums," Rucker said. "The players in country are so good, they just get the feel for the song and get it right so quick. We'd do three takes, and we'd be done."

Another difference is that he's a solo artist now, whereas with the Blowfish everything was collaborative. "Now it's just me. So if it works, it's me. And if it doesn't, that's me too," he said.

He also digs the casual vibe of Nashville. On "If I Had Wings," Rucker said his producer was at the gym and saw Vince Gill and asked him if he'd sing on it, and Gill said yes.

"In pop, you'd have to have your manager call their manager, but this time he didn't have to go through any of that," Rucker recalled.

On the very traditional sound

Rucker's passion shows in the how-country-is-country-enough discussion. "Everybody knows I'm pop, but this time I really wanted people to know it was a country record with a country sound. So my motto in the studio was, 'If you're about to play a note that you think might be a little pop or one that might be too country, play the too-country note,' " he said.

He didn't want to look as if he were trying too hard, though, so Rogers didn't add layer over layer of standard-fare instrumentation. "When Frank was mixing, he didn't put in anything that wasn't important," Rucker said. "Everything had its purpose."

On the fate of Hootie fans

Rucker's fans may have loved him as the Hootie frontman, but will they love him as a country singer? Maybe not. But Rucker's OK with that.

"Some fans were mad," he admitted. "But I mean, just because they were mad didn't mean we [Hootie] were going to go out on tour. We had a good long run, and now I really want to concentrate on my country thing."

And it bothers him when people stereotype country music. "When people say, 'I can't take that whining fiddle,' I always tell them to just listen to a country radio station for an entire day and they're bound to find at least four songs they love," he said.

"Learn To Live" will be in stores Tuesday, and Rucker will be at Joe's Bar, 940 W. Weed St., Sept. 24.


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