"There are so many people who would like to see me not make it in Nashville," Darius Rucker laments to Rolling Stone. "But that's good motivation."
The Hootie and the Blowfish frontman, who traded pop superstardom for a solo country venture in 2008, has since scored platinum album sales, a CMA award and membership in the coveted Grand Ole Opry, among other accolades. Rucker's country debut, 2008's Learn to Live, proved he wasn't a musical carpetbagger, selling more than a million copies and hitting Number One with its first three country-to-the-core singles. Its follow-up, 2010's Charleston, SC 1966, kept the momentum going with two more songs in the country chart's penthouse and a gold sales certification. But in crafting his new album, True Believers, the South Carolina native refused to rest on his country laurels.
"Every time I make a record, it's make or break time," Rucker says. "I hope I always have that mentality – that's what keeps me fired up. I've got to solidify my place in Nashville, and to do that I've got to keep making records that people want to listen to."
So far, so good. The album's second single, a cover of Old Crow Medicine Show's signature "Wagon Wheel" with Lady Antebellum on harmony, conveniently hit the top of Billboard's country singles charts the day before the project's May 21st release. The classic tune, co-written by Bob Dylan and Old Crow's Ketch Secor, was admittedly a risky choice for radio, but one that certainly paid off in Rucker's quest to retain his A-list country status.
"I was in Walmart about three weeks ago, and this older gentleman came up to me and told me how much he loves 'Wagon Wheel.' He said, 'You know what's funny? That the black guy has the country-est song on country radio!'" the singer-songwriter recalls with a laugh.
"Wagon Wheel" is one of only two tracks on True Believers that Rucker did not have a hand in writing. Many of his co-penned songs pack the project with quite an emotional punch, arguably more so than on his first two solo efforts. There's no shortage of the quintessential heartbreak tunes so adored by country fans, including the lovelorn "Miss You," the melancholy "I Will Love You Still" (with powerhouse vocalist Mallary Hope on harmony) and "Love Without You," a haunting collaboration with fellow country crossover success Sheryl Crow. As for the more romantic songs, there's "Leavin' the Light On," which the father of three calls a "love letter" to his wife, Beth, and the inspirational tune that he deems the most personal on the album, its title track.
"It's about my marriage, but it's also about my career," Rucker says of "True Believers." "When I started this solo thing, it was just me and Mike Dungan, the guy who signed me (to Capitol Records). The day he decided to sign me, he called 13 people who he thought were movers and shakers in Nashville, and 12 of them told him it wouldn't work."
True Believers also has party-friendly songs that are making audiences on the album's namesake tour get out of their seats. There's "Radio" and the infectious "Heartbreak Road," perfect songs for a summer road trip, along with a heartwarming toe-tapper, "Shine." Both the uptempos and ballads showcase a little more grit and a lot more raw emotion in Rucker's voice, which the distinctive baritone credits to simply being more relaxed, as he recorded the album at home.
"I was so inhibited those first two records," he admits. "Recording in Charleston was so different than recording in Nashville. When I'm recording in Nashville, I'm going to work. But when Frank [Rogers, Rucker's longtime producer] came to Charleston to record the vocals, it was wake up, take the kids to school, go play some golf, record the vocals, pick the kids up from school. I felt like I could do whatever I want, and the vocals show that."
The hands-on dad brings his two daughters and son on the road with him whenever their school schedules allow. "That was something I never even thought of in rock & roll. I've lived both lives. No doubt about it, country is a much more family-friendly business than pop."
Still, he jokes about fulfilling a country musician's rite of passage: hanging out on Willie Nelson's tour bus . . . without the kids, of course. "I have this picture on the wall of the first time I was on Willie's bus. My aunt, God rest her soul, she was a huge Willie fan, and she comes up to my room one day and looks at that picture and looks at everyone's eyes and says to me, 'You were on Willie's bus, weren't ya?'" He laughs.
One would be hard-pressed to deflate Rucker's country music high, or his dedication to the genre. Though he predicts a few Hootie and the Blowfish tour dates next year (in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the band's 16-times platinum album, Cracked Rear View), he has no plans to return to pop anytime soon. While he's still trying to prove himself in the country music world, he's having a lot of fun doing so, fulfilling a longtime dream and proving his naysayers wrong, even when they get vicious.
Earlier this week, a small-minded Twitter user posted, "@dariusrucker Leave country to the white folk." An astonished Rucker tweeted back, "WOW. Is this 2013 or 1913," following that with another reply: "I'll take my grand ole Opry membership and leave your racism."
"I was absolutely shocked," the singer says of the ignorant tweet. "Sometimes people will say, 'You're not country,' and I know what that means, because they can't be talking about the music. But when somebody says to leave country music to the white folks, that is unbelievable to me . . . But that's life. That's something that I'm going to have to deal with the rest of my career, because I'm a black guy in country music and there are people who don't like that. But it's not going to make me quit.
"We work so hard to stay true to country music," Rucker concludes. "People can say they don't like it, but they can't say it's not country."