When Darius Rucker is onstage, his mind sometimes wanders back to those heady Nineties days when bands like Hootie & the Blowfish and the Black Crowes ruled the earth. The Crowes, in fact, were Rucker’s inspiration when writing some of Hootie’s biggest hits and remain a motivator even today.
“Everything that I do on stage comes from seeing the Black Crowes in ’95 in Charlotte. For ‘Let Her Cry,’ I was just trying to write ‘She Talks to Angels,'” he tells Rolling Stone Country. Seated on the front bench of his bus in late May, while a Clint Eastwood Western plays on the flatscreen TV, Rucker is in Camden, New Jersey, headlining Philadelphia radio station WXTU’s annual anniversary concert. Yet he can’t stop talking about the Robinson brothers’ rootsy and unfortunately now defunct group.
“That band was very important to me,” he continues. “I’m a big Black Crowes guy. I think they are one of America’s greatest rock & roll bands ever.”
So much so that when it came time to record the title track to his fourth solo country album, Southern Style, Rucker and producer Frank Rogers reached out to the Crowes’ Rich Robinson to play guitar. Robinson obliged, and, in the album’s liner notes, Rucker thanks the guitarist for “hearing something different.”
“Southern Style” is now the LP’s second single, and despite its regionally specific title, has been warmly received on the northeast dates of Rucker’s tour, including this stop in Philly.
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“It’s not just a Southern sound. I’m sure there’s a lot of people that live in Pennsylvania and listen to country music and consider that they live in kind of a Southern style. People are taking it that way instead of as a song about living in the South,” he says.
Which Rucker himself does. A Charleston, South Carolina, native, the singer was rocked by the June 17th shootings at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. While he hasn’t made any official statement, he has tweeted words of support for his fellow citizens — “Incredibly proud of my city for handling this tragedy with love. Thankful to be part of a community that can come together in a time of need,” he wrote on June 19th — and performed an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace” in honor of the victims at a recent tour stop in Texas. For Rucker, his hometown has always informed his music — he titled his second album Charleston, SC 1966.
Southern Style then, and tracks like “Low Country” and the title song, is a love letter to home. It’s also his most hardcore country album to date. The irony that a former rock singer is making some of the more traditional music in the genre isn’t lost on the 49-year-old, who became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 2012.
“I just feel like that’s what I should do. That’s what I need to be doing, going country more than anything else. I’m happiest when I’m doing that,” he says, acknowledging that his promise to make such an album gave his label Capitol Records Nashville pause. “They were worried about it, because I told them I’d be country, but everybody’s happy.”
To prepare for the album, Rucker returned to some of his favorite country releases, from Radney Foster’s Del Rio, TX 1959 and Nanci Griffith’s Little Love Affairs to Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars Cadillacs Etc., Etc. and Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth.
“I started listening to the records that made me want to make country music again,” he says. “We went into the studio with the mentality of ‘let’s just make a country record,’ and if we have hits, great.”
So far, Team Darius has scored. Debut single “Homegrown Honey,” co-written with Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley, went Number One on the Mediabase country chart, and “Southern Style” is inching toward Billboard‘s country Top 40. Yet Rucker is seemingly more thrilled talking about the successes of his peers, especially female artists. He’s been a longtime champion of Mallary Hope, with whom he duets on Southern Style‘s “Baby I’m Right,” and predicts greatness for vocalist Mickey Guyton. “She’s just so talented and I think she could be getting more recognition than she is,” he says.
Still, he’s baffled by all the discord surrounding the definition of country. As he sees it, all of the artists on his tour — Brett Eldredge, Brothers Osborne and A Thousand Horses — each represent different flavors of the genre.
“I think the people who are sitting in their living room doing those, ‘Let’s take country music back’ blogs and all that stuff, that’s crazy to me,” Rucker says bluntly. “No one’s saying that about rock & roll, and no one sounded like the Beatles since 1960. No one says that about R&B, and no one sounded like the Commodores since 1970. All of those genres of music are supposed to evolve, but to those people country music is supposed to be Hank Williams Sr. — and that stuff is great and you can have that. But I think the great thing about listening to country radio is you have all different kinds of country music. It’s the pop country music for some guys, it’s the really country [sound], and even that bro country stuff that’s out. It’s just a little bit of everything, and obviously the fans are loving it.”
Later that night, Rucker connects with the crowd of northeast country fans, singing his own solo hits “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” and “Alright,” Hootie gems “Let Her Cry” and “Hold My Hand” (the latter a sing-along with his opening acts), and classic country covers like Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down.” It’s that rollicking Smokey and the Bandit theme that brings a smile to his face and, as he notes, the audience loves it.
“That’s what it all comes down to: singing songs that people want to hear,” he sums up, revealing the secret to engaging fans that he learned all those years ago when witnessing the Black Crowes’ magic. “That’s really all it is.”