Unless you’ve been paying attention, you wouldn’t peg Darius Rucker as a full-fledged member of the Grand Ole Opry. Graying goatee aside, the Hootie and the Blowfish frontman looks about the same as 20 years ago, when his group’s giga-platinum debut made it the biggest rock band in America. His fashion sense is still frat house — today, a faded Bob Marley-playing-soccer T-shirt, black warm-up pants, yellow Nikes and a South Carolina Gamecocks cap, with one upgrade: a fat Rolex, a recent gift from platinum country-pop tourmates Lady Antebellum.
The born-again-country singer is giving a tour of the man cave in the newly built home he shares with his wife, Beth, and their two kids in Mount Pleasant, a suburb of Charleston, South Carolina, about 15 minutes from where he grew up in West Ashley. Evidence of his past life is hidden on a cluttered shelf: multiple Grammys, an MTV moonman and a diamond-certification statuette for 1994’s Cracked Rear View, confirming an album that sells more than 10 million copies. “They don’t give out many of these anymore,” he says.
Unlike the diamond trophy, Rucker isn’t a relic of the 20th-century music biz. In 2006, he signed with Capitol Nashville to make a country LP. Against the odds for crossover acts, Rucker scored a Number One single out of the gate with “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” then a second and a third. Each of his three albums has topped the country charts, and in 2013 he had his biggest hit yet with “Wagon Wheel,” a cover of a song by bluegrass-pop jammers Old Crow Medicine Show based on an unfinished Dylan tune. It went Number One country and Top 20 pop, selling more than 3 million digital singles.
So how does a Nineties-rock has-been reinvent himself so successfully? Rucker isn’t entirely sure. “Dude, I don’t think I would’ve signed me,” he says, laughing. Rucker dug country as a kid growing up in South Carolina. Weaned on Kenny Rogers and Hee Haw alongside Al Green and Kiss, he sang the solo vocal on Mac Davis’ “It’s Hard to Be Humble” with the Middle-ton High School choir.
When Hootie took a hiatus in the mid-Aughts (they still play a handful of charity dates every year), Rucker planned to make a country record in his hometown with some friends. But then his co-manager, Doc McGhee, put word out to Nashville. Suddenly, without so much as a demo, Rucker was in a position to do something more than a vanity project.
The Nashville system took some getting used to. For one thing, there was the writing process. “With Hootie, we would mostly just [each] write songs and then bring them to the band. But with country, I started co-writing a lot” — regimented all-day sessions, often with two other writers.
When the multiplatinum rock headliner was invited to do the lowly 25-minute opening slot on a triple-bill tour with up-and-comers Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley in 2008, he signed right up.
“I said to my label when we went in, ‘I want to do everything the new guy does.’ I went to 120 radio stations — I mean, five days a week, four or five stations a day.”
He met resistance: “Radio guys who are friends now said to me, ‘When I heard you were coming into country, I told everybody I would never play it. Ever.'”
Walking through Charleston with Rucker is like walking with the mayor. Fans, friends and distant relatives sidle up to chat, requesting autographs and Instagrams, and he receives them all with an unhurried Southern graciousness. Of course, the actual mayor doesn’t have a major road named after him (Darius Rucker Boulevard, the route to the local arena).
Rucker can sound like someone who’s spent time with a chip on his shoulder. “People go, ‘Oh, you’re another guy who crossed over to country,'” he says. “I say, name another one. Name one other pop singer who’s done what I’ve done as a country singer. There isn’t one.”
It’s a little surprising to witness Rucker’s chest-puffing side (also surprising: his tales of cocaine use and other kinds of debauchery during the Nineties; he’s since quit partying). Rucker’s clean-cut, matter-of-fact amiability was a key to Hootie’s triumph — and it certainly helped him connect with a mainstream country audience, too. But in addition to being a nice guy, he’s a stone-fierce competitor — just like his buddy Tiger Woods, whose wedding he played.
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Right now, the singer is ready to start recording his fourth country album. He thinks he may push a little more outside the Nashville box this time, maybe try a leaner, more bluegrassy sound.
And then he’ll get in his bus and hit the road. Rucker has been a passionate golfer since he was a kid, and he maps his tour itinerary around courses he wants to play. When he wakes up in his bus after a post-gig night drive, he’s parked so he can step outside and tee off right after breakfast. “I’m not gonna lie,” Rucker says. “It’s a good life.”