About a year ago Darius Rucker was at his daughter's high school talent show when the faculty band took the stage and performed a cover of Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel."
"I knew the song, and to me it was such a perfect bluegrass tune that I didn't think I could do it," says the Hootie and the Blowfish frontman. "But they did a country version of it, with drums and pedal steel. I was like, 'Wait a minute. That would be a great country song.'"
Rucker was almost done with his third country LP, True Believers, at that point, but he decided to cut the song with Lady Antebellum and make room for it on the disc. "I though to myself, 'This could be a monster,'" he says. "But I don't have anything to do with picking singles. I leave that up to management and my label."
The song came out in early January and was an immediate country hit, eventually even reaching number 15 on the Hot 100. "I pay almost no attention to the charts," says Rucker. "I didn't even know it was that high on the pop charts. That's pretty awesome."
When Rucker first cut the song, he was unaware of its rather unusual backstory. It began as an unfinished demo from Bob Dylan's 1973 sessions for the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack, which leaked out to bootleggers. Old Crow Medicine Show's Chris "Critter" Fuqua picked up the bootleg as a teenager and his bandmate Ketch Secor fleshed out the song, ultimately sharing credit with Dylan.
Learning this only made Rucker love the song even more. "I love Bob Dylan," he says. "Blood on the Tracks is one of my top five records. What's so funny about this song is it's probably just something he spent a few minutes on and thought, 'Well, that's not gonna work.' Now you hear it and that melody is so catchy. You just wanna hear it again and again. The first time you hear it, you already love it . . . I got turned onto the Pat Garrett soundtrack when I worked retail back in the day. It's so different from a lot of his other stuff. It's such a cool record."
Rucker's Dylan fandom got him in a little trouble when Hootie and the Blowfish first emerged on the national scene back in 1995. The band's third single, "Only Wanna Be With You," quotes a few lines from Dylan's 1975 song "Idiot Wind."
"That was a straight tribute to him," says Rucker. "I wrote it around the time I was listening to Blood on the Tracks every day. The line 'They say I shot a man named Grey and took his wife to Italy/She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me/I can't help it if I'm lucky' was just so vivid. That was a straight tribute to my love of Dylan."
The Dylan camp wasn't thrilled, especially when the record began selling by the millions. "It never got to the point where we were sued," Rucker says. "When we first did that song we sent it to the publishing company and everything was fine. We played it for years and had a really big hit with it. Then they wanted some money, and they got it. We weren't trying to rip anybody off. It was like, 'If you think that's the case, sure."
Hootie and the Blowfish have been largely inactive ever since Rucker's country career exploded in 2008, but he insists they are not dead. "We're gonna do another record," he says. "And go on another big tour. I don't know when, though probably no time soon. We were on the road and decided, 'Hey man, we've been doing this forever. I don't know if I want to do it every summer.' So we just kinda ended it. I didn't think that was cool. The whole time I was saying that we should make some sort of announcement that we weren't going to play for a while, but we never did. For the people who plan their summers around when we're playing, they need one more record and another big tour."
Hard as it may be to understand for people who lived through Hootie mania in 1995, Rucker has some fans who don't even realize he was in one of the most successful bands of the Nineties. "I played the other night in Dallas and I played 'Only Wanna Be With You,'" he says. "This group of girls were having a blast, and they sat down because they didn't know the song."
His huge success in the country wold has stunned many in the industry, but Rucker still gets annoyed when people dismiss him as some sort of musical carpetbagger. "One of my pet peeves is when people think that pop guys go country when they can't make it in pop anymore," he says. "I always say, 'Name one person that did that.' They can't name one person that went over and made it in country besides me and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. That's one of those misnomers in music. I mean, I have three number one albums, six number one songs and counting."
That kind of success required a lot of groundwork. "I'll never forget the surprised looks on the faces at my label when I told them I wanted to be taken as the new guy," says Rucker. "I told them that whatever I did before didn't matter. I knew I had to start from the bottom up. My first tour was being the opening guy on the Dierks Bentley/Brad Paisley tour. I played 30 minutes, and that was fine with me."
The huge success of "Wagon Wheel" has propelled Rucker to a headlining tour this summer. He's also happy about what the song will do for Ketch Secor of the Old Crow Medicine Show. "I know how much money you make from a Number One in country music," he says. "And now it's on the pop charts . . . I'm just so happy for him. Also, it's amazing that we didn't remix it for pop radio. That's a testament to what a great song it is."