01 April 2013 (released)
01 April 2013
It’s a rainy Monday afternoon – the day after London’s O2 had been transformed by cowboy hats, check shirts and big boots into the Country To Country Festival. A sold out event, it was the first time that some of America’s biggest country music stars had taken over a London venue for a weekend. On the bill were the likes of Carrie Underwood, LeAnn Rimes and Darius Rucker. For the former Hootie & the Blowfish lead singer it was a special occasion:
“It was awesome - that's the only I can use. You know we’d been here before and that was great but when you're up on stage and everybody is singing along with an obscure album track like Southern State of Mind, you can’t get any better than that. It was a shock. I didn’t know it was going to be that good. It was crazy. There was one point where I turned to the band and myself and the drummer, we just started laughing thinking ‘this is crazy’.”
For most music fans in the UK, Rucker is still best known for his time in Hootie, when they were one of the biggest rock bands on the planet. The transformation to country star might seem like Chris Martin suddenly becoming a rapper but his band’s sound was never that far off country. Despite that, it wasn’t easy for Rucker to make his way. At least not initially:
“It was pretty difficult to do. Country music is very welcoming but they don't want carpet-baggers to try and make a buck off of it. I got lucky. People realised early how much a really like the music. Sometimes when pop artists move across they get asked their favourite artists and they say Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. Don’t get me wrong I like Dolly and Willie but when they were asking me I was saying Randy Foster and Lyle Lovett and new grass revival. Any time you say new grass revival to a country person they can't believe you know what it is.”
And after having to convince many people early on the move across to country soon proved to be right. Two number one albums followed and late last year he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. He’s the first African American to win the new Artist Award from the Country Music Association, and only the second ever to take any trophy from the CMAs. With all his success it is perhaps surprising that Rucker describes True Believers, his forthcoming third country music album, as his most important ever:
“With the second record we decided - we were let's pick-up where we left off. With this record we wanted it to sound a little brighter - come off the radio a little more. And the songs had to be great songs. I really stressed that if anyone in my circle thought we don’t have great songs - one person says it's not great - then we got to keep on going. This is probably the moist important record I have ever made. After this I am either going to be solidly into country music or I'm going to be just another dude who tried to make it in country music. It was important to me to make a record that sounded different to the other two and had the songs that were undeniable."
He says that after that early success the bar has been set high and he is desperate to prove himself. He sounds hungry and determined – almost like this is his first country record, not his third. It is refreshing to hear someone sounding so grateful to be where they are. He gives full credit to his writing partner Frank Rogers, saying he really does all the work; “I just sing” he says. Despute their strong writing partnership, there is a cover version on the album, the first single Wagon Wheel:
“I love Old Crow Medicine Show but I am a big fan of their old dirt stuff, with great stories. I like Wagon Wheel but it's not a song I had heard in six years and then I go to my daughter's high school talent show and they start playing Wagon Wheel. By the middle of the first verse I am like man - I always thought it was a bluegrass song and I never thought about playing it country. And there's this group of teachers making this cool little country song. I start texting my producer and I tell him we are cutting it. But even after I recorded it, I thought it was just a great song for the end of the record. We were talking about what are we going to do with the vocal and I was on tour with Lady A (Lady Antebellum, who feature on the song) - and I thought they could appear on it. In the pop world that kind of thing doesn’t normally work because the managers start talking about money and it all falls apart. But in country music you just call them up. And so we called Lady A and they were great.”
Wagon Wheel’s infectious country take is typical of Rucker’s sound, rich vocals and a classy production. It isn’t country as many people imagine. It falls between the shiny over produced pop of the likes of Carrie Underwood and the more rootsy country that he describes being a fan of. One track on the album features an artist, who at one time made that kind of sound the mainstream. Sheryl Crow’s All I Wanna Do took country music to the top of the charts in the mid nineties and her vocal on Love Without You is supreme:
“That (song) was written by a couple of friends of mine. I am a song writer and there are not many outside songs that I do and that one came in. I got an e-mail about 11 o'clock in the morning - from my management team and then about 4 o'clock I get another e-mail - from someone not knowing my management company had already sent it - and it's that song. I finished it and I was so proud of my vocal - I was ‘that was beautiful, but what we gonna do now?’ Frank was working with Sheryl Crow and she came down and I'll never forget the first time that I heard her sing it. Every hair on my body was standing to attention. She is so perfect, what she did was genius.”
It’s a song you could be hearing a lot more during the year, if UK radio is brave enough to try it! In the meantime Rucker promises to return to the UK to play a tour on his own:
“That's something that we are doing next year for sure. I want come and play Sheffield, Manchester, Glasgow and play smaller cities. The only venue in the world I want to play that I have never played is the Royal Albert Hall. I'd love to come over and do that.”
With that, Rucker heads off to his home, in the sunshine of Charleston in South Carolina, leaving the chilly and wet UK behind. You are left feeling a little envious, not just of the climate he enjoys at home, but also of the world he inhabits. No part of the UK music scene has such a warm and welcoming feel as country - and perhaps that's why the C2C festival has been so popular. It's like one big happy family.