Darius Rucker — the man formerly known as Hootie, of the Blowfish — joined the ranks of pop-to-country crossovers in 2008 with his down-home album Learn to Live. But unlike some of his more novelty-driven pop refugee peers (Jovi, Simpson), Rucker seems like he’s in Nashville to stay: His first two singles, "Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It" and "It Won’t Be Like This For Long" both hit No. 1 on the country charts, making him the first African-American artist since Charley Pride in 1983 to reach that spot. In this exclusive Q&A, Rucker talks about his new career, his old band, what it’s like to sweat in front of Oprah (we spoke on the same day her country music episode aired), and why it’s cool to have your name mentioned with Charley Pride and Ray Charles… but it shouldn’t be the point. Read on after the jump!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congrats on being a successful country star. Did you see that one coming?
DARIUS RUCKER: Uh, I thought we’d do okay, but two number ones… I don’t think I would have called that. [laughs] It feels good.
Do you think it’s the songs themselves that struck a chord, or is there a subconscious identification people have with your voice?
I think a lot of people who listen to country music might have had Cracked Rear View. So I think familiarity had something to do with it. But I think people can relate to those songs. No matter who you are, where you’re from, what color you are, you can relate to "Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It." You’ve all been there.
What’s different writing for country rather than in a pop or rock genre?
I used to be the guy who believed I had to be inspired to write a song. I wasn’t inspired, I was lazy. You can write a song any time you want. Most of the songs that made the record, we just sat down and we started talking. "It Won’t Be Like This for Long," we just started talking about our kids. I think that’s what makes country music more relatable. There’s a lot of indie rock with great lyrics, but they’re so obscure. When you listen to it, you really have no idea what they’re talking about — you just think it’s really cool what they said. And in country, it’s pretty literal.
You are on Oprah today…
[he starts chuckling] That makes me chuckle. Yeah! I’m on Oprah! Can you believe? I’m on OPRAH! I mean, when we were filming, I was sweatin’ like a pig. I was so nervous!
Nerves about Oprah? Or your companions on the show?
Aw. I have major respect for Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood and Sugarland. They are wonderful. They’re superstars in the music business. But Oprah is OPRAH. So for me, all the nerves were about the fact that I was about to go sit in a chair and talk to Oprah Winfrey. And I was gonna get to play a song.
What does Oprah mean to you?
I’m a kid who grew up in an all African-American neighborhood and got into schools and aspired to just be me, and didn’t worry about labels or anything. Just wanted to be a success at what I did. Oprah’s the ultimate success. And to watch her, as an African-American kid trying to make it in a world… I mean, both times I’ve tried to make it, I tried to make it in a world I’m not really supposed to be trying to make it in.
Yeah, it’s interesting to me. Yes, this is a world you’re not "supposed" to be making it in. But as far as I can tell, you are not playing that race card. Other people are playing it for you.
Yeah, the thing for me — even making the record. Even playing with Hootie all those years. I never thought about it. The only time I ever think about it is when somebody says something to me. Somebody who just doesn’t think I should be doing it, or wants to know why I’m doing it. For me, it’s just music. Ever since I was a kid. I was lost in AM radio and finding music. It was never about it being "white boy music" or "our music." It was just about, "I like that song." All those things people talk about: Being the first guy to have a Top 20 single since Charley Pride 25 years ago. Being the only African-American who’s had a No. 1. I never thought about that stuff until other people brought it up.
Is it important to you on some level, or would you rather not put yourself in that box?
I have no choice of what kind of box I want to be put in. And any time you’re mentioned with Charley Pride and Ray Charles, it’s a positive. So I’m very proud to be that guy. But it’s not why I do what I do. And it’s not something that I really even want to talk about. It’s not something that I want Capitol to put in the press. It was just the reality of the situation.
Those people — Charley Pride, Ray Charles — did they have an effect on you growing up?
Ray Charles has always been a big part of my life. And I can remember seeing Charley Pride on Hee Haw, and he was always one of those guys in my community who got the most respect. Because who else was doing what Charley Pride was doing? And that’s what gets to me. Somebody wants to bring up the race card, and they’ll say something like, "What’s it like when you go somewhere and there’s a rebel flag in the corner?" I don’t think about that stuff! There’s nothing that could be said to me today that could be one one-thousandth of what Charley Pride had to go through. It can’t even be close. Whatever happens, I’m here to make music and have a career and look back when I’m 55 and playing golf with my son and say, "Man, I did it." All that other stuff is what everybody else is talking about.
Let’s talk about the long-range plan and how country plays into it. Are you hanging out here temporarily, waiting to go back to Hootie? I know you’ve said you’re a country singer now. Do you think you can do both, or does the next Hootie record have to be country?
I do not believe that Hootie and the Blowfish’s next record is going to be a country record. I think it’ll still have the country influences our records always had, but I don’t think it’ll be a country record. But honestly, being a country singer’s my day job. That’s what I do now. That’s what I’m gonna do. That’s gonna be the focus of my career. Hootie and the Blowfish, I know we’re gonna make another record and do another tour. We do shows for charities that I’m sure we’ll do for years to come. But I said to country fans, "Hey, I’m in this for the long haul." And I mean that.
I guess people are suspect because you came up at the same time as a lot of other people who were trying to cross over — Jessica Simpson, Jewel, Bon Jovi. So you get grouped in with those people, right?
Do you have to work extra hard to prove that you’re not just trying to find new relevance?
No, I don’t really see it that way. I knew what I was doing from the start, and the people I’ve known in Nashville for years have heard me say this for years, and they knew it was coming. I want to let the music speak for me.
Do any of your old fans hate your new music?
Sure. But no one’s come up to me and said they hate it. I think our fans that have listened to our records for so long realize that we had country influences, and they’re cool with where I’m going. I think the people who would say they hate it are the people who are thinking we’re never gonna play again. I don’t think they hate the record, they just hate what’s happening.
It must be weird from your perspective, too, to look at record sales. It’s so different now, the music industry.
I know! We sold 16 million records with Cracked Rear View. Today, exact same situation, breaking out in the exact same way, being as big as we were then, we’d sell 8 million. Maybe. And that’s crazy.
So the country record’s only gone gold. Is that frustrating to you, or have you realized that the priority just has to be somewhere else — and where is that priority?
The thing that keeps the frustration down is, you’re playing with everybody else. If everybody else sold 2 million and I only sold 500,000, then you’d go, Wow. But when you’re selling just as much as other people, it’s just the game. It’s the system. There’s nothing you can do about it. And I’m as bad as all those other people. I was just online buying a bunch of singles. So how could I get mad at them?
What singles were you just buying?
I’m making CDs to play at the shows I have by myself. I bought Randy Travis, "Forever and Ever, Amen." I bought Billy Covington. I bought Jason Aldean’s "She’s Country" — but I’m gonna buy that whole record, cause I love the way the guitars sound.
Has country helped your golf game?
It hasn’t hurt it. And this Rascal Flatts tour is gonna help it even more, cause every time I see those guys, all they talk about is, "Man, we’re gonna play a lot of golf."
I was at that George Strait tribute show the day after the ACMs, and half the stories people told about George involved playing golf.
He plays at my local club. I’m just dying to play golf with George Strait.
Did you secretly get into country music just so you can play more golf?
That might have been way in the back of my mind.
I was doing a little research, and there’s something interesting: You and Jewel and Kristian Bush from Sugarland all signed to Atlantic in the same year.
And now you’re all in country.
Kristian is — I’m so happy for him, and so proud of him. I’ve known Kristian for 15 years, and we probably hadn’t seen each other in 15 years before Sugarland happened. I always tell people that I knew him when he had hair longer than Jennifer [Nettles]‘s. But you know, if Cracked Rear View came out today, it would have to be a country record.
There’s no place on pop radio for Cracked Rear View. You tell me where.
AAA, I guess.
But AAA’s not gonna sell the records that we sold. That was pop radio. We’re talking about doing what Hootie did. That’s pop radio. Tell me where a band like Hootie would fit into pop radio today.
No. No! There’s two or three rock bands. There’s U2, there’s Nickelback, and a couple other bands, when you look in the top 10 records of the week. The only place in music for the singer-songwriter right now is country music. [Pause] That sounds rude, because, you know, you can’t say that Kanye West is not a singer-songwriter. But if you’re the guy who wants to stand up and play the guitar, you gotta be a country singer.
But now you’re on this Rascal Flatts tour. That’s like hair metal circa 1987. The only thing they don’t have is Tommy Lee’s old spinning drum kit from that one Motley Crue tour.
I’m trying to get them to get that this year.
Do you have to step up your onstage game in this genre?
Oh yeah. I just got out of a tour with Brad Paisley, whose show is as big as Flatts. Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley. And I realized the first night that you can’t come out here and take a night off. You gotta run. I gotta step it up bigtime.
We gonna get you into a headset mic?
Don’t get crazy. If there’s one thing you can guarantee, Darius will never have a headset on. It’s not for me. It’s not for me.
How, if at all, is this humbling for you?
Oh, I never saw it that way. Being on a tour with Flatts or Brad — to play in front of that many people, and you don’t have to worry at all about ticket sales? I’m in heaven. This is awesome. Next year, I’m gonna play my own tour, and if we get half these people to come and see me? Wow.
And you finally have people calling you Darius Rucker instead of Hootie.
Yep. "Are you Darius Rucker the country singer?" Yes I am. I don’t want this to come across like I’m not proud of Hootie, cause I’m so proud of what we do and what we’ve done.
In 10 years, where do you hope people have you in their minds? Do you want to be known as a country singer, with Hootie faded into the — pardon the expression — rear view mirror?
Hootie will never fade into the rear view mirror. I think if 10 years from now I’m playing stadiums, I’ll still be Darius Rucker from Hootie and the Blowfish. Paul McCartney’s had so many hits since he left the Beatles, and he’s still Paul McCartney from the Beatles. And I’m cool with that! We did special things. For a little while, we changed music. We changed radio. I’m proud of that, man.
How are you gonna change country radio?
I’m not. I’m just gonna try to fit in. [laughs] I’m just gonna try to fit in.
When all that happened, we weren’t trying to change radio, we were just a bar band that got a record deal. I think that’s the way you change things: You don’t try. I think people who go out and tell you how much they’re gonna change things are the people who end up being just another whatever. I’m never trying to change anything. That’s not for me. Everything’s been done. Even people who say "I’m changing music," what you’re doing has already been done. We just don’t remember.
More from EW’s Music Mix:
CMT Music Awards moved to June 16; Keith Urban, Sugarland added as performers
Mickey Rourke rages, Kris Kristofferson gets pink-slipped in John Rich’s "Shuttin’ Detroit Down" video
Sugarland covers Kings of Leon’s "Sex on Fire"