In town to perform on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet (part of the Geico 400 NASCAR pre-race festivities), Darius Rucker sat down with me backstage following his set for a conversation about Chicago, the Bears, country music and his first tour as a headlining act since his days with Hootie & the Blowfish.
Sunday in Joliet, Darius Rucker fronted a seven piece band that, throughout an hour long set, hit on not only solo hits like "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" and "Alright" but also on Hootie & the Blowfish songs like "Hold My Hand" and "Only Wanna Be With You." In fact, with an extended jam and instrumentation like mandolin and keyboard, the band breathed new life into the latter.
Live, it's clear that Rucker has a love of performing and in person it's hard to believe how grounded and nice someone who's had so much success can be and I believe all of that came out in my chat with him on Sunday.
Q. So you're gearing up for your first headlining tour as a solo artist. How does that feel? Is it different?
Rucker: Yeah! REAL different! I mean, it was great headlining with Hootie for all those years. But we're such a band. The four of us are a band together. And that's great. But then, I was out opening up for Rascal Flatts and opening up for Brad Paisley and I was out with Justin Moore and all these guys and we'd talk about the future. And I was always like "I'm cool. I just want to open up for people." And they asked me "Why?" And I said, "Well, all the places we're playing, I've sold out." And so now, to be doing it again and on my own, it's just another thing I didn't expect. I really expected to make one record and maybe get to make another one and people will forgive me. And to be having all these hits and having the success is pretty awesome.
Q. Is it starting to feel like a career? The country thing...
Rucker: Oh, it's a career...
Jim Ryan: Like a career path? I mean, with Hootie you had the highest of highs and then there was that low...
Rucker: Yeah, absolutely...
Jim Ryan: And yet, you're still doing it...
Rucker: Yeah. That's exactly what it feels like for me. This is my career. This is my day job. This is what I'm going to be doing until I retire.
Q. After everything calmed down with Hootie & the Blowfish and you moved away from the larger venues, what was it like as a solo artist returning to some of those bigger places? For instance, what was it like opening for Rascal Flatts at Wrigley Field?
Rucker: Oh, it was awesome. Wrigley... I had never played Wrigley before. I've been in Wrigley so many times seeing baseball games and when I went in there with Flatts, it was one of those moments that I'll always remember as a singer. As a guy who's performing, it was great. We were playing in the mecca of Major League Baseball and for me being a sports fan, that was over the top. I remember when I was going out on the infield to watch the Flatts show and I was just like... freaked out. I was like 'Wow, I'm standing in the infield at Wrigley' and it was really cool!
Q. In an industry generally bereft of second chances (and yours having been doubly hard crossing over to country), what has it been like now to actually get that second chance as a solo country artist? How has that felt?
Rucker: Amazing. Because... I mean, you said it perfectly. You don't get second chances in our business. You know, once your star has risen, that's usually it. And then to come out and, first of all, make the record I wanted to make. I mean, I didn't think I was going to have this kind of success. I was just making a record for me. To do that and then to have success... that was amazing. It's a testament to my label and country radio taking a chance... A lot of people liking the record and playing it and now I'm just having a blast.
Q. A lot of people find it surprising that you successfully crossed over to country. But as a Hootie fan, to me, it was never really that far fetched. A lot of the sounds that are in your songs now, especially some of the instrumentation with the mandolin and what not... I mean, that's all stuff that was there with Hootie. So what have been some of your influences, generally?
Rucker: Guys like Randy Foster and Dwight Yoakam. I love it. Nanci Griffith. Those are bands that with Hootie, we listened to all of the time and that was where our whole country influence that we had came from. So, when I started doing this record or my first country record, I didn't feel like I was doing anything different. I didn't feel like I was making this big break from Hootie & the Blowfish. I just felt like I was doing the same thing. You know, I just did what I always did and it worked out.
Q. So there's only been one African American artist, before you, to win a Country Music Award. How does that type of success feel in this particular genre of music?
Rucker: Oh, amazing. First off, any time I get mentioned with Charlie Pride, that's amazing. He's such a legend and he's a historical figure in our country. And, so for me, that day, winning that award was amazing for a lot of reasons. For me personally, and then for me as an African American man knowing that there's only two of us that can say we've ever won a CMA... That's a pretty amazing feeling and you know what, that's something that I'm proud of.
Q. So you've had a diamond record with Hootie, a platinum record as a solo artist, a gold record as a solo artist... What's next?
Rucker: More records! That's really the goal. We're actually writing a new record right now. I want to make records as long as country radio will play them. As long as country fans want to hear them, I'm just gonna keep making records.
Q. As far as Hootie goes, you guys still do gigs... Like once a year or so for charity, right?
Rucker: Oh, yeah. Actually, we did four or five gigs this year. Definitely not next year and probably not the year after... but there will be another Hootie record and tour or our big farewell. I don't think we really said goodbye to our fans the way we would want to. So there will be another big thing for us.
Q. Darius, it's very well documented what a big fan of the Miami Dolphins and the NFL you are. In fact, your song "Kick Off" is currently a featured track at iTunes on the Official Gameday Music of the NFL EP. Several readers emailed me wondering about your thoughts on the Chicago Bears...
Rucker: Yeah, you know, I like the Bears. I like Cutler! I think he's a really good quaterback. He's taken them to the NFC Championship game. He definitely doesn't get the respect that he deserves. But I like Chicago a lot. I love the defense. I've got Urlacher in every [fantasy] league that I've got. I love the defense!
Q. Anything else you want Chicago readers to know?
Rucker: Yes! I would like your readers to know that one of the things I want in life so much is for the Chicago Cubs to win the championship. And I'm not even a Cubs fan.
Jim Ryan: See, I'm a White Sox fan. I had to ask...
Rucker: I'm a Reds fan! But I just think it would be so great for baseball. It's one of those things that could bring baseball back if the Cubs were to win a championship, like the Red Sox did when they won theirs. But you know, it ain't gonna happen no time soon... I don't think!
This interview was conducted by Jim Ryan.
Catch Darius Rucker on his first solo headlining tour as he performs live on Saturday, November 5th in DeKalb at the Convocation Center at Northern Illinois University with opening act Thompson Square. Tickets go on sale Friday, September 23rd at 10AM through Ticketmaster.