Darius Rucker‘s platinum-selling version of “Wagon Wheel” just hit No. 1 on the Billboard country airplay chart, which is good timing for Tuesday’s (May 21) release of his third country album, True Believers.
Produced by Frank Rogers, True Believers further underscores the Charleston, S.C., native’s commitment to country music. Although several performers from other musical genres have tried to launch country careers in recent years, none has achieved the level of success and acceptance Rucker now enjoys.
During a recent interview at CMT’s offices in Nashville, Rucker talked about his new album and the plan he put in place to establish himself as a country artist.
CMT.com: How has your mindset changed between recording your first two country albums and beginning work on True Believers?
Rucker: The first record, the mindset was we’ve got to make a country record that, for me, was the record I wanted to make. But it had to be a country record. Frank and I … I don’t know if anyone was expecting anything from us, so we just went in and wrote the songs made the record we wanted to make. We were so happy with it, with the second record, we even said, “Let’s just pick up where we left with the first one and go on that route.”
With this record, we knew how important it was for my career, so were like, “Let’s get some amazing songs and make it sound a little brighter, a little countrier and really show people that we can be great.”
There are a lot of heavy fiddles on it.
Yeah, and I like that. I don’t think you can have too much fiddle or a slide [guitar] for me. I mean, he [Rogers] has to tone me down. I’m always saying, “Put more on.” He says, “Dude, we don’t need any more.”
When most people come to country from other musical genres — and even film and TV — they try to make a big splash and say, “I’ve always loved country music.” But they never seem to have the level of commitment to invest themselves in understanding Nashville and the country fans. When you were making the transition, you did your homework and kept a low profile. Was that a conscious effort?
Yeah! Because, for me, I felt that way. I felt like I was the new guy. I didn’t want to come out and tell people how great I was and have to headline my tour or anything. I wanted to come in and be the first guy on the tour. I wanted to start from the lowest rung of the totem pole and work my way up. That came from a lot of things. It came from, first of all, just being that kind of a guy and wanting to do that.
Second of all, I had been in Hootie & the Blowfish. With our first foray, we were the biggest band in the world, and then there was nowhere to go but down from there. So I wanted to build it up to where, three or four records down the road, I could be something in the [country] genre. But I didn’t want to come out and make everybody think that I was something — ’cause I wasn’t. I was the new guy making music. I was the pop guy — the carpetbagger — coming over here. I wanted to earn my stripes. I didn’t want it to be just given to me.
You certainly weren’t having to worry about success from a financial standpoint.
That was something that I had that was good. That was so important for me — that I wasn’t worried about money. I didn’t do this for the money. There was no moment when I was doing this for the money. I was doing it for my love of country music.
You had a strong connection with Radney Foster because of your past work together. Did you have any other primary allies in Nashville?
It was really great for me. I had Radney, of course, and Bill Lloyd and guys like that. But Brad Paisley became an instant ally even before we became good friends. He and Vince Gill were two people who really helped me so much. I don’t think they understand how much it helped me. I heard this probably 15 times before my record came out — from people who said, “I just talked to Brad Paisley, and he said he heard your record and said it’s just great.” That’s something he didn’t have to do. That was huge for me. It helped a lot in the business, but it helped me a lot to feel comfortable in what I was doing.
While preparing for the new album, you took some time off to be with your family in South Carolina and invited several songwriters to visit you there for co-writing sessions. Did that put you in a different state of mind when it came to the songs?
It was definitely much more laid-back for me. I think for some of the guys who came to write with me — Dallas Davidson and some of those guys — it was different for them, too. They’d come and spend a day or so in Charleston, and then we’d get together and write, but I think lot of them got the feel of what I love so much about the Lowcountry.
Not a bad place to hang.
No, never! Never! Not a bad place at all. And I think that helped us write the songs that we wrote.
And you recorded your vocals in South Carolina, too.
For me, it was probably the first record I’ve ever made where I didn’t feel like I was working when I was doing the vocals. It was just part of my day at home.
Do you find work in the studio to be tedious at times.
Yeah. I’m not a studio rat. I do find sitting around playing the same song 12 times kind of tedious. I like to get in and get out. Frank knows that. I think that’s why the Charleston thing worked so much. He could just get the best out of me and then go home.
Mallary Hope provides guest vocals on “I Will Love You Still.”
The great story about that is that we put Mallary on there because we wanted a female to sing a guide track so we could get some big artist to sing on it. When she sang it, she was so absolutely amazing, Frank called me up and said, “I don’t know who you guys are thinking about getting on this, but no one’s gonna sing it this great.” He sent it to me, and I called him and said, “You’re absolutely right.” So we decided to forget everybody else. We’re gonna keep Mallory.
And Sheryl Crow is featured on “Love Without You.”
She’s someone I love and have wanted to sing with for years. She gives me chills when I hear that song.
People seemed surprised when you decided to record Old Crow Medicine Show‘s “Wagon Wheel.” Did you have any concerns about pushing the envelope too far?
No, because I was so naive about how big the song was. I really didn’t know it was this college staple. I haven’t been in college in years. Old Crow, to me, was “Tennessee Pusher” and “Cocaine Habit” and “Methamphetamine” and “Motel in Memphis” and those really hard bluegrass songs they were doing. I’d heard “Wagon Wheel,” but I didn’t know it was that big. I’m glad I didn’t know it was that big because I might not have cut it.
How far can you push things?
I’m going to do whatever I want as long as it’s country. I mean, I’m not much on naysayers, so I’ll just do whatever. If I like it, I’ll do it.
Have you heard anything from Bob Dylan, who’s the co-writer on “Wagon Wheel”?
My manager talked to Dylan’s manager. They’re friends. Bob actually was talking about maybe doing the video for me before the Duck Dynasty guys came around. He was real happy with it. He knew if it was a success, what it was going to do for him. So they said he liked it a lot.
Have you ever met him?
Yes, I’ve met Dylan a couple of times. Briefly.
What was that like?
He’s a really quiet guy. He’s Dylan. There’s an aura about him. I think if you walked in the room and didn’t know who Bob Dylan was, you would know he’s somebody. He’s a cool dude that I had a brief conversation with a couple of times. I’m proud to say I’ve met him. He’s a true legend.
You’ll be busy touring this summer. What sort of feeling do you get playing live?
For me, it’s what it’s all about. I make records so I can go on tour. There’s nothing else. I love to go out and play for people. One of my pet peeves is some artist who has a big hit and doesn’t want to play it. I’ll play [Hootie & the Blowfish's] “Let Her Cry” every night. When you hear people scream because they’re about to hear a song that has been a part of their life, there’s nothing like that.
Even though you’re headlining this tour, it still seems like you’re taking it slow and easy to continue to build your career.
Like I said, I want it to grow. I want it to grow where I can go play the arenas every night. When you grow that audience, you know they’re gonna be there for a long time.