Black people don’t do country music. It’s one of the most persistent assumptions of American cultural history, a perception deeply ingrained during the era of the civil rights movement, when country music was, rightly or wrongly, associated with the white rural conservatism of the Jim Crow South.
Years from now, musical historians are likely to look back on 2009 as a year when Darius Rucker made history by blasting another hole in the wall thought to separate country music from its deeper wellspring of African-American identity. Rucker is better known as Hootie of the ‘90s band Hootie and the Blowfish, which parlayed a smooth, easygoing country-tinged musical style and Rucker’s buttery baritone into a hugely popular juggernaut in terms of radio play.
The group’s major-label debut, Cracked Rear View, became one of the 15 best-selling albums in U.S. history after it sold more than 16 million copies. In 2008, years since the Blowfish last released an album, Rucker began his musical reinvention as a country music star, following a childhood love of FM radio and Hee Haw, a TV variety show that featured country music, a genre not readily associated with African-American culture.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Rucker recalled having “memories of Charley Pride coming on Hee Haw and doing his hits,” Rucker said. “When I was seven, you could have Charley Pride and Buck Owens, Stevie Wonder and The Who on the same radio station.”
WATCH DARIUS RUCKER’S DISCUSS HIS LOVE OF COUNTRY MUSIC AS A CHILD
For Rucker, a man of chameleon tastes and influences, his early listening habits predicted the restless musical curiosity he has today. In 2008, Rucker signed with Capitol Records Nashville and released Learn to Live, which featured country stalwarts Alison Krauss and Vince Gill, among others. The album yielded three hit singles, one of which reached Top 20 on the country charts in July 2008. The single, Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It, reached number one that October, making Rucker the” first solo black artist” to perform a chart-topping country hit since the legendary Charlie Pride’s “Night Games” went number one in 1983. When two other tracks from the album also hit number one, Rucker became the first country singer of any race to have his first three singles reach that pinnacle since Wynonna Judd pulled it off in 1992.
Last November, Rucker won the Country Music Association New Artist of the Year Award, making him the first African-American so honored since the category was introduced almost 30 years ago.
The title of the fourth single from Learn to Live refers to Rucker’s own endeavors: “History in the Making.” His tuneful, laid-back assault on cultural assumptions applies to all listeners.
“I really like to think it’s all about the music,” Rucker told The Denver Post in September. “When you write a great song, it doesn’t matter what label you put on it.”