Breakout star leaves Hootie in the rearview

Country music has a new major star, and the genre may never be the same. Back in September, Darius Rucker made it to No. 1 on the country singles charts with his first release on Capitol Records, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It.” In doing so, he bucked a number of long-held stereotypes about country music.

Rucker is the first black country artist to crack the top 10 in two decades (the last being Charlie Pride in 1983), but that’s not the big story. More compelling from an industry point of view is Rucker’s history as lead singer of the mega-selling pop act Hootie and the Blowfish.

Country music has long been suspicious of pop acts that move into the genre because they believe their pop career is over, and, until recently, pop acts have generally found the country charts a hard nut to crack. More recently, Bon Jovi and the Eagles have discovered country success, but these are brand names many country fans loved back when they were pop fans. Rucker, however, was a new brand with a sound not directly related to his role as frontman for Hootie.

As a 42-year-old genre rookie, Rucker flies in the face of country labels that have insisted on signing very young artists. In the final assessment, it is Rucker’s age that may alter the way the labels view their singers. Mike Dungan, head of Capitol’s country division in Nashville, concedes that age was a concern, as he recalled the events that led to his signing Rucker.

“Doc McGhee (manager of Hootie and the Blowfish) and I were at dinner one night, and he started bragging about Hootie and the Blowfish’s touring business, how it had reignited. I said, ‘You know what? I was never a fan of those records, but every time I see him on television, that guy just feels like a country singer to me.’ I couldn’t even remember his name!

“Doc said, ‘Oh man, he grew up on country music. That’s the music he listened to as a kid! He’d probably love to make a country record.’ “

McGhee mentioned to Rucker that Dungan wanted to meet with him, and Rucker got excited at the prospect. Dungan soon learned Rucker had written some 150 very country ballads and Texas two-steps, “Too country for our format,” Dungan remembers. After he signed Rucker, and the singer had gone into the studio with producer Frank Rogers, Dungan played some of his new cuts for radio people. Several were very supportive, but most were skeptical, thinking Rucker was just another fading pop star looking for a place in country.

“I was concerned about that attitude, but we were tough, we took our time and I think we really made the right record,” Dungan says.

When the album hit the charts in September, it sold more than 60,000 units the first week, and, after five weeks, sales were close to 150,000, an impressive debut for a first country album. Dungan suggests that in the future, he could be more open to the next older artist who knocks on his door looking for a record deal.

Rucker says he was aware that the labels preferred young artists, and acknowledged the unlikelihood of “starting a new career when I’m 42 years old.

“But Capitol wanted to give me a deal,” Rucker says, “and the timing seemed so right that I’m not gonna worry about that, I’m gonna make records as long as they let me, as long as radio’ll play ‘em.”

TIP SHEET

What: 42nd Annual CMA Awards

When: Wednesday night at 8 ET/PT on ABC

Where: Sommet Center in Nashville

Who: Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood host country music’s top stars.

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