Country

Darius Rucker Gives Voice to ?Highly Personal Emotions In 'So I Sang'

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Darius Rucker performs onstage at Allstate Arena on Oct. 8, 2015 in Rosemont, Illinois. 

The last track on his "Southern Style" album provides insight into key moments from the Hootie lead singer's life.

When Capitol released Darius Rucker’s Southern Style on March 31, 2015, the disc contained a number of references to his South Carolina upbringing. But none made an impression as boldly as “So I Sang,” a vulnerable finale cast over a rolling acoustic guitar.

“So I Sang” made a significant statement about the power of music by knitting together three different scenarios from Rucker’s own life. Verse one caught that high-school period when he recognized the concert stage was a better vocational choice than the baseball diamond. Verse two presented the ah-ha moment when he found that singing “You Are So Beautiful” was a better way to win a girl’s affection than merely talking. And in the closing verse, music became the form of expression for his mother’s funeral, when the beauty of a melody said more than words ever could.

“That song is about the most honest thing I’ve ever sang,” notes Rucker, “and it’s one of those songs I hope I get to play for the rest of my life.”

Capitol released it to radio via Play MPE on May 4, not as a full-fledged single, but as a Mother’s Day special. But it’s meaningful even after that red-letter day has passed, particularly in a sweeping period that includes Memorial Day and Father’s Day, which arrives June 19. It may hold details that are specific to Rucker’s life, but the experience is familiar to many others.

“What’s so funny,” says songwriter Tim James (“Love Like Crazy,” “Give It All We Got Tonight”), “is that that song was so personal to me, and then it turned into a song that’s so personal for him.”

Indeed, it wasn’t originally a song about Rucker’s mom, but one that paid homage to James’ father. His dad bought him his first guitar and kept cheering him on when he was struggling as a songwriter. He repeatedly told James, “You can do this. You just have to outwork those other guys.”

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James didn’t realize his first hit, Toby Keith’s “My List,” until he was 40, but his father was around long enough to witness it. When the elder James passed away around 2010, James spoke at his funeral, but months later, sitting in the dark at his house, he found himself contemplating what might have been had he sung at the memorial instead.

“It sort of felt like the Holy Spirit just said, ‘You have to write this song,’ ” notes James. “I don’t really write like that very often, but I just felt like I had to write this song, so I started scribbling.”

James pulled out his guitar and fashioned a melody, writing what he intended as the third verse. He imagined himself singing some of his dad’s favorite songs at the funeral, and that original version referenced the gospel standard “It Is Well With My Soul” and the old Porter Wagoner title “The Green, Green Grass of Home.” James also wrote a big chunk of that first verse — where it became clear that his body was better suited for music than athletics — and he had an idea that the second verse should be about a girl.

James regularly wrote on Wednesdays with Rivers Rutherford (“When I Get Where I’m Going,” “Ain’t Nothing ’Bout You”), and after they had finished another song during one of their appointments, James played “So I Sang” for Rutherford.

“He just came unglued,” remembers James, “and said, ‘Man, that is so freakin’ good. You’ve got a good start on it, but I fully believe I can make this better if you want me to write it with you.’ ”

Rutherford brought the key guitar passage to the song and helped flesh out the first two verses. They figured they had a special song, and so did a lot of other people — including, apparently, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley and Charles Kelley. But none of them felt it was right for them, and for about a year-and-a-half, “So I Sang” got high praise but remained unrecorded.

Meanwhile, James and Rutherford started writing with Rucker for Southern Style, penning the album’s title track in particular. During a writing trip out of town, they let Rucker hear “So I Sang,” and it essentially found its home, though not quite the way James had originally envisioned.

“He was so emotional,” recalls James, “and I knew this was coming, because I’ve kind of become friends with Darius. He said, ‘I’m not close to my dad, and we would have to change it to be about my mom.’ ”

So they wrote.

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Carolyn Rucker had been as essential to Darius’ musical life as James’ father had been in his. A single mom, she died of a heart attack on Nov. 1, 1992, when he was 26. Darius was already in Hootie + The Blowfish, though the band was just as happy to do cover songs in the bars as to write a new song. Her passing was a wake-up call for Darius.

 “It really became one of those things where my dedication ramped up a thousand percent,” he says. “I had to make it to show her, and to show me, that all of her support and her backing me through all of that wasn’t in vain, that I could go out and actually succeed and be a musician for a living. It really just changed the whole way I say everything.”

Rucker hadn’t sung solo at his mom’s funeral — “I couldn’t even speak,” he says — but he did sing “It Is Well With My Soul” in his seat as the choir performed it, and when family and friends gathered afterward, he put on one of her favorite songs, Al Green’s “I’m So Tired of Being Alone.” Both songs are referenced in that revised third verse.

Rucker wasn’t sure how the song would work in the studio, but producer Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson, Zac Brown Band) had an immediate vision for it when he heard the work tape with its descending guitar line.

“It was obvious to me when I heard the way Rivers was articulating that particular pattern that that was what should be the focus of what the song is melodically and trackwise,” says Stegall.

Brent Mason and Bobby Terry provided that rolling undercurrent in the end, driving the rhythm while drummer Greg Morrow played sparingly, almost imperceptibly, during the session at Nashville’s House of Blues studio. Fiddler Andy Leftwich and electric guitarist J.T. Corenflos provided a sensitive, interlocking solo section, and Stegall had a lengthy, orchestral note — created with an Oberheim OBX patch — added to the opening for a cinematic effect.

Stegall didn’t know the history of Rucker’s mom, but he could tell there was something special about the song as Rucker sang the final vocals with the lights down and his back to the control room at Charleston Sound in South Carolina.

“He held his composure really well,” says Stegall, “but I knew that there must be something else going on. I think he was able to channel that emotion into a great vocal performance, and that’s what a great artist does.”

Meanwhile, great art makes a connection between the performer and the listener, and “So I Sang” does that well. It may not be a single, but its powerful message and vulnerable rendition have already helped numerous people who have heard it connect to some difficult emotions.

“I told ’em a million times it should be a single,” says Rucker. “I thought it would be a really big hit, but they handle that, and that’s cool with me. But people feel that song. Every time I play it live, I see somebody who’s hearing it for the first time crying.”

So he sings it.

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.