“There was minute where I thought, ‘Is this over?’” Darius Rucker recalls of the mid-2000s, when the success of his alt-rock band Hootie & the Blowfish was clearly winding down. “Then I made the decision to come to Nashville.”
That was over nine years ago. This past June, the 51-year-old singer snagged his seventh Country Airplay No. 1 with “If I Told You,” the first single off his album When Was the Last Time (Oct. 20, Capitol Nashville). His country comeback has helped him to expand into acting, with a recent role on Hawaii Five-O, and sports (last November he became a partner in the MGC Sports agency), but his new music still focuses on the more humble, downhome side of his life, as a husband and father of two in Charleston, South Carolina, where his family has lived for generations. “I write what I know,” says Rucker.
Your new single “For the First Time” talks about dancing to R.E.M. in the first line. You don’t hear R.E.M. get a lot of shout-outs in country songs. What inspired that?
It was a shout-out to the time when that was all I did: listen to R.E.M. 24 hours a day. They’re my favorite band of all time aside from the Beatles. I’m good friends with [R.E.M. bassist] Mike Mills; I went to dinner with him a couple weeks ago, and I was like, “Dude, I was gonna call you and ask you to play bass and sing on that song.” He said, “Dude, I would’ve done it.” I was so mad at myself. I’d love to get all of them on a song — I’m definitely doing to make that happen.
The song is about doing things for the first time. What are some things you’ve never done but want to?
“First Time” made me start thinking about bucket list stuff. I made a list. A lot of travel. I want to go back to Africa. I want to go back to Australia, which I’m going to do next year. When you tour, you go to a lot of places but you don’t get to really see them. I want to take them in. There’s skydiving, but that has a question mark next to it. Maybe… [Laughs]
I made a list of concerts that I wanted to see. Paul McCartney — and I finally got to do that this year. I want to see U2 do all of Joshua Tree before they stop doing that. I want Al Green to play again so I can go see Al Green. I want to see Public Enemy if they ever get back together. Tom Petty was third on my list. As a guy who loves lyrics, god, I love Tom Petty. He wrote these songs that you totally believed in. He used the words that he needed to. I don’t think Tom Petty ever went and used a word just because it was a good word to use. He’s going to be missed.
“If I Told You” was written by Shane McAnally, Jon Nite and producer Ross Copperman, but you’ve said the lyrics read like they’re about you. There’s one line where you sing, “sometimes I lose my faith.” Have you ever lost your faith?
Oh goodness, yes. Probably right before I came to Nashville. We’d been doing Hootie for so long. I thought, “Maybe I just don’t have it anymore.” I kind of lost faith for a little, but my wife helped me get it back. When I sing that line I get chills.
There’s another line on that song, “What if I told you there’s no fixing me, ’cause everybody’s already tried.” Were you the guy that every girl was trying to fix?
Absolutely. From 18 to twenty-something I’m playing in this band and I’ve got all my baggage — that I probably still have. Everyone wanted to fix you, everyone thought they could be your savior, but back then you weren’t even looking for a savior. I was talking to Shane about that — it was like they came to my house and dove into young me’s soul. That’s one of those songs where I sing it like I wrote it, ’cause I feel every word.
You’ve been married for 17 years, and a lot of the album talks about long-term relationships. Any advice on how to keep a relationship going strong?
She’s always right, bro. As simple as that.
You sang the national anthem when the Miami Dolphins played the New Orleans Saints on Oct. 1. Many players kneeled. How do you feel about that?
It saddens me that we’ve gotten to a point to where the one two-and-a-half minutes I think we all should be unified; we’re so separated. But I understand exactly what the NFL players are saying. I’ve been stopped [by police] so many times — just for driving a nice car basically. I’ve got cousins and brothers and nephews and friends who can tell a million stories. America is so divided right now — it’s a sad, sad time.
What did you think about Donald Trump tweeting about it and ginning up the issue?
I’m not getting into any of that, man. He does what he wants to do. He’s speaking to his base.
Another divisive issue right now is gun control. After the massacre at the Route 91 festival, where do you stand?
I understand the Second Amendment and I’m all for it. But when you can buy something on the Internet for $5 that can modify a gun to shoot that way, that should not be legal. I understand hunting, self-defense and all that, but that should not be legal.
Country artists have long celebrated guns in their music. Do you think that’s something we should be reexamining after the massacre at the Route 91 festival?
I’m not gonna sit here and say that. That’s the best part about country: that you can do whatever you want. There are people who want to keep glorifying [guns], and they have the right to do it, so I’m not gonna say they should or shouldn’t. It’s never been a big part of my music — and it’s definitely not going to be.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 28 issue of Billboard.