There is a separate entrance to the Grand Ole Opry, strictly reserved for artists. A special red awning marks the short sidewalk where you enter the back of the historic brown brick building. Inside, the air is filled with the smell of popcorn and the feeling of electricity. It’s as if something really big just happened and is about to all over again. It was no wonder Darius Rucker was a nervous wreck. His leg was shaking and he was talking a mile a minute. “It’s just so cool that I’m here,” he said while looking around at the memorabilia in the dressing room. He was clearly in awe, attempting to soak it all in.
It was July of 2008. Rucker had just signed a recording contract with Capitol Records Nashville and was releasing his first single, ‘Don’t Think I don’t Think About It’, to country radio.It was a big departure for the frontman of one of the biggest bands of the 90’s. Rucker was already a bonafide superstar - he had number one hits and Grammys with Hootie and the Blowfish, but this was different. He was performing on his own, in a new genre and he was moments away from walking into the most hallowed circle of country music. That is when we first met.
Nearly 13 years later, we are struggling with technology to get our call online. After a few failed attempts, we connect - I hear that same gravely “hello” on the other end of the call, followed by his infectious laugh. It’s a laugh that instantly makes you feel at ease, even when we are fighting with your computer and cursing the invention of the internet.
The glitches cannot be blamed on being miles apart. Rucker is doing interviews from his new place in Nashville, not far from my home office. He recently relocated to Music City, after spending his entire life and career in South Carolina. It was a running joke between some Nashville journalists and Rucker as to when he would finally move here. It only took 13 years for him to make the jump.
He is smiling from ear to ear when his face pops up onto the screen. There is a lot to smile about on this day. His most recent single, ‘Beers and Sunshine’ just hit number one on the charts - making it his 10th No.1 country single. It’s a milestone he wasn’t sure would happen. There had been a bit of a break since his last single 'For the First Time' went to number one in 2017. Any artist may begin to wonder if those pinnacles will ever be reached again – that’s what makes this particular number one extra sweet.
Congratulations on your number one. That's huge.
I was talking about this the other day with a couple of buddies. It's just amazing to say that number you know - 10 number ones. It never gets old, it's always awesome and it feels great, I'm not going to lie to you.
It's been a minute since your last number one. It was in 2017. There had to be a little bit of a question in the back of your head like, “Are we ever going to get to number one again?”
Yeah! It's been almost two years since I was on the radio and I didn't know, you know? Like you said, are we going to do this again? When we wrote the song I thought we had something special, but it's really wild to sit back and think that, you know, people still wanna hear my voice on the radio. That's pretty awesome.
I was listening to some of our old interviews and one of them, I was really giving you a hard time about not moving to Nashville yet, but now here you are. What has it been like in your new adopted hometown? I know you still love South Carolina and still have a place there.
I love it here. It's been great. I love where I live. I love the neighbors. You know, it's been a really great experience for us, I should have done it a long time ago. Honestly. that’s what I said after a few months, I was like, ‘I should've done this a long time ago.’
Okay. Have you checked out the food scene? Tell me your favorites, what are you loving?
I like the steak a lot in that Bob’s down in the Omni – its just great. Then you have Valentino's, the Italian place over behind the Hutton. I go there all the time - I just love that place. I still like to sneak out of Broadway in the afternoon - I still love to do that.
Where can we find you on Broadway?
Oh, now with the mask, it’s awesome! Before I would just sneak in, go to the bar and have a beer and listen to the people play. But now with a mask, I can go down there and hang out for a minute. I love it!
So when you're down there and you're hearing these guys that are up on stage, there has to be a special place in your heart for them - watching them performing in the middle of the day to a half capacity crowd or less. What is it like? Do you ever like walk up and request anything?
I do. I walk up, request something and I’ll leave a big tip. I request something with my mask on. Going down there, you hear people that you think “Why are you singing in this bar? Why do you not have a record deal?” It happens all the time, you know? I walked in one day, and I don't know if this kid knew who I liked, but I sat there and he played three of my favorites. He played a Randy Foster song, and I was like, ‘How are you playing this?’. It was just one of those great moments. I just thought “This is awesome. This is awesome”.
So let’s talk new music. A little birdie tells me there might be some on the way and I want to know all about it.
Oh, I'm very excited. I had a lot of stuff to write about on this record. What’s been crazy for everybody has been crazy for me. So I had a lot of stuff I wanted to write about, and I just can't wait for people to hear it. I'm still in that place where I still listen to it a lot. When you're making a record, you listen to it so much. I just think we've written some amazing songs - like my next single, which is ready to come out.
Tell me more about it?
I wrote it with the same guys I wrote ‘Beers and Sunshine’ with. It all started when J.T. [Harding] was listening to me on a radio interview; they asked me if I was learning something new during the pandemic. I said, ‘Yeah, I'm trying to learn a piano’, they asked if I was any good and I just said, “I can't play piano, like Ray Charles”. That stuck with him, so we wrote a song around that.
When you are in this writing session and you're doing everything on zoom, how is it working?
I always say zoom has turned songwriting into even more of a business. Before, you would show up in a room, sit down and you’re with your buddies - you're talking for a while and messing around with everybody. But when you zoom, everybody gets on, ready to go. You have a quick conversation, you get an idea for a song and then you write.But as soon as we can get back to being in person and hanging out, I'm going to start doing that.
Thinking about this new music, it gives you a fresh perspective - having this much time being in your new home. What do you feel’s different about your music this time around?
As a songwriter and as an artist, I think I'm still growing so much. When I listen to this record - I mean, real is not the word because you know, all the songs you write, you always love them and you believe in them. But this record, I think I got a little more personal than I usually do. When I listen to it, there are still some songs on this record that will come on in the car and if I'm in the right spot, I'll just start crying. That's my therapy for how I handle life - I write songs about it. So, you know, I just hope people like that, because I think it's great.
You've been through a lot of life, man. There's a lot there.
I'm old, man. I’m looking at myself [grabbing his goatee] and I'm going straight Kenny Rogers, man, straight Kenny Rogers.
A salt and pepper beard is all good! So looking forward to what's happening in this year, I know it's hard to predict tours but you have some shows on the books?
Yeah, we do. But you know, it’s still waiting to be cancelled. It's so hard to say whether we're going to go out this summer or if we’re going to play a show in March or April, because you're probably not. So realistically, I'm hoping the summer, but if we start playing again in the fall, I'll be really happy with that.
What's it going to be like the first time that you step back out on stage and you get to be in front of a real crowd?
I'm sure I'm going to do something in Charleston, at some clubs or something, rather than just just start playing the big places again.When I get up on that stage again and everybody's next to each other, even if everybody's got a mask on or half the people have a mask on, when everybody's standing next to each other and singing along, yelling and screaming, it's going to be like 27,000 Christmases or more.
I've known you for a while now. Are you happier now than you've ever been?
I think I might be. Yeah. You know, life is tough. All I want to be in life is happy - that's what I've decided I'm going to be, I’m going to be happy.
Darius Rucker's latest single, 'Beers and Sunshine', is out now via Capitol Records Nashville / UMG.