Darius Rucker is country and proud: Singer bringing Rodney Atkins and Josh Turner to Evening with the Stars

By T. Ballard Lesemann  Special to The Post and Courier – Thursday, November 22, 2012

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Jim Wright
Darius Rucker

North Charleston Performing Arts Center

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  • Rodney Atkins
    ( Provided )
    Rodney Atkins

  • Josh Turner
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    Josh Turner

  • Darius Rucker
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    Darius Rucker

  • Darius Rucker
    ( Jim Wright )
    Darius Rucker

  • Darius Rucker
    ( Provided )
    Darius Rucker

  • Darius Rucker’s “True Believer”
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    Darius Rucker’s “True Believer”

  • Josh Turner
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    Josh Turner

  • Rodney Atkins
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    Rodney Atkins

If you go

What: WEZL’s Evening with the Stars featuring Darius Rucker, Rodney Atkins and Josh Turner

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: North Charleston Performing Arts Center, 5001 Coliseum Drive

Price: $25-$100

For more info: www.northcharlestoncoliseumpac.com or www.wezl.com

Darius Rucker may forever be tagged as the deep-voiced lead singer of the chart-topping Carolina pop/rock group Hootie & the Blowfish, but his now-established career as a country music singer-songwriter has earned him acclaim and respect, as well.

With the release of his third solo country album, “True Believers ” on the horizon, Rucker tends to shrug off his phenomenal crossover from ’90s alternative rock to the contemporary country music realm with a laid-back approach.

To him, penning a strong song is more important than scoring the next big hit.

“I really believe that a great song can be played in any way,” Rucker said. “That’s important when you write songs. It’s one thing to specifically write a country song, but I usually ask myself, ‘Well, how is this going to sound with just me and a guitar?’ I think you can make a good song sound good in any genre.”

In 2008, Rucker surprised loyal Hootie followers and many in the rock ’n’ roll world when he released a countrified solo album titled “Learn to Live” on Capitol Records.

The platinum-selling collection connected with new, young fans, and it earned Rucker a best new artist award from the Country Music Association in 2009.

Rucker’s 2010 follow-up album, “Charleston, SC 1966,” made a big splash, too, going gold with the hit singles “Come Back Song” and “This.”

Rucker’s new adventure as a modern country singer doesn’t seem to be a temporary jaunt.

His crossover success as a reinvented songwriter continues to rise at a steady, determined pace. If Rucker’s initial success might have seemed like a short-term stroke of luck to some, his formal induction into Nashville, Tenn.’s Grand Ole Opry in October might have dissolved any doubt of his bona-fide country status.

“I’m definitely a country artist now,” Rucker boasts. “The Grand Ole Opry thing went a long way towards that, but really, getting to meet everybody over the last five years has been the main thing. From getting to go to my first Country Music Awards to what’s happening now, I really feel like l’m a part of it. And I like that feeling.”

Rucker’s South Carolina story

Rucker, 46, grew up in Charleston within a musical family.

He attended Middleton High School (now closed) before heading to the University of South Carolina.

While in college, he formed Hootie & the Blowfish with three dorm mates: guitarist Mark Bryan, drummer Jim “Soni” Sonefeld and bassist Dean Felber.

The band started out as a bar band handling covers and keg-party tunes, but they quickly got serious about writing songs and recording material.

Hootie played the Southeastern college circuit for a few years before signing with Atlantic Records, releasing its major label debut, “Cracked Rear View,” in 1994.

The catchy collection of hook-laden pop-rock tunes went on to sell more than 16 million copies.

In 1996, “Cracked Rear View” won Grammy Awards for best new artist and song of the year (“Let Her Cry”).

Between 1997 and 2006, Rucker and the rest of the Blowfish guys toured heavily. They recorded a handful of albums for Atlantic, but nothing quite topped the massive success of “Cracked Rear View.”

Along the way, they formed the Hootie & the Blowfish Foundation as a private nonprofit to assist children of South Carolina through educational and musical programs. Their annual Homegrown Concerts at the Family Circle Cup Stadium continue to draw capacity crowds.

Although Rucker took a stab at going solo in 2002 with the release of “Back to Then,” a soul/R&B-based collection of originals, it wasn’t until Hootie & the Blowfish went on an amicable hiatus in 2008 that Rucker started working on “Learn to Live” for the Capitol Records Nashville label.

“Charleston, SC 1966” was a biographical set of strummy country rockers, pop-tinged Americana rockers and melancholic ballads.

It did very well commercially, too. Critics praised the smooth blend of rock, soul and twang. Fans connected with Rucker’s hometown sentiment, easy-going spirit and warm-toned croon.

“I think Charleston always plays into my music because it’s such a big part of my life,” Rucker said. “A lot of guys come down to Charleston to write music with me. I’m always happy when it’s someone new, because we get out in the Lowcountry and they always want to come back.”

Making ‘True Believers’

Rucker spent much of the past year partnering with friends and colleagues at concerts, special events, fundraisers and recording sessions, but he’s eager to hit the road and tour behind his forthcoming album, “True Believers.”

The disc is due out Jan. 22.

Rucker wrote and arranged dozens of new tunes over the past two years, and he collaborated with a handful of friends from the contemporary and traditional side of the country scene on dozens more.

Producer Frank Rogers (Trace Adkins, Brad Paisley, Josh Turner), a longtime Rucker studio cohort, oversaw the “True Believers” sessions in Nashville and at Mount Pleasant’s Charleston Sound studio.

The title track is a melodic country/power-pop mix with a storyteller vibe. Rucker’s lyrics tell the tape of a young couple dealing with life’s roadblocks and opportunities.

Singing uplifting verses about relationships and loved ones comes naturally to Rucker. He’s a husband and father juggling a demanding musical career and family life, so his personal experiences tend to make their way into his lyrics with ease, he said.

“The toughest part of doing what I do is just being away from the family,” he said. “But I love to play, I still love going out and playing shows and seeing crowds. I adore that. But being away from the kids when there are football or volleyball games is pretty tough.”

Between the lyrical moods and themes and the sturdy, guitar-based musical arrangements, there’s probably almost as much Lowcountry/Carolina flavor in “True Believers” as his previous two releases.

“I don’t think there was a theme in mind when we started making ‘True Believers,’ ” Rucker said. “However, like most records, a theme started to take shape as the sessions progressed and things came together.

“I think the title connects to the music and you weave through the songs, and I’m glad I went with that. I just make records, you know? I wish I was smart enough to make a proper concept record, but I never do. I just write songs, and then I look at the songs and see what I’ve got. I write a bunch, and the best ones make the record.”

A few special guests appear on the album. The set features collaborations between Rucker and singer Sheryl Crow and members of Lady Antebellum. Rucker pulls them in for a rendition of Americana/bluegrass band Old Crow Medicine Show’s popular “Wagon Wheel,” too.

“I love the Old Crow version of ‘Wagon Wheel,’ but we realized before we even started doing it that we couldn’t do a bluegrass version like that,” Rucker said. “So we decided to take it and just make it a big, old-fashioned country song. We added a full band and some big voices, and we tried to make it sound big. I think people will see what we were trying to do.”

Rucker in-the-round

On Tuesday evening, Rucker will return home, bringing with him fellow country artists Rodney Atkins and Josh Turner as they perform at WEZL 103.5’s Evening With the Stars.

The concert at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center will feature an “in-the-round” format, with all three co-headliners situated at the front of the stage with a backing band behind them.

“We’ll all just play together, like a carpool,” Rucker said of Atkins and Turner. “It’ll be really cool. We can play whatever we want.

“I’m a big fan of both of those guys, so I’m looking forward to it. I’ve done this with Rodney before on the road, but I’ve never done this with Josh before. Josh says he’s excited to trash-talk me a little bit, since he’s a big Clemson fan and I’m a Carolina fan.”

Turner a is double-platinum-selling singer-songwriter and one of the youngest members of the Grand Ole Opry. His latest album, an 11-song bluegrass-tinged collection of country and Americana titled “Punching Bag,” is his fifth for the MCA Nashville label. His recent concert album, “Live Across America,” was the latest in Cracker Barrel’s exclusive music program.

A well-seasoned veteran on the country circuit with a strong reputation for delivering energetic performances, Atkins recently earned great success with the release of “Take a Back Road.”

The easy-going, summer-themed title track became the sixth No. 1 single of his career.

Rucker and Atkins have worked together on benefit concerts and special fundraisers before, including Rucker’s annual Darius and Friends concerts, auction and golf tournament in Nashville benefiting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

In February, Rucker donned a tuxedo and sang Frank Sinatra standards backed by a full orchestra at a special concert at the Performing Arts Center as part of a benefit for the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital.

This time around, he’ll stick with his repertoire of country tunes and Hootie & the Blowfish hits. The event is another by Rucker benefiting Children’s Hospital, as well as the Children’s Miracle Network.

“WEZL has always been cool to me and my friends, so this show is going to be a really fun thing,” Rucker said. “I live here in the Lowcountry, and it can be so easy to do things to help people. That’s one thing I’ve learned. There are a lot of people who need help, so when you get a chance to perform a show and help out, that’s great.”