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Darius Rucker on the Best of Hootie and the Hits That Should’ve Been

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: Donna Santisi/Redferns

For almost his entire life, Darius Rucker has been obsessed with music. In his new memoir, Life’s Too Short, Rucker remembers listening to Al Green’s cover of “For the Good Times” “ten, twenty times in a row” at the age of six, meandering bar to bar during college to request the Black Crowes’ “She Talks to Angels,” and rewinding the video for the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” all night one Fourth of July. “I listen to a song I love not for hours, but for days,” Rucker writes. “I listen until the song inserts itself into me, until it becomes a part of my soul.”

That voracious appetite for music has driven a 30-year career spanning pop, rock, R&B, and country. Rucker’s success already seemed unlikely in 1994, when his group Hootie and the Blowfish, once a hard-partying college band, were selling their debut album, Cracked Rear View, by the millions. It felt even more unexpected in 2008, when Rucker recorded a solo country album, Learn to Live, and earned the first country No. 1 for a Black man in 25 years. The second act hadn’t even been a pivot — Rucker began lobbying Hootie to make a country record following their second album, 1996’s Fairweather Johnson. He finally got his wish in 2019, when Hootie reunited after a decade-long hiatus and released Imperfect Circle on a Nashville label.

Today, Rucker lives up to the breadth of his tastes, splitting his time between playing solo and with Hootie. And though he may not listen to his own catalog on repeat, he still eagerly anticipates playing them on the set list, night after night.

Favorite song to play live

Oh, goodness. You know, it varies. Like right now, we do this cool rendition of “Valerie,” the song Amy Winehouse covered. She did this thing at the BBC, where they did it really slow and soulfully, and I was listening to it a lot. We do this cool thing where we come back out for the encore and it’s bass and guitar and then the band kicks in.

If you just talk about my songs, I mean, gotta be “Let Her Cry.” Even today, I hit that G and start singing, and everybody knows the song. To think that I wrote it when I was a drunk kid and that many people know it is pretty awesome.

New Hootie song that felt like the old days

“Miss California” was a song that we would’ve written back in the day. The melody, the background vocals, Mark’s guitar riffs — it’s just Hootie. That’s the one thing we’ve really learned with Imperfect Circle: No matter what we do, when we play, we’re just gonna sound like us.

Hootie album that never got its due

I thought Fairweather Johnson was a better record than Cracked Rear View. But what do I know — I’m in the band. It sold like six million copies or something, but that’s the record that everybody missed. It was coming out after the monster.

Song that made you realize you could make country music

That was “All I Want.” When we cut it, I was like, That’s exactly what I wanna do. I wanna write country songs like that. And that was probably my second writing session for the record when we wrote that. It’s so country. And the thing I loved was it was old-school country. We knew it wasn’t gonna get on the radio, because singing about divorce doesn’t really — it’s not Tammy Wynette singing “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” you know. [Laughs]

Worst Hootie review

I can’t really think of one that sticks with me, ‘cause I don’t read ‘em that much. What sticks to me is back in the club days. We’re playing with all these other bands, on a great circuit that used to exist on the East Coast, of college bars. Our guy Jeff who’s with us — not our tour manager but he’s our dude — writes our name on the wall of one of the clubs. I think it was the Brewery in Raleigh. And we told him, “Dude, why’d you do that?” We come back in six weeks and it says, “Hootie and the Blowfish, that shitty cover band,” [laughs] you know, “These fuckers will never make it,” “Who do they think they are?” “They suck!” It was like, See?

Duet partner who outsang you

Adele! [Laughs] I mean, it’s not even close. It wasn’t fair! Yeah, she crushed me that night. I listened back to it. I brought it, but God, she’s so amazing.

Back to Then song that should’ve been a hit

I really thought that “Exodus” was gonna be a big hit. And “Wild One,” honestly. That song is such a groover, and you know, in ‘99, it was right in the pocket. I was up at Jazzy Jeff’s place in Philly and we were just writing those in the studio. “Wild One” was written when I was playing Madden, and I came back, and they were like, “Let’s do this.” And I was like, “Oh my goodness!” I’d never written like that. We’re starting with a track, we’re starting with the drum and bass or something to get the grooves. I always just sat down with a guitar and wrote songs. I was like, Man, I didn’t know you could do it like this.

Every time someone comes up to me and talks about that record, I always go, “You’re one of the 5,000 people that got it.” [Laughs] When we go over to Europe, we play “Wild One” and “Exodus.” I love that record, I always will.

No. 1 that most surprised you

“Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” was absolutely, by far, the biggest surprise. Because of all the things that were against me, and I couldn’t believe we were putting out a ballad. I know how much radio loves tempo. But that’s the song they wanted to go with. When you get into the top 20 and the top 15, and you’re out there on the road playing shows and you’re seeing people, it just was good. When I was told it was No. 1, it was a great moment in my career.

Hootie song that’s deeper than people know

Oh, “Hold My Hand.” So much was going on — Soni wrote that in ‘89 or something. It was a different America back then. People take it so literally, but if you listen to the words, you realize that it’s protesting against everything that’s going on that wasn’t Soni’s idea of righteous. I love that song.

The moment he played it, I went, “That is awesome.” It was the reason he got in the band. If he hadn’t played “Hold My Hand,” and walked out of that room, and then the next drummer came to jam with us, I don’t know if Soni would’ve been our drummer. But soon as he played that song, no matter what — you know, Stewart Copeland could’ve walked through that door and Soni would’ve been in the band.

Song that should’ve been a single

“Hands on Me,” off of When Was the Last Time. That song! We play it still. I thought that song was gonna be a smash. But like I say all the time, I don’t pick singles. I’ll go the way you wanna go. You know radio better than I do. I thought that song was a no-brainer, but we didn’t put it out.

Hootie song you missed playing on hiatus

I missed playing “I Will Wait.” I missed playing “Desert Mountain Showdown” — that little piece of us having so much fun, listening to too much New Grass Revival. When we play it, that always takes me back to when we were writing that and just loving life.

When I’m playing a solo show, I’m playing “Let Her Cry,” “Hold My Hand,” and “Only Wanna Be With You.” I’m just playing the hits. I wanna play “I Will Wait” with Hootie because that’s us.

Song you didn’t write that feels like you did

“If I Told You.” When I saw Shane McAnally after I cut that song, I asked him how he could dare write my life when I wasn’t in the room. I really wish I had written that song.



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