Darius Rucker Crosses Country Music’s Color Line

The former star of Hootie & the Blowfish becomes the first Black man to win the Country Music Association award for best new artist.

By Juba Kalamka Nov 25, 2009

November 25, 2009

Hootie is the new Black.

If you read that and thought “for real, though?” I have really, truly been enjoying former Hootie & the Blowfish front guy Darius Rucker’s country debut, Learn to Live, which just earned him the 2009 CMA Award for New Artist of the Year.

For those of you thinking, “Doesn’t country music = white?” you’re right. Charley Pride was the last Black country music artist to have a number one in 1988 and the only one before Rucker to take home a CMA Award, winning two in 1971.

When Rucker’s album came out, I wondered what the media fallout, if any, would be. Would the country music press and fandom question the Charleston, South Carolina-born Rucker’s authenticity as a country performer? I was pleasantly surprised by the sales and chart success of the album (three consecutive number one Billboard singles; sales in excess of a million units), which seemed to render that conversation moot. Rucker had been accepted by country music consumers, listeners and radio.

There was, though, some grousing about his status as a “new” artist. Sony Nashville bent the truth by referring in promotional materials to the recent album release as his first solo record, ignoring his 2002 Hidden Beach Recordings release, Back To Then. But the criticism paled in comparison to the effusive praise the record has garnered in general.

Whatever you thought about Hootie & the Blowfish (who did what they did very well, in my opinion), Rucker’s solo Learn To Live is tight, heartfelt and funny. It’s a solid production, and performances are top to bottom. The album presents the reflections of a regular-ol’-feller-reaching-middle-age with a refreshingly raw and honest vulnerability. And it showcases a perfect mix of up-tempo numbers (the galloping opener “Forever Road”) and sparkling ballads (the hits “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” and the heartwrenching “It Won’t Be Like This For Long”).

On a personal note—and maybe this is my Mississippi and West Virginia parental roots showing—I love this record. I listened to “It Won’t Be Like This For Long” after dropping off my daughter at pre-school and started bawling in the car. Maybe it’s because I’m kind of partial to country music in ways my northern folks just don’t (can’t?) get. That’s OK with me. I’ll be that.

Rucker himself seems reticent (and, I suspect, at this point in his career, a bit tired) to be the de facto Representative of the Race for country music, having experienced similar dynamics during the mega-success of his former band. Though one might expect that the comments at AOL’s country music news site, TheBoot.com, would be of the stereotypic Southern-fried racist variety, the bulk of them are congratulatory and mostly insightful, with one Black and several white commentators giving minute histories of Black influence in country music and several white commentators acknowledging the immensity of his crossover success in a genre not particularly friendly to Black folks or 45-year-old newbies, let alone its veteran hit makers.

What’s the difference between the acceptance of Rucker and the relatively lukewarm reception of Dallas native and Black singer Cowboy Troy? I suspect there are issues of racial-cum-cultural authenticity still at play.

Troy’s complicated b-boy-in-a-Stetson style didn’t fly real well with many country purists, despite his Texas pedigree. His album Loco Motive is a complicated slab of hip-hop, Tejano and traditional, slowed-down pedal steel grooves. The single “I Play Chicken with The Train” was groundbreaking but pushed too many (if not the wrong) buttons and was difficult to shoehorn into country radio playlists. (Rucker, of course, also had the advantage of 15 years of international stardom, with many of Hootie’s fans likely being country listeners, as well.)

This isn’t to say that Rucker’s music—or country music in general—is simple in terms of its aesthetic notions or race, gender and class dynamics. The online commentaries about his award have been pleasingly complex, and fortunately so, because Rucker’s win (the first of many, I’ll bet) opens a space of conversation around the racialized musical histories in the United States.

And even if Rucker’s win only represents a Jackie Robinson-esque perfect storm with the right guy at the right time sitting in its eye, that’s alright by me if it starts and encourages ongoing conversations.

Juba Kalamka is a founding member of the queer hip-hop group Deep Dickollective and creator of the label Sugartruck Recordings. He regularly reviews music for ColorLines; send your suggestions for review to juba@jubakalamka.com.