If Mel Torme had never existed, people would call Darius Rucker the Velvet Fog.
As ubiquitous as Ross and Rachel in the mid 1990s, Rucker's voice on the Hootie & the Blowfish hits "Only Want to Be With You," "Let Her Cry" and "Hold My Hand" poured deep and mellow from MTV and every jukebox and car radio (that's the way people heard music back in those days, children) on an hourly basis.
The Hootie & the Blowfish album Cracked Rear View went platinum 16 times over and was the top-selling record of 1995.
The band, which originated at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, also includes guitarist Mark Bryan, drummer Jim Sonefeld and bassist Dean Felber.
The hit songs were co-written by all the band members, but as the lead singer and frontman, Rucker was always the focal point. He was, and is, the voice.
Hootie & the Blowfish never repeated the success of Cracked Rear View, and the band's most recent album, Looking for Lucky, came out eight years ago.
Rucker, on the other hand, has been anything but idle. Since 2008 he has scored six No. 1 hits on Billboard's country music chart (most recently, a soulful cover of the Bob Dylan/Old Crow Medicine Show song "Wagon Wheel").
He is just the second African American to top the country charts, and the first to win New Artist of the Year from the Country Music Association.
Last week, he played a surprise acoustic set at the Blowfish Bar & Grill in St. Petersburg, Fla., which happens to be owned and operated by Hootie bassist Dean Felber.
You were such a successful rock singer. Why did you make the switch to country music?
Darius Rucker: I grew up in the South, and I love country music. I always thought it was great — it started, as a kid, with Hee Haw. That was a show I watched every week. I don't give Roy Clark and Buck Owens enough credit for my career, because that's where it really all started for me. Kenny Rogers was huge for me too, as he was for everybody in the '70s and '80s. When I started listening to Nanci Griffith, Dwight Yoakam and bands like Newgrass Revival and Foster & Lloyd, I loved it but I never really thought about singing it. Then in 1989 Radney Foster came out with his Del Rio Texas 1959 record — the day I bought that and put it on was like a lightbulb for me. It was the first time I thought man, I really want to make a country record someday. I talked about it for years.
We were on tour, seven years ago now, and one of the guys said he was done touring every summer and wanted to take some time off. So I said 'Now I'm going to make a country record.'
I wouldn't have given me a record deal. But I had a great manager who got me a record deal, and the rest, I guess, is history.
Was it an uphill climb? There are a lot of "flavors of the month" in country.
Darius Rucker: Oh, absolutely. The president of Capitol at the time decided he was going to sign me. He called me over dinner and said "I'm gonna give you a record deal." I said "I'll believe it when I see it." He said the next day he went to the office and he called the 13 people that he thought were movers and shakers in Nashville, and 12 of them told him it would never work.
There's this whole myth that rock 'n' roll guys and pop guys, when their careers are over they go into country music and make a living. And I always say to people, "Well, tell me one person that's done it besides me." And the answer is, nobody. Nobody's ever had a career, let alone a hit. Well, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but they were always kind of country.
Does Hootie & the Blowfish still exist?
Darius Rucker: Oh yeah. I don't think we'll ever say we broke up, because we never know when we're gonna play together again. Next year is the 20th anniversary of Cracked Rear View, and we're talking about maybe doing a quick tour or something. We're still a band, but I don't think we'll ever be a touring band ever again, where we go out every summer. I don't think that's gonna happen.
That success and great fame happened so fast for you back then. How do you handle something like that?
Darius Rucker: For us, it wasn't overnight. We had been a band for nine years before we got a record deal. Then, our record comes out in June or July, and nothing happens for five months. Then all of a sudden we start selling records.
We'd had an accountant and a manager since we were playing clubs, seven years before, so we were building some velocity. It seemed that we were going from the biggest band in Columbia to the biggest band in South Carolina to one of the biggest bands in the Southeast to the biggest band in America. Then the biggest band in the world. It was just like a regular progression. So it never got crazy. We never thought about it that way. All we ever thought was, the shows are getting bigger, and that's cool.
Then there's the famous "lead singer syndrome." Did you ever feel that too much of the focus was on you?
Darius Rucker: We made sure it didn't happen that way. Hootie & the Blowfish is Mark's band. I'm the singer in Mark's band. I had to go to most of the interviews, but there was always two of us. No one was ever allowed to talk to me by myself. I never felt like it was any big thing or all on me, we were a band. We shared everything, we lived together. I'm sure there probably was, but we never let it be that way with us.
I say that because I can't walk into a bar or restaurant without "Only Want to Be With You" coming on within 10 minutes. It's your voice. Was there anybody in those days whispering in your ear, "you don't need these other guys"?
Darius Rucker: Absolutely. When we started seeing some success. But it just went in one ear and out the other. And if they said it too many times, I just stopped talking to them. The people that were working with us would never say that; they knew how much of a band we were, and how tight we were. And that was just not an option.
You live in Charleston, your charities are there, and you titled an album after it. Why is the city still so important to you?
Darius Rucker: First of all, it's home. When I'm there, I feel like I'm home. I've been all over the world. I lived in different places over the years. Charleston is just home. My family's there, my friends are there. Sure, I could live in the big city and go to the supermarket and everything, but in Charleston I've been going to the same supermarket for 15 years. Everybody there knows me. It's just no big deal. And I like that.
I love living in a small town 'cause I'm a small town kind of guy. And Charleston is perfect for me.
Back in the day, I assume the band played in Savannah a lot.
Darius Rucker: Oh goodness, yes. We used to play the art college there a lot, SCAD. And there was a bar there we played every six weeks for a couple years. I wish I could remember the name of it. Savannah was great for us.
Do you feel like Nashville has accepted you?
Darius Rucker: Yeah. I still feel I have something to prove, and I won't rest on my laurels and go "Everything's fine." I still have to prove to people that I belong, and I deserve to be there. But definitely I feel like they've accepted me. I've got so many friends there.
And I'm a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Right there, of all the things that happened to me I think getting asked to join was the turning point to where I went "OK. I made it in country music. I'm in now. You can't kick me out, I'm in."
It's a great family, and I'm proud to be a part of it.