Straight To Hell ft. Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Charles Kelley
“I love it because it’s so country, and it’s so… so…” The word that Darius Rucker is looking for comes to him. “… so me.”
He’s talking specifically about his latest radio hit, “For the First Time,” but Rucker could just as easily be referring to the entire new album that followed close on the single’s heels, When Was the Last Time. His fifth album for Capitol Records Nashville, Last Time includes ballads that alternately evoke old heartbreaks and pledge eternal vows… barroom-ready paeans to both true love and true suds… blissed-out remembrances of an only partly misspent youth… and, most characteristic of all, an overriding warmth that full matches the humidity of the beloved South Carolina he can’t help but constantly invoke.
That level of familiarity should not be taken to mean, however, that Rucker did not practice what he preaches when it comes to the lyrics of “For the First Time,” a rambunctious stomper that asks the musical question: “When was the last time you did something for the first time? Let yourself go, baby, follow that feeling — maybe something new is what you’re needing.” Given the continual career climb that he’s been enjoying, Rucker could have taken the attitude of: If the wagon wheel ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Instead, he decided to tie that wagon to a fresh producer, Ross Copperman, aiming for “something a little different for me, a little more upbeat,” and far more spontaneously recorded. When it came to allowing himself to have this much fun in the studio, Rucker really was, in effect, a freshman.
“I think having a new producer doing things a little differently is really the story of this album,” Rucker says. He’s been a creature of habit: “Even with the Hootie and the Blowfish records, we worked with Don Gehman on almost every record, so I’m used to having that comfort of working with the same producer. And I loved working with Frank Rogers on my previous (solo) records; he’s my brother, and I’m sure we’ll work together again. But we did such a change-up with this. I knew I liked Ross’ sound from the records he’d done with Dierks and some other people” — Copperman is known for his work not just with Bentley but Brett Eldredge, Keith Urban, and Kenny Chesney — “and when I met him, I instantly took to him and thought, ‘I want some of this kid’s energy.’ That kid is never not laughing. He’s also a friggin’ genius with the equipment and coming up with things that really make the record.”
The extra time devoted to gales of hilarity in the studio did not elongate the process. “The vocals were done in such a different way on this record,” says Rucker. “My other producers were very particular. Ross is really a ‘Just sing it a couple times; if it feels good, we got it’ kind of guy. It helped that every time we were in the studio, we had a great band that consistently had great ideas of their own. So this was as far as you could get from any kind of tedious thing. It was really three days, altogether, of recording music. One time, Ross came into Charleston, S.C. to work [where Rucker lives], and we had planned five days to do six songs… and we did all six in one day. I was like, ‘Wow, okay!’” Even with no particular need for speed, then, efficacy and ebullience turned out to be an unbeatable combination in the making of When Was the Last Time.
That “feels like the first time” ethos is summed up in the track whose gleeful, mischievous chorus supplies the album with its title. The opening lines of “For the First Time”: “You say you never danced to a dashboard singing R.E.M. under summer stars/Never leaned back on a jet black Chevy blowing smoke rings in the dark…” Explains Rucker, “Derrick George brought me part of a chorus that already had that line about R.E.M. We played so much R.E.M. in the day, so when I heard that, I said, ‘Dude, I love it — let’s write this.’ That line ‘You never drank from a bottle of two-dollar wine’ — man, I can’t even tell you how many days back in the day we were drinking Boone’s Farm and all that cheap wine because that’s all we could afford. That song is so…” …well, you know what it is: so utterly Rucker-ian. As he explains, “If I were going to the bar today, and I was single, ‘When was the last time we did something for the first time?’ would just say everything.”
But, as he says, he is not that single guy, and so there is at least as much of the new album devoted to endurance, with all the challenges and rewards implicit in a committed relationship. One such track is the single that preceded the album, “If I Told You,” a ballad that trades in bravado for sheer vulnerability. While fans know to expect these moments of unalloyed tenderness from Rucker, complicated emotions aren’t always an easy sell at radio. And so “If I Told You” had a 46-week climb to the top before it became Rucker’s eighth No. 1 country single… a tribute to the song being the ultimate example of a grower, and a wildflower that managed to thrive amid all the lusty party songs surrounding it on the airwaves.
“With that song, the more people heard it, the more they wanted to hear it,” Rucker says.
“If I Told You” is a thoroughly autobiographical song that Rucker did not write. That’s not an oxymoron. “The first time I heard it, I thought, how could I have not been in this session?” he says. “Shane McAnally, Jon Nite, and Ross sat down and said, ‘Let’s write a song for Darius,’ and every time I sing it now, to be honest with you, it feels like I wrote it, because it’s so real.” Which parts? “Everything! Let’s start with the opening lines: ‘…the two-room house that I came from/The man that I got my name from/I don’t even know where he is now.” That was me growing up. And I went 15 years without seeing Dad. Then there’s the whole chorus: If I told you all the bad things, could you stay? We all want to think that we could say that, but nobody does, because when you start a relationship, or you’re just trying to stay in a relationship, you want everybody to feel the good stuff.”
The good stuff and the bad stuff: both come into play throughout When Was the Last Time. “Bring It On” is the unabashedly hopeful flip side to “If I Told You,” with Rucker assuring a woman that he can take her at her worst as well as her best. Another love song, “Don’t,” is cut from the same together-through-anything cloth. “She’s” conflates love for a woman with the love of the South — an easy correlation to make, when you’re as partial to South Carolina as Rucker. Another song where his home state gets a shout-out is “Life’s Too Short.” “I think that when people write songs with me in mind now, they throw Carolina in to make me want to cut it,” he acknowledges — “and it works!”
When the down side of love rears its head on the album, it can be playful, as it is on “Count the Beers,” one of two tracks Rucker was thrilled to co-write with George Strait’s favorite songwriter, Dean Dillon. “This guy is talking about how great this girl is, but when you get to the chorus, you realize that she’s a rebound,” he points out. “But regardless of all that, it’s a big bar song, for sure.”
“I’m still trying to make an album, every time,” says Rucker. “Even in this day and age of singles dominating and nobody really knowing the sequence of a record like we did back in the day, I still want to make records that people can listen to all the way through.”
There’s nothing but totally idealized nostalgia in “Straight to Hell,” an oldie by the rock band Drivin N Cryin that Rucker had wanted to cut from the day he scored a country record deal. That it turned into a riotous all-star collaboration was the icing on the cake. “When I was in college in the ‘80s, that was our tune, man. That was that song that, when you’re at group therapy, late night, “Straight to Hell” comes on, and everybody in the bar is singing it. In my world, Drivin N Cryin were as big as R.E.M., and I’ve always thought more people should get to hear this song. They did it with a country flavor, but I always thought, that song needs fiddle to be really country.”
Finally, his wish came to fruition, with a nudge from a pal. “I get a phone call from (Lady Antebellum’s) Charles Kelley, who’s probably my best friend in the business. He goes, ‘I was just listening to this record, and you’ve got to cut it.’ I said, ‘Dude, I’ve been planning on cutting that since I came to Nashville!’ He said, ‘I’ll cut it with you!’ He and I started talking one day, and we were like, let’s get Luke (Bryan)! And Luke, Charles and Jason Aldean are pretty tight, so finally it was: Let’s get Jason on this and just make it a big ole party.”
Rucker actually doesn’t need a lot of help in getting people on their feet singing along, as anyone who’s seen him on tour can attest. Over the course of the 10 years since he signed a country recording contract, he’s turned into one of the genre’s most reliable hitmakers as well as concert attractions. The transition from rock into country, and from Hootie into a solo career, proceeded so seamlessly that it’s difficult to even recall the slight skepticism that awaited him when he announced he was making that shift. Of course, as it turned out, it’s hard to accuse anybody as quintessentially Carolinian as Rucker of being a carpetbagger, even if he had been one of the world’s biggest rock stars before crossing formats.
Now, he’s as accepted a part of the country firmament as if Music Row had been the very first stop on his journey. If F. Scott Fitzgerald had lived to see it, he’d have to retract that maxim about there being no second acts in American lives. Rucker’s spectacular second act is making anything that happened before intermission seem like a dim memory.
“The thing that really shocks me is that nobody gets two careers,” Rucker says. “Especially in the same business. You’ve got Ice Cube, who’s one of the greatest rappers of all time, now having this huge career doing kids’ movies and stuff. But when you’re talking about music, you don’t get to go from rap to rock or from being a rock singer to an R&B singer. And here I am getting to play in two genres of music and having success in both of ‘em. I’ve been blessed, man.”
This ten-year tenure in country has felt like a natural culmination for Rucker’s musical travels. “I’ve had five hit albums — well, four, and hopefully five,” Rucker adds, referencing When Was The Last Time’s fall 2017 release. “I’m a member of the Grand Ole Opry” (an honor afforded him a mere five years into his country career, pointing up just how quickly Nashville set aside any doubts about the South Carolina native was just another carpetbagger). “I’ve won a GRAMMY in country music. All that stuff makes me feel like: No matter how many times I play with Hootie now or whatever else we do, this is my day job. The second part of my career is officially a career. It’s what I do — and what I want to do.”
He points to two milestones that let him know he was welcome to spend the rest of his days in the country world. “Getting the invitation to join the Opry is a moment that I still picture in my head, and it still gives me goosebumps,” he says. But there was a more recent signpost. “When I was asked to be one of the artists to do that song ‘Forever Country’” — the all-star single and video the Country Music Association commissioned to celebrate the CMAs’ 50th anniversary — ”being part of that is something that I will take with me forever. You look at that lineup of the big stars of country music, everybody from Willie and Dolly to Carrie, Miranda and Luke, and there I am, singing with Martina McBride… Are you frigging kidding me?”
Once upon a time, as the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, Rucker might have been asked to come onto CMTs genre-mixing Crossroads series as the token rock guy. Now, of course, he’s the country star who gets asked to collaborate with a rock legend… or veteran soul group, as the case may be. He recently did both.
“When you get a phone call asking, ‘Do you want to do Crossroads with (John) Mellencamp?’--are you kidding me? Let’s do it right now! I don’t even have to learn any of the songs; I know ‘em all. He was such a big influence on me as a singer, and even as a songwriter… Then a few weeks after I do that, I get a call: ‘Would you do one with Earth Wind & Fire? Their first choice was you.’ What song do they want me to sing? I know all those, too. In the neighborhood where I grew up, Earth Wind & Fire was our Beatles. Me and my friends would have little dance routines. Those harmonies I did on ‘Shining Star,’ I’ve sung a million times in the car, and here I am getting to sing it with Phil, Verdine and Ralph.”
He’s also been on-screen lately as an actor. He put on latex to ultimately help families in need for CBS’ “Undercover Boss.” Definitely playing against type, meanwhile, he played a bomb-making terrorist on an episode of “Hawaii 5-0.”
As established a country star as Rucker is nearly a decade into the Nashville era of his career, Rucker still has the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store, whether it comes to the music itself or the little acting perks that come with it. “I’m still honored when I get asked to do things like voiceover work for television shows and stuff like that, even when I have to turn it down,” he says. “In my mind and in my heart, I’m still that kid from South Carolina who just wants to sing for a living, and here I am, a few decades after starting my first band, getting these phone calls — that still freaks me out.” It’s a very mindful freakout, mind you. “I think one of the biggest disservices I’ve ever done to myself is that at the beginning of Hootie’s real success, I wasn’t worried about remembering anything. I was just worried about where I was going to get my next party going on. So with all this stuff going on right now, I always tell myself: Pay attention and remember.” For Rucker, it really does always feel like he’s doing something for the first time.