Hootie Populism: Darius Rucker Is Country Music’s Newest Hit-Maker

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Editor’s Note: We realize this breaks our “no pop” rule, but this essay was too good to pass up.

Darius Rucker is not Hootie. Instead, he’s Darius, the former lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, a band that since 1994 has sold more than sixteen million records. Now he’s a country singer whose first album, Learn to Live, has gone platinum. He’s had three number one hits in a row, with a fourth climbing the Billboard Hot Country charts. In November of last year, he won the Country Music Association Award for New Artist of the Year. Still, no one can remember his name. (Even his own record executive and greatest champion, Mike Dungan of Capitol Nashville, knew him as “that black guy” before he signed him.) For years, he was the bald black dude in a lame southern rock band. Now he’s the bald black dude in a lame southern genre, a genre full of mostly lame white dudes. He never quite fits in, yet oddly never stands out. He’s a huge star, and hugely anonymous; the seemingly empty nucleus of earnest and generic American popularity. That empty nucleus needs a name. We’ll call it Hootie. Darius is Hootie.

Until his recent resurgence in country, Hootie’s music hadn’t been culturally relevant since around 1998. Nevertheless, people carried a torch of hate for Hootie as an idea. You can buy a “Hootie Sucks” t-shirt , watch this exceptionally vulgar “Behind the Music that Sucks” video (which also manages to be spot on and insightful), or read hundreds of blog screeds that detail the band’s shortcomings. Offline, people have stories about Hootie, too. I once snapped my copy of the gazillion-selling Cracked Rear View in two at summer camp to ingratiate myself with some older campers. “I know a guy in South Carolina who broke up with a girlfriend because he found a Hootie coozie in her kitchen cabinet,” said Peter Cooper, a musician and writer based in Nashville.

It’s easy to see why people dislike Hootie & the Blowfish. Their astounding, implausible popularity was a “slap in the face to alternative rock,” The New York Times wrote in 1995. All their songs sound alike, they peppered their lyrics with pseudo-intellectual allusions, and they even ripped off Dylan with “Only Wanna Be With You,” a “tribute” to “Idiot Wind” and “Tangled Up in Blue.” Yet at their core they were maddeningly benign, like Chandler Bing, Rob Thomas, and a whole set of other square nineties remnants.

It’s harder to figure out what made Hootie popular. Rich Cohen, in his 1995 Rolling Stone profile of the band, identifies a central element in Hootie’s breakout success. “Hootie’s songs are comforting because when you hear them for the first time, it sounds as if you’ve heard them before,” Cohen writes. Describing a concert, he adds: “The show winds up with a flurry of covers. And hearing the band tear through classics—”Love the One You’re With,” “Mustang Sally,” “Ziggy Stardust” — it’s clear that Hootie are really just a cover band, perhaps a great cover band, who have written their own cover songs.”

Hootie and the Blowfish were America’s favorite bar band, its favorite college band, its favorite cover band. Their new songs—”Let Her Cry,” “Only Wanna Be with You”—were familiar tunes with no significant regional markings, which people could sing along with or easily ignore. And at the center of it all was Hootie, a man whose hammy baritone has made him the greatest wedding singer of our time.

Hootie didn’t wear a cowboy hat to the County Music Association Awards on November 11, 2009. That was probably a good choice, since the last time he donned one, publicly at least, was in a surreal 2005 Burger King commercial, in which he serenaded a TenderCrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch sandwich to the tune of “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” That ad was the kind of easy parody of country music that would leave any serious fan of the genre doubtful of Hootie’s sincerity, or his sanity. Yet from the beginning of his genre-switch, Hootie has insisted that country is the last stop on his career trajectory.

“This is a total career move for me,” he told Rolling Stone last year. “I plan on making country records until I’m playing at my own theater in Branson.”

After years of abuse, modern pop country music must have looked like the perfect place for Hootie to ply his trade. The industry is a little kinder, a little gentler. The whole thing is controlled from the top, meaning that few writers offer much in the way of criticism. Brady Vercher, editor of the country blog the9513.com said: “I don’t think a lot of people are taking a really critical look at the industry these days.” And whereas rock demands edginess and innovation, the pop country machine and its loyal fans value familiarity, earnestness, and sincerity, all of which adds up to a very particular notion of authenticity.

Hootie, who was nominated for two awards and won for best New Artist of the Year, was not the only musician to ditch the customary Stetson. Hootie’s fellow nominee for New Artist, Zac Brown of the Zac Brown Band, sported a black skullcap, aiming for a chill-biker look . Brown puts out a hipster-badass vibe, singing about smoking weed and drinking PBR, but all done in a surpassingly bland, Kenny Chesney-inspired, island-country style.

Country music is changing. At least that was what this national broadcast, which drew its highest ratings in four years, was hellbent on telling you. The show has been sending this message for years. Each time out, the show moves further from a godawful sartorial-color-explosion to a boots-and-hat variant of traditional black-tie. The women look less like Wynonna Judd and more like her Hollywood-approved sister Ashley. The hair, on both women and men, has gotten considerably smaller. Generally, the event looks ever more sophisticated and less like some backwoods idea of “classy.” George Strait, Brooks & Dunn, and Reba McEntire—the genre’s great denim-and-leather heroes—all were nominated this year, but lost to a group of new artists whose appeal skews younger. Everywhere you looked, there was that effervescent sprite Taylor Swift, who now coyly pretends to be a pop singer at country events and a country singer at pop events; dressed like a movie star, she won four of the night’s twelve awards. Her album “Fearless” has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, topping pop and country charts alike. Her songs have been downloaded more than twenty million times, a record for any artist in any genre.

The most enthusiastic moment of Hootie’s acceptance speech came not when he thanked his family or the fans, but instead “country radio,” the medium’s all-powerful sugar daddy. “You took a chance on a pop singer from Charleston, South Carolina, and God bless y’all for that,” he said, before offering a guttural hoot and exiting to a standing ovation.

While radio has largely lost its star-making power in other genres, it remains the first and most important stop on the path to pop-country stardom. Nashville, along with its powerful radio satellites, acts as a proud gatekeeper of a genre that looks increasingly attractive to pop musicians struggling for dwindling market share. Billboard recently reported that country sales have diminished only nine percent in a year that’s seen the market plummet over thirteen percent. Consumers are buying more country songs online than ever before, and they are more likely to buy them than to steal them.

A growing number of pop acts have failed to gain traction in the country genre. Jon Bon Jovi scored a hit in 2007 with “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” but his album was a nonstarter. 2008 included a discarded album by Jewel and the Jessica Simpson disaster Do You Know, which included the unfortunate single “Pray Out Loud,” proof that even pandering requires at least a little subtlety.

“Radio, and the fans also, take strong ownership of the artists,” Mike Dungan said in a telephone interview (the hold music at Capitol Nashville is Hootie’s single “Alright”). “These are our artists, and we don’t share them with anyone else. Country radio needs to be convinced that an artist… is committed to becoming a country artist and living in our space.”

Rather than try to muscle into a new genre as an established pop star, Hootie played the country music game, courting local radio stations in Tampa and Austin as he was writing and cutting Learn to Live. He told all the right stories, emphasizing again and again his South Carolina upbringing, his status as a musical omnivore, and his early love of Buck Owens and “Hee Haw.” He said he wouldn’t wear a cowboy hat because he didn’t want to be seen as mocking the likes of George Strait. He spoke with reverence about the Grand Ole Opry. He praised the industry and offered up what Mike Dungan calls his “joyful soul,” to everyone.

In fact, when Hootie started making his album, the story goes that he was too country for country radio. “Without any influence from a record label or a producer, Darius would make a very country record,” said Mike Dungan. “Left to his own devices, he would give you fifty percent Texas two-step shuffles, and fifty percent Vern Gosdin tear-in-your-beer ballads.

“The first couple of sides he cut were very country,” Dungan added. “We sat down, and I said, ‘I don’t want to make a Hootie record, but let’s bring it back a little bit.’ Once he got exposed to Nashville songwriters and caught on to the scene here, he got the feel right away. We never had to force anything on him.”

This is sad in one of two ways. Either this is another story told to establish his sincerity: if he is too country even for country, then surely no one can question his bona fides. Or, Darius Rucker, wealthy beyond his dreams, came to Nashville to record his beloved roots-country music, only to be herded back into his Hootie groove by an industry that is more pop than country. Just as he had been a cover singer in the rock genre, now he would cover some contemporary country hits. Even if they hadn’t been recorded yet.

Hootie’s win at the CMA Awards proved he’d passed the country music smell test. On stage, he looked like he couldn’t believe his luck. The industry, meanwhile, had recognized its own luck. They tapped Hootie to perform during the show and to announce the nominees back in September.

Hootie’s win gives the still insular, formulaic country music industry the chance to revel in its own forward-thinking magnanimity: it had welcomed a black man into its new big-tent hootenanny. Nearly all the media coverage of the event focused on the “historic nature” of Hootie’s win: not since 1972, when Charley Pride was named Male Vocalist of the Year, had an African American won a CMA award. Country was getting broader, bigger, more inclusive, even if Hootie’s was the only black face in the crowd.

But this broadening was done on country’s terms. Brady Vercher said that several other non-white artists, including Rissi Palmer in 2007, had recently tried to break into the industry, all with considerably less success. Palmer’s label, 1720 Entertainment, initiated a marketing campaign that put her race front and center. Capitol Nashville took a different approach.

“I didn’t sign the man because he was black, but because he had all the tools in place,” said Mike Dungan. “I hate addressing those questions, because, one, I’m not a sociologist, and two, I think it’s kind of demeaning to the man and his talent.”

At the CMA Awards, Hootie seemed to fit right in. His speech offered a list a familiar cultural signifiers: the underdog story, southern-town name dropping, and God, spiced with a countrified “y’all” for good measure. While country music remains a cult of personality, the music matters, too. If Hootie hadn’t already produced a career of bland, predictable pop music, you’d swear that he’d sold out with Learn to Live, a collection of songs that sound like Hootie songs, save for fiddle and lap steel bowed and picked in all the expected places. His first two singles, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” and “It Won’t Be Like This for Long,” are both a kind of happy/sad emotive mush, typical of a genre that no longer embodies the cowboy on his horse, but instead envisions a new hero and a new form of transport: the woman in her minivan.

“We aim straight at soccer moms,” said Mike Dungan. “Women from twenty-five to forty-five are very into music, but outside of country, they don’t get a lot of personal attention.”

Hewing to the formula, Mike Dungan paired Hootie with Fred Rogers, the Nashville super-producer who had gotten his start with Brad Paisley, a massive favorite of the ladies. Rogers and Hootie co-wrote many of the album’s songs. If Hootie had any reservations about pop country, he’d dismissed them by the time he was promoting Learn to Live.

“He told me that before the album came out he was pleased that it was hard to tell the difference between it and songs by Keith Urban and Brad Paisley, when he was listening in a shuffle mode,” said Peter Cooper, who writes for The Tennessean in Nashville. “So, yes, they worked to make perfect commercial pop-country music.”

Hootie’s brand of blandness is a perfect fit for the genre. Yet while Hootie’s insipid rock songs celebrated a vague “all we need is love” ideology, making bland country songs means accepting a considerably less progressive set of values. Amid the worthy tropes of honky-tonk boogies and whiskey-and-women laments, there is now a swath of lousy genre variations. There’s the phony, generically “country” accent of Jennifer Nettles from Sugarland, Kenny Chesney’s sad island trash (the low point surely his duet with Uncle Kracker on “When the Sun Goes Down.”), and the religious nonsense required of nearly every country act. Pop country’s worst recurring theme, however, is the self-congratulatory song, a key element in the ideology of Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin that pits real America versus some vague “fake” one. Real Americans love America, and themselves. Fake America is full of haters. Like the gratuitous name-checking in hip hop, country loves to celebrate its trinity of perfect selfhood: God, the family, and the flag.

Hootie’s third country single, “Alright” nestles into that final category:

Don’t need no five star reservations
I’ve got spaghetti and a cheap bottle of wine
Don’t need no concert in the city
I’ve got a stereo and the best of Patsy Cline
Ain’t got no caviar no Dom Perignon
But as far as I can see, I’ve got everything I want

Cause I’ve got a roof over my head,
the woman I love laying in my bed
And it’s alright, alright
I’ve got shoes under my feet
Forever in her eyes staring back at me
And it’s alright, alright
And I’ve got all I need
And it’s alright by me

“Alright” is a harmless ode to the simple life; all you need is the shirt on your back and the love of a good woman. It shares the vague optimism of Hootie’s first pop hit, “Hold My Hand.” Yet it’s also a song against a lot of things, namely urban life and the notion of “high-class refinement.” It’s against the “elites,” to use the favored conservative talk-radio bogey. “Alright” is a tamer version of jingoistic songs like “Country Ain’t Country” by Travis Tritt, “Dixie on My Mind,” by Hank Williams, Jr., and the founding document of the genre, Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” While the Hootie brand has always been  apolitical, they did record “Drowning” for Cracked Rear View, a song about South Carolina that includes the lyrics: “Why is there a rebel flag hanging from the state house walls?/ Tired of hearin’ this shit about heritage not hate/ Time to make the world a better place.” By lending himself out to pop country, Hootie’s now singing a different tune.

You can’t help but wonder whether Hootie wishes he could record some traditional shuffles. He sounded a little defensive in a recent interview with WVLT in Knoxville:

“Somebody was telling me when my record came out that they were mad because I didn’t come up with these groundbreaking songs,” [he] said. “I didn’t know I was supposed to change country music. I’m just trying to get it played on the radio like everybody else.”

Maybe the great musical populist regrets kick-starting the old Hootie engine for another go-round. Then again, maybe not. Learn to Live was greeted with the tepid, condescending critical response that Hootie’s been getting his whole career. Country Weekly called it “stacked bottom to top with the lyrical themes favored by current country radio,” and the9513.com noted that its “lack of originality, occasional cloudy interpretations, and obvious catering to commercial influences makes for an album that can’t be considered much more than good ear candy.” It’s also sold more than a million copies.


Ian Crouch is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker's Book Bench blog and lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter. More from this author →