'Unlikely Encounters' is the first in our new series where a local musician will interview a big-name artist. Some encounters may be more unlikely than others. In this case, Jess Oliver of indie-rock band Can't Kids (and Elim Bolt) has a heart-to-heart with the Lowcountry's own Darius Rucker. Here's their conversation:
Before coming to Charleston, I lived about three blocks from the giant Hootie shrine in Five Points, Columbia. One of the first nights in my new house there, I fell asleep listening to Darius Rucker's voice floating up the hill to my open windows from a festival they just happened to be playing in my neighborhood. Having those cherished songs from my childhood surround me made my half-empty, 100-year-old, 100-percent haunted room seem like a good place to lay my head.
Darius has been doing my dream job for 20 years now. Although he's strayed from rock 'n' roll, his transition to the Nashville world isn't such a wild move when you think about it. I mean, "Let Her Cry" is totally a country song.
Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to interview him.
Jess Oliver: In recent years I've noticed that country music has taken a big turn toward an almost club-pop feel with heavy drums and synth, but your music still feels really organic. And you've talked before about playing the music that comes naturally to you rather than whatever the hip thing is at the time. And you mentioned how Hootie & The Blowfish was up against the whole grunge thing that was going on. Do you feel like you're still fighting that battle a little bit with what the hip thing is versus what you like to do?
Darius: Ah, no, I don't think it's a battle. I think a lot of people, especially the taste-makers in radio, all realize that there's room for both and there's room for everything and it's all needed, you know? So, I think I don't feel we're in a battle. I seem to be doing OK, but I just want to stay true to who I am and what I wanted to do when I came over to Nashville. So, you know, I don't feel like it's a battle. I love it all.
J: So, people kind of make a big deal about you going from a rock 'n' roll band to country music, but no one ever really gets hung up on you making that shift a few years ago to making an R&B record. And I've been listening to that this week a lot and I hear a lot of Al Green influences and super-sexy guitar lines and organ riffs. Do you ever still write any songs like that?
D: No, I haven't in a long time. Actually, no, there was a song that I wrote with a buddy for the Hootie record that's kind of like that, but, especially for the past seven or eight years, I've been writing for a country record. So I haven't sat down and done that, but if somebody wants to get together and write one of those, I'm in.
J: Well, I definitely feel like a lot of Hootie & the Blowfish songs are kind of country songs in themselves. There's just a little more rockin' stuff with them.
D: I agree. I agree with that.
J: So, how has your dynamic changed with your touring band now versus Hootie & The Blowfish? You were kind of like a unit — you guys stuck together and you've kind of broken away and you're doing the solo thing now. I see my bandmates as a family, and our dynamic's really strong. We really care about each other, and I'm wondering if there's that same dynamic with your touring band now?
D: Oh yeah, especially after we've played together for so long. And Hootie — we're still so tight. I mean, I talked to Mark yesterday. And we know we're gonna do it again sometime, but, yeah, absolutely our band's a family. I know everybody's wives and kids and parents and cousins and brothers and sisters, and I care about them. I look out for them. I try to make sure their lives are good. If something's wrong, I want them to come and talk to me. They're your brothers and you're with them all the time, you know? So you either get tight with them or you don't work together very long, I think.
J: I agree. So, I know you had a big hit with "Wagon Wheel," the Old Crow Medicine Show song, a couple of years ago, but it's not necessarily the first time you've done a cover song. On Back to Then there's the Al Green cover, and then Scattered, Smothered, and Covered was one of my favorite records growing up. We actually listened to it in our tour van on the last tour — I have it on cassette.
D: On cassette. Wow.
J: It's pretty great driving music. But is there any particular motivation for you doing cover songs?
D: Aw, I'm still just a singer in a cover band who got really lucky. Yeah, I mean, I love singing music that I love. It doesn't have to be something I wrote — if I love it, I like to put it on and sing along to it. So when you play in a band, I think it's always cool to go into something that shocks people. Always.
J: It's more about sharing those things you love with other people.
D: Exactly. You know, when I play a cover song, I play it because I love it and I want people who listen to me to hear it. Even if they've heard it before, I want them to hear this version of the song. But yeah, it's all about my love for music.
J: Well, speaking of us listening to Scattered, Smothered, and Covered while we're on tour, I'm sure touring's a lot different for you. Like, we're crammed in a 1987 van.
D: (laughs) Been there, though.
J: Is there any music you like listening to when you're traveling on the road?
D: Oh yeah. We do some R.E.M. records, Notorious B.I.G — I listen to his first record all the time. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation — listen to that all the time.
J: I heard a lot of that on Back to Then, too.
D: That's what I was trying to do! I was listening to that record every day at that point. I mean, every day. Like, I used to annoy the guys in the van because they'd come back and I'd be listening to Lauryn Hill and Notorious B.I.G.
J: We definitely have some of those, too. So, when I was in third grade, my uncle gave me a Christmas present, and it was a gift certificate to our local record store. It was my first experience walking into a record store and getting to pick out what I wanted to buy. So I took it to the counter and I handed it to the guy, who gave me that pretentious look or whatever, and I bought Fairweather Johnson that day.
D: Oh, wow.
J: Yeah, and it's stuck with me, because it was my first experience getting to do that. Do you have any early memories similar to that? Do you remember buying a record that really impacted you?
D: Yes, it was two records. I went to a store with a friend of the family, who took me to a record store, and he tells me to pick out two — I mean eight tracks, OK? That's how long ago. And I picked out Barry White's Greatest Hits and Billy Joel's 52nd Street. And I played those two records like insane amounts. Yeah, I remember that moment vividly. I also remember a very vivid moment, oh God — now see, you got me rambling. I also remember the first time I saw R.E.M. on MTV, and I freaked. And I had no money. I went to all of my family members and got a quarter from everybody I could until I had enough money to go buy that R.E.M. record. God, I wanna say Life's Rich Pageant, but that's not it — it's ... The Reckoning!
J: Oh yeah, that's a good one. Yeah, we only have a cassette player in our van, so we have a lot of R.E.M. cassettes.
J: Yeah, it's also good driving music, you know?
J: So I'm sorry I'm focusing so much on Hootie & The Blowfish, but I know you have a show coming up at the end of the month and that's exciting. I know you guys don't do that very often anymore. But you were a band for eight years before you got a serious record deal or anything. And I've been in a band for like five years, so it gives me a little hope, you know what I mean?
D: Oh, absolutely.
J: I'm sure you guys weren't living for free and just playing music all the time. Like I'm a waitress, and our bass player babysits dogs, and one of our guitarists is a dishwasher, and my other guitarist is a church choir director. What kinds of jobs did you guys have before you were able to play music professionally.
D: I was a bartender. I used to be a bartender at Pappy's. And there was a fish-and-tackle place out by the stadium. I worked a graveyard shift there — that was awful. I'll never wanna do the graveyard shift again. And I worked at Sounds Familiar Record Store. They are the ones who allowed me to go and play on the weekends and still have a job. Yeah, they had a lot to do with my success. I worked there for years.
J: It's hard to find that. When I apply for jobs I'm definitely like, 'Hey, I'm gonna go on tour for a few weeks at a time. Is that OK?'
D: Yeah, it's hard, it's hard to find. You're right.
J: So, I don't want to keep you on the phone all day, because I know you're busy, but I do have one more question. I didn't even know that this existed, but I asked my bandmates this morning, 'Hey, is there any question you want me to ask Darius Rucker?' And they wanted to know how fun it was making that Burger King commercial, because it looks like it was really fun.
D: It was awesome! We shot it all in one day. It was awesome — we had a blast.
J: It's so surreal and wacky.
D: I was in such a fun place in that moment. I had a blast, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. And it was — you look at it and it's funny, you know? I'm making fun of myself, people. It was cool.
On March 31, Rucker releases his latest solo effort, Southern Style, and he'll spend the summer touring with Brent Eldredge, Brothers Osborne, and A Thousand Horses.