So I sing

For Darius Rucker, sports and music have been intertwined his entire life, and he wouldn't have it any other way

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — One Sunday when Darius Rucker was still in college, he was watching the Miami Dolphins lose a football game. At that moment, Rucker didn’t know he would become an international star. He didn’t know he and some buddies would record one of the best-selling albums of all time. He didn’t know he would become a pioneering country music singer. He didn’t know that people would turn to him in more complicated times as a symbol of something, a bridge …

Nah, he didn’t know any of that stuff, didn’t care. He vaguely hoped to become a television sportscaster, but all he really cared about was that Miami was losing, it was breaking his heart again. Killing him. In the fourth quarter, his mother called to check in, and he was uncharacteristically grumpy and short with her. Finally, she said: “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he grumbled.

“Wait,” she said. “Are you crying because the Dolphins are losing?”

He didn’t say a word.

“You’re such a baby,” his mother said.

* * *

“I’m such a baby cause the Dolphins make me cry,”

— “Only Wanna Be With You,” Hootie & The Blowfish

* * *

There are three things you notice most when traveling around on tour with Darius Rucker and his country band, The Carolina Grey Boys. The first is the obvious one: Darius Rucker is a nice guy. No, it’s deeper than that: Darius Rucker is, more or less, the nicest person in the world. No, wait, it goes even deeper even than that: Darius Rucker’s niceness so thoroughly courses through him and his music and his day-to-day life that it’s his defining quality.

Give you an example: His friend, NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson, had a dinner and auction the night before his charity golf tournament. Rucker could not make it to the golf event, which crushed him — Rucker would rather be playing golf than just about anything else. But he still traveled across the country to San Diego to sing a couple of songs and make his friend’s event better.

That’s nice, right? Well, no, you’re still not seeing it. As the silent auction went on, Rucker started to get antsy. It was a look his wife Beth has seen a thousand times before. “Don’t you do it,” she whispered to him. He looked at her helplessly and shrugged.

“My wife told me not to do this,” he said as he got back to the stage. “But …” and then he offered a one-hour show with his band, anywhere in the world, for as many or few people as the winning bidder would like. Wedding? Intimate dinner? Company party? He would be there as long as he could get it into the schedule.

“It’s worth a lot,” he said sheepishly.

Well, yeah. It sold for $100,000, all of it to go straight to the Jimmie Johnson foundation.

“Can you believe he did that?” Johnson asked.

Well, let’s let allow longtime manager Doc McGhee to answer that one.

“Hell, yes, I believe it,” McGhee would say a few days later. Doc is a legend of rock and roll. He has managed Bon Jovi, Motley Crue, the Scorpions, Guns ‘N Roses, and he’s still managing Kiss. He’s seen the highs and lows of rock and roll. There should be a movie about Doc McGhee. And he has never managed anyone quite like Darius Rucker.

“Let me tell you what I did after I got to know him,” he says. “I had business cards made for him to give out. They say, ‘Hi, my name is Darius Rucker, and I say yes to everything. So please don’t ask me. Please call my manager tomorrow.’

“The office gets a million calls. ‘Darius agreed to do this. Darius agreed to do that. Darius said he’d play a Bar Mitzvah.’ It’s (bleeping) ridiculous.”

Yes, as nice as you might think Darius Rucker is, he’s nicer than that.  He is preposterously, irrepressibly, impossibly nice. And because of that, everybody in his band is also preposterously, irrepressibly, impossibly nice. “I told my manager, ‘Man, I want nice guys,’” Rucker says. “I wanted a bunch of guys I could be friends with. That’s what this is about.”

And so, the bandleader and drummer, Jeff Marino — who studied at Berklee School of Music — is Rucker’s daily golf partner. Guitarist Quinton Gibson used to be in a Christian rock band, and he loves to talk about his family. Sasha Ostrovsky is the rarest of birds, a bluegrass musician from Russia (check out the documentary here), and Rucker has had a blast teaching him how to play fantasy football. Lee Turner is a softspoken guitarist who has played with just about everyone in Nashville. Garry Murray plays fiddle, banjo, mandolin and everything else and also helps drive the bus. John Mason is on bass guitar, his mother is a musician, and he’s the guy who Rucker can really argue sports with.

Nice. Everywhere. All the time. It isn’t just a personality trait. It’s a philosophy.

If Darius Rucker has a secret it is this: There’s real power in niceness.

* * *

You have to remember, grunge was king,” Rucker is saying. He’s talking about the 1990s and the explosion of his band Hootie and the Blowfish. They were just a bunch of guys from the University of South Carolina. One heard Rucker singing in the shower. Another guy was supposed to go to a different college. A third guy messed around with music. They wrote some songs, went on the road, played all the bars, had a blast.

When they released their first album, “Cracked Rear View,” nobody seemed too worried about it. They were making beer money. They were loving the life. The record company had made it clear that its expectations for their kind of happy, hooky music was very low.

“It was all Nirvana and Pearl Jam and darkness,” Rucker says. “When we came along, everybody was depressed. And we just weren’t that dark, man. There’s a guy now who will look you in the eye and tell you that he signed Hootie and the Blowfish. And I can tell you for a fact that he went into the president’s office at Atlantic Records, looked them right in the eye and said, ‘You can’t put out this record. This will get us laughed out the record business.’

“It was dark everywhere. It wasn’t just that we couldn’t compete with that kind of darkness, we really didn’t want to. That wasn’t us. ‘Black Hole Sun’ … ‘Black’ … ‘Runaway Train’.”

And here Darius Rucker smiles. “Cracked Rear View” would catch the attention of David Letterman, it would get some radio play, and it would go platinum — 16 times. It would be the No. 1 album in the United States, Canada and New Zealand. It is one of the 20 best-selling albums in American history.

“All we did,” Rucker says, “is we told people to hold our hand.”

* * *

With a little love … and some tenderness.

We’ll walk upon the water

We’ll rise above this mess

With a little peace … and some harmony

We’ll take the world together

We’ll take ‘em by the hand.

— Hold My Hand, Hootie & the Blowfish

* * *

The second thing you notice out on tour with Darius Rucker is that sports saturate every single part of his life. Rucker is a mad sports fan. It begins with golf. A day without golf is a wasted day. One of tour manager Mike Kelly’s key jobs — in addition to the million other things he does, like finding lost luggage and locating mandolin strings in the middle of Austin* — is setting up the daily golf outing in whatever city they happen to be in.

(* – The “mandolin strings” is a “Spinal Tap” reference to that band’s hysterical manager Ian Faith. Thing is: Ian Faith is a fictional character. Mike Kelly is the genuine article. “Mandolin strings in Austin?” he asks. “That’s easy.” In the time I spent on tour with the band, he at different times had to find an entire horn section, two tuxedos and a way to squeeze the “Today Show” into an already overcrowded tour schedule.)

Mike Kelly’s daily golf scheduling takes a lot of planning. Everybody wants to play golf with Rucker. Every club wants him to play their golf course. “There’s one thing about Darius — he only wants to play with people who play fast,” Kelly says. “He’s not out there to take pictures every hole. He’s out there to play serious golf.”

That’s a Rucker character trait: Sports are serious to him. This isn’t a show. You run into a lot of “sports fans” among musicians and actors and politicians. But often, when you actually start talking sports with them, you hear them say things like, “Yeah, I want to go to that baseball championship, what’s that thing called again?” They love the scene, but not the games. They love the connections but couldn’t go deep.

Sports consume Rucker. There is no place you can turn on tour without running into some game. There’s the perpetual Madden video game tournament, with an up-to-the-moment bracket posted on the Rucker bus wall (“They’re going to have to get lucky to beat me,” Rucker says. “I score every time”). There are several fantasy football leagues swirling around. There are a flurry of sports arguments going, any sport, anytime — is it OK for pitchers to throw at hitters, which golfer has the best short-iron game, who is the best pure shooter in the NBA, on and on and on.

Mostly, there’s football. Rucker is obsessed with football. He is one of those guys who has to have seven games on the screen at the same time — it isn’t an NFL Sunday unless he’s dizzy from football overload. He has three televisions installed on his bus to watch games when the team is on tour, and he constantly feels like he’s missing something.

Rucker cannot get enough — pro, college, high school, doesn’t matter. “Can you get a message to the MAC?” he says to me, as if I have some pipeline there. “Can you tell them to please start playing on Wednesday nights? We need football on Wednesday night. That would be so awesome, they could have Wednesdays all to themselves. Everybody would watch. It would be the greatest thing ever. ‘Wednesday Snack in the MAC!’ I’ve trademarked that. ‘Snack in the MAC!’”

Here’s how much he loves football: Rucker’s longtime friend Ford McCabe remembers that he knew nothing about football when he started working with Rucker more than two decades ago. “Man,” Rucker told him, “if you want to be a part of all this, you have to get a football team.”

For some reason, McCabe chose the Chargers. That seemed a harmless enough choice, except in the very first year, the Chargers made a furious second-half comeback to beat Rucker’s Dolphins in the playoffs. Then they went to the Super Bowl, something the Dolphins have not done for more than 30 years now.

“Darius hasn’t really forgiven me since,” McCabe says.

Rucker’s love of the games have powerfully connected him with athletes. There’s an old saying that goes back to the baseball Negro Leagues when Satchel Paige and Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Josh Gibson hung around together: All athletes want to be musicians, and all musicians want to be athletes. There are always sports stars who want to hang out with Rucker. He’s such close friends with Tiger Woods that he sang at his wedding and at the funeral of Woods’ father. He has slept at Dan Marino’s house many times and watched film with him. He has hung out with Dirk Nowitzki, hung out with his heroes from the 1970s Big Red Machine and performed at just about every big sporting event imaginable, from the Super Bowl to the Final Four.

“It’s crazy, absolutely crazy, what I’ve been able to do as a sports fan,” he says. When asked about his greatest-ever experiences, one of the first things that comes to mind is the time he was at the dinner table with the five quarterbacks drafted in the 1983 first round. The five, in order, were John Elway, Jim Kelly, Todd Blackledge, Ken O’Brien and Marino. He says he almost broke down in tears he was so happy being there, listening to their stories.

That’s funny, if you think about it. Obviously there are three Hall of Fame quarterbacks there — Elway, Kelly and Marino — but Rucker speaks just as glowingly of the two others. To him, the five represent sports history. And he loves sports history.

“I wanted to be a sports broadcaster,” he says. He pauses. “I think I would have been happy doing that too.”

* * *

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Darius Rucker stands on the stage in Charleston. The ocean is behind him, and the Windjammer, a bar where he grew up as a musician, is in front, and he doesn’t want to stop singing. He is here to record a free, hour-long pop-up concert for Country Music Television. The hour passed a long time ago.

“I feel like singing some more!” he shouts, and the crowd shrieks, and his band dutifully goes back to their instruments and keeps playing.

Mark Bryan, lead guitarist for Hootie, shows up to play guitar on a song. Rucker stops the show to talk about how much he loves Charleston. He plays country songs, some covers, some Hootie, and after he is spent, and the crowd is spent, Rucker looks at the Windjammer and points. “I remember,” he says. He and his friends would play here for a dozen people. They would play for a few bucks, never knowing how long they could ride out this crazy dream before the money and hope would run out and they would have to get real jobs.

“This,” Rucker says, “is the most personal song I’ve ever written.”

And as he begins a slow song, the crowd — buzzed and drenched with sweat and drunk from the beer and the sea air — mills about anxiously, talking amongst themselves, seeking one more song they can dance to. But on the stage, Rucker’s got his eyes closed and he sings “So I Sang.”

* * *

I never was the biggest or the fastest guy

Never hit a home-run when the game was tied

I knew from an early age I wasn’t gonna be

A doctor or a CEO of anything.

So I sang.

— “So I Sang,” Darius Rucker

* * *

The third thing you notice out on tour with Darius Rucker is the hardest one for him to explain. When Darius was a kid, his father just wasn’t around much. Rucker’s father played in a local gospel band, and sometimes Darius would see him before church. Mostly, he would not. There was a 15-year span where Rucker did not see his father at all.

He doesn’t like talking about that much. A long time ago, he recorded a song about his father called “Where Were You” — “Where were you when I needed a friend … Where were you when I kissed my first girl … Go away!” — but he was so self-conscious about the rawness of the emotions that he would only allow it to be released in Japan. He did not want his father to hear it.

When Darius first became started becoming famous — “Are you Hootie?” the kid asks Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character in “Jerry Maguire” — he was asked about the Confederate Flag, which then flew over over the South Carolina statehouse.

“If I didn’t love South Carolina so much, if I didn’t love my friends and my family, I’d never live here ‘caus the government is absolutely asinine,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, the South Carolina government can all go to hell.”

It was a rare unrestrained moment for Rucker, and in return he began getting daily death threats. He hired his first bodyguard.

Seven years ago, Rucker could feel that Hootie & the Blowfish more or less had run its course. They didn’t want to break up — and they say that they have not — but they just didn’t really feel like there was anywhere to go. Fans just wanted the old songs. Priorities were changing. They just sort of drifted in different directions. And Rucker decided to go into country music.

To him the decision was logical, almost inevitable. His mother, Carolyn, had been a country music fan. His aunt had been an even bigger one. He grew up watching “Hee Haw” and the “Grand Ole Opry.” He grew up listening to the country stars, to George Strait and Dolly Parton and Alabama, the last being mentioned in his song “Homegrown Honey.”

“Why don’t you stop listening to that white boy music,” one of his brothers told him.

Darius didn’t get it. What is white boy music? “A great song is a great song,” he said.

When Rucker decided to go from rock to country, it was the trendy thing for pop and rock stars to do — Kid Rock did it, Sheryl Crow, Jon Bon Jovi, Jessica Simpson, on and on. There was a growing backlash in Nashville against all these outsiders coming in. Rucker, though, went about it in a different way. He told everybody involved, “Treat me like I”m a newcomer trying to get into the business because that’s what I am.” He traveled to every country radio station in the country that would have him — more than 110 of them. He came armed with his guitar, a few country songs he had written and with his heart fully exposed.

“I would play a couple of my songs,” Rucker says. “And I would tell them, ‘If you don’t like my music, I understand, don’t play it, no hard feelings. I just appreciate you giving it a listen.’”

As it turned out, country music radio loved his music. Big stars like Brad Paisley and Vince Gill talked up his music all over Nashville. His first single “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” skyrocketed to No. 1 on the charts. When Rucker was given the news that he’d hit No. 1 he cried as if his Dolphins had lost. His next two singles went to No. 1 also. In total he has six No. 1 country singles, and three No. 1 country albums. He headlines a tour now. He has become one of the biggest country music stars in America.

And this gets at that third thing you notice about him: Darius Rucker never talks about smashing racial barriers. He just does it. When “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” went to No. 1, it was the first time in more than 30 years that an African-American had a No. 1 country single (Charley Pride was the last in 1983 with “Night Games”). He soon became the first black artist to ever win the County Music Awards’ “Newcomer of the Year.” He then became the first black artist since Charley Pride — and only the second living member — to be invited into the Grand Ole Opry.

This is a tight squeeze in what we constantly hear is a divided America. In concert, he will play Tim McGraw’s “Back When” — just about the countriest country song you can find — and follow it with Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.”

Then he tell the audience what has driven him: A great song is a great song.

“I learned that early in life,” he says. “I was never going to let anything said from either side, sway me. I wasn’t going to get bothered by white folks saying, ’We don’t want you in country music.’ That was said to me on Twitter. ‘Leave country music to the white folks.’ That bothered me at first. But so what?”

Rucker initially responded to his critics, something he now calls a mistake.

“Then on the other side I’ve got black folks saying, ‘Dude, come on. Really? Country?’” he says. “I always go, ‘Are we always supposed to do what we’re supposed to do? We can’t branch out for a second?’ … The one thing I learned early on is I can’t change the way somebody feels. It’s like I don’t have the time. You want to be crazy? You want to put me and everybody like me in a box? That’s fine. I don’t have to hang with you.”

The mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June — right across the street from where Rucker drops off his son Jack for school — pushed Rucker as one of Charleston’s most prominent people into the spotlight. Only he refused to respond by talking about the racist motivations of the shooter or race in general or the Confederate Flag in South Carolina. Instead, he talked about how Charleston stayed together in the aftermath. He led his audiences in singing “Amazing Grace.”

“I was asleep,” he says of the day of the shooting, “and I woke up to the news. Shocking. Shocking. I’m looking at my computer, and I’m crying and thinking, ‘This really happened in my town?’ Right across the street from where my son goes to school? … And I started thinking about all the bad ways that it could go in a town like Charleston, in a small, little town where we all live together.

“Then, instead, it was so beautiful to watch how instead of tearing us apart it brought us together. It brought us together with love. We, always as a city, I think, we pride ourselves on getting along. We like each other. We pride ourselves on getting along. We say hi to each other on the street. And when someone tried to tear us apart, man, we rose above that. That’s what I wanted to say.”

I ask him if that, in fact, is what he’s always trying to say. He looks over at the huge television in his trailer, where he had just finished a Madden video game.

“Yeah, you know, I was that guy in high school who was friends with every clique. I just want to hang out and be friends. Now, I’m playing country music, man. I don’t want to be king of the mountain. I just want to play.

“This is funny, it sounds naive but I just love playing. I just love that feeling of being in front of an audience and we’re all together, you know? Now I sing country music because I love it. I didn’t even think about being the first African-American who ever did this or that. I never thought about it. If I had thought about it, I probably wouldn’t have even tried.”

* * *

Here’s a little bit of Hootie trivia for you: Darius Rucker says he begged his friends in Hootie & the Blowfish to leave “Only Wanna Be With You” off their album. He pleaded. He says that he stood up before them and made this impassioned speech about how that song just shouldn’t be released. “I think I even cried,” he says.

“Why did you want to leave it off?” I asked him.

“I didn’t get it,” he says. “I was like, ‘Guys, this song? Really?’ I just didn’t get it. … Yeah, I missed on that one.”

“Only Wanna Be With You,” became Hootie’s biggest hit, the Rucker pop song that people still know instantly. He still does it in concert surrounded by “Wagon Wheel” and “Radio” and his country hits. Rucker says he doesn’t overthink it now. He just writes and sings the songs and lets the rest just happen.

“It’s all part of the adventure,” he says. “It’s like the Dolphins, man. I’m still crying over them. That will just make it better when they win.”