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COLUMBIA, S.C. - He could have been the punch line, but instead he’s in on the joke.


“A lot of people expected Hootie with a lap steel and fiddle,” he said, letting out a throaty laugh.


Darius Rucker is laughing - all the way to the top of the country charts.


His single, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” released three months ago, is still smoking, and it has a chance to reach No. 1.


Rucker, 42, the frontman of Hootie and The Blowfish, released his debut country album, “Learn to Live,” Tuesday.


Instead of falling in behind singers like Jessica Simpson, who have dressed pop songs in cowboy shirts and boots, Rucker has recorded songs that feel and sound like honest-to-Nashville country music.


“They’re shocked at how country it is,” he said. “I don’t want to be just another rock star coming into country.”


Country listeners have picked up on Rucker’s sincerity.


“Country audiences are not stupid,” said Brian Mansfield, USA Today’s Nashville reporter. “They can see who means it. They can see who is doing it to keep a career going.


“The country audience appreciates the genuine.”


This isn’t Rucker’s first solo foray.


In 2002, he released “Back to Then,” a soul-pop album that featured “Wild One,” a single that earned play on BET, and “Sometimes I Wonder,” a duet with neo-soul songstress Jill Scott.


“I had just discovered Notorious B.I.G. and Lauryn Hill,” Rucker said. “Being a black guy singing rock ‘n’ roll my whole life, I was like, ‘Wow, I could do (R&B).’”


The record didn’t catch on with urban audiences. There is something different, though, about Rucker’s appeal as a country singer.


Still, some, like Beville Darden, the editor of AOL’s country music Web site, theboot.com, weren’t sure if Rucker’s intentions were genuine.


“I was a little skeptical because we have a huge wave of pop stars crossing over,” Darden said. “I started listening to interviews, and you realize country flows in his blood.”


Rucker, who grew up in Charleston, has always been a fan of country, listening to Buck Owens and New Grass Revival.


Country fans are hearing Grand Ole Opry influences in “Don’t Think,” which relies heavily on the familiar thrust in Rucker’s voice. His singing makes the turn-back-the-clock tale believable.


Perceived honesty separates Rucker from other genre jumpers like Simpson, whose “Come on Over” stalled outside the top 10.


“Darius is not one of those guys,” Darden said. “I think he just loves the music. His voice just translates to other genres.”


But there’s one thing that separates Rucker from just about every other country singer.


It’s simple, Charley Pride will tell you.


“I’ve just been doing what I’ve been doing for 40 years,” said Pride, the Mississippi-born singer who has been the only successful black country performer for just as long. He was the first - and so far only - black performer inducted into the Grand Ole Opry.


Rucker is the first black singer to make it near the top of the country’s singles chart since Pride did it in the ‘80s.


Neither sees it as a big deal, especially Pride, who has been called the Jackie Robinson of country music.


“Jackie was picked for a specific reason,” Pride said. “Nobody came and sat me down and said nothing like that.


“I never had to go through what he had to go through. I never had any hoot calls out of the audience.”


Still, there has been a dearth of black country performers. Cowboy Troy, the hick-hop purveyor, opened at No. 2 on the country album chart with his 2005 release, “Loco Motive.” But his songs weren’t hits on the radio.


Performers such as Rissi Palmer and Trini Triggs, who recorded “One Mississippi, Two Mississippi” with Pride, have attracted only small audiences.


And while soul singers such as Anthony Hamilton, who sang a duet on Josh Turner’s last album, have moonlighted in Nashville, country isn’t popular for black singers.


“I don’t think you’ve got that many blacks that listen to country and identify,” Mansfield said.


Pride, who grew up emulating bluegrass performer Bill Monroe, suggested the lack of black country singers could be political.


“The business has changed so much,” he said. “There’s so many out there that can make it today.


“But do they really want another one?”


Rucker, Darden said, might be able to widen the trail blazed by Pride.


“I think that he is knocking down a lot of walls,” she said.


There’s been a buzz in Nashville about Rucker’s country album, said Lauren Lucas, who frequently plays Nashville’s club scene.


“Darius has made statements in interviews saying that he has always consistently listened to country music, which doesn’t surprise me,” said Lucas, who had several friends work on Rucker’s record.


“Even listening to Hootie records, there’s an apparent roots music element,” she said. “It looks like he’s right at home.”


“Live to Learn” is a typical country record, with familiar themes of hard livin’, lovin’ and longin’.


It was produced by Frank Rogers, who gives Rucker’s baritone space to quake. Rogers has worked with Brad Paisley and Trace Adkins.


Rogers “knows how to make a hard-core traditional record,” Mansfield said.


Guests on the album include Paisley on “All I Want,” and Vince Gill and Alison Krauss on “If I Had Wings.”


It’s on “I Hope They Get to Me in Time” that Rucker stretches beyond the pop-country formula. The song’s character has been in a car accident, and Rucker softly and sweetly relates a life-before-your-eyes moment.


“I see a home run/a goal line/Holding my breath getting baptized/I see her beautiful face/Under that veil as she’s walking down the aisle.”


Rucker stuffs syllables at the end of sentences, a classic country singing style, which he didn’t realize he was doing.


“It’s all just music,” he said. “I’m sure I’ve heard Dwight (Yoakam) do that. Or Radney” (Foster, who wrote a song on Hootie’s 2000 album of covers, “Scattered, Smothered and Covered”).


Rucker’s plea for help in “I Hope” is similar to his request of Nashville record companies.


Here was a guy who had sold 16 million records - of one album, 1995’s “Cracked Rear View” - pleading for a chance to sing country music.


He wasn’t joking - and he’s willing to work for it.


In January, Rucker will be an opening act on the tour starring Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley. He admits he might be nervous, though.


“I’ll be playing those big arenas without the advantage of the three guys I’ve played with my whole life,” he said.

Tagged as: darius rucker
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