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Darius Rucker breaks racial barrier with No. 1 country single

Mario Tarradell
The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

Darius Rucker can play it down it all he wants, but his breakthrough as a country artist makes him historic.

Rucker, best known as the lead vocalist of pop group Hootie & the Blowfish, is officially the first successful black country singer since Charley Pride emerged in 1966.

That's an astounding 42-year span, folks. Not only that, Rucker's debut single "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" is the first No. 1 country hit by a black artist since Pride's "Night Games" reached the pinnacle in 1983. That's an equally astounding 25 years.

Add the chart-topping status of his debut country CD, "Learn to Live," which sold 60,414 copies its inaugural week at retail, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and the 42-year-old South Carolina native has an instant spot in the record books.

"Charley Pride is such a legend in country music, a legend in general," says Rucker by phone from New York City. "To be the first one in 25 years is just crazy. I can't explain it. Some other people have tried. I'd like to think it's just the song. Maybe it's more. I'm proud to be that guy. But I don't make music for that. I wanted to make a record people wanted to listen to."

He did just that. "Learn to Live" is a solid country record. This isn't a Hootie disc with fiddle and steel guitar tacked on as accessories. With help from top songwriters in Nashville and traditionalist producer Frank Rogers (Brad Paisley, Josh Turner), Rucker crafted a bona fide country CD. That's quite a feat in these days of former pop stars making watered down yet lucrative country.

"That was a major thing to me," says Rucker about the authenticity of "Learn to Live." "This is something I want to do for a long time. This is my growing up record. I wanted to make something closer to a Dwight Yoakam record. This was my shout out to Dwight. He's the coolest man."

It's about time we saw another successful black country artist.

But plenty of black country acts have gotten attention and failed to score at radio and retail. Last year it was Rissi Palmer from Jacksonville, N.C. Her self-titled debut CD and its three singles collectively stiffed.

Before her, in 1998, we had Louisiana's Trini Triggs, a strapping, good-looking man with a strong voice and charisma to spare. Curb Records couldn't turn him into a star. And before him we had Cleve Francis, a cardiologist turned country singer who recorded three fruitless albums between 1992 and 1994.

We're not forgetting Cowboy Troy. But his short-lived success was more about the novelty of a black country rapper than about being a viable artist.

So then why Darius Rucker? For one, his label, Capitol Nashville, has promoted him correctly and incessantly. He's been presented as an easygoing, down-to-earth guy who genuinely wanted to make a country record. Plus, "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" is indeed the right song. It's that perfect combination of traditional and mainstream with an immediate melody and hook that flows from Rucker's smooth vocal performance.

And of course his standing as the lead singer of Hootie & the Blowfish didn't hurt.

"That got probably got me into some offices that I might have not gotten into," he says. "Some people saw me that might have not seen me otherwise. But I still believe that in the long run it is the song."

He may be right. But it's a song already loaded with history.

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