Darius Rucker shoots for country music milestone

Darius RuckerDarius Rucker was just a young boy with a love for “Hee Haw” and FM radio when he made a discovery ? and a decision ? that would shape the rest of his life.

“When I was 4, I just kind of found these Beatles 45s,” Rucker said. “I think I just said to myself, ‘I’m never going to let anybody tell me what I can listen to.’ And I never did. When I was sitting there watching ‘Hee Haw,’ my brother didn’t want to watch it. He was older than me but there was going to be a friggin’ fight if they didn’t let me watch ‘Hee Haw.'”

That mindset has led the singer best known as the frontman of Hootie and the Blowfish to a career renaissance in country music marked by the kind of success no one could have predicted and few other black performers have experienced.

Rucker is up for two Country Music Association Awards and could join Charley Pride as the only African-Americans to win best male vocalist if he wins. And he has sold more than 1 million copies of his debut country CD, “Learn to Live.”

Both milestones are receiving a lot of attention, and Rucker enjoys the comparisons.

“You can’t help but smile when someone mentions your name in the same sentence as Charley Pride,” Rucker said.

It’s been nearly 40 years since Pride, the best-selling African-American performer in country music, won entertainer of the year in 1971 and male vocalist of the year in 1971-72, a feat not since repeated by a black artist. Rucker, who also has a chance to be the first black to win for new artist, will perform during Wednesday’s live broadcast on ABC.

Pride’s was one of the voices in that stewpot of influences that launched Rucker on his eclectic run through the rock and country charts.

“You have those memories of Charley Pride coming on ‘Hee Haw’ and doing his hits,” Rucker said. “When I was 7, you could have Charley Pride and Buck Owens, Stevie Wonder and The Who on the same radio station.”

Pride thought he would be the first in a string of black country music singers creating hits, and admits he is puzzled why it took so long for another to break through. (Ray Charles, a CMA Award nominee, sang some country songs and had a strong connection to the genre’s audiences but was never considered country performer).

Pride has introduced fans to others over the years he thought might catch on, but never did.

“I don’t know why,” Pride said. “I think you need to go to the industry and ask them about that.”

There are only two black performers in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum ? Pride and DeFord Bailey, who was a member of the early Grand Ole Opry cast.

Some black singers like Lionel Richie, Solomon Burke, Esther Phillips and Al Green had fleeting success in country music on their way to other destinations, Country Hall of Fame historian Jay Orr said. And relatively recently, performers such as Stoney Edwards, Big Al Downing, Cleve Francis, Rissi Palmer and Cowboy Troy have registered on the country charts.

Pride figures he cleared most of the obstacles facing those who followed him. Signed by Chet Atkins in the midst of the civil rights movement, the platinum-voiced Mississippi native has had dozens of No. 1 hits and sold tens of millions of albums.

Perhaps his most significant achievement was disproving those who thought country’s heavily Southern audience wouldn’t support black performers at a time when race relations were marked by violence.

“I never had even one hoot call from the audience in all these years,” Pride said. “Not one iota of hoot calls. I know it happened to Jackie Robinson when he was in that same kind of position, sort of. I never had to go through nothing like that. Once I started singing they didn’t care.”

Rucker’s transition in this era has been seamless, too. The honey-coated baritone’s music outweighs everything else and he’s had three straight No. 1 singles.

“It seems clear to me that if I didn’t deliver songs that country music fans wanted to hear, then radio wasn’t going to play them,” Rucker said. “

No matter the reason, Orr said Pride and Rucker stand alone in terms of album sales by African-Americans.

Rucker’s not sure his success will clear the way for other black performers to mine country music for hits. But he hopes it has opened some minds.

“I don’t know if I proved it can work,” he said. “But maybe someone will give a second listen now instead of just saying no.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.