Darius Rucker always had sights set on Nashville

Musician Darius Rucker performs onstage during 2013 Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival held at The Empire Polo Club on April 28, 2013 in Indio, California.
Musician Darius Rucker performs onstage during 2013 Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival held at The Empire Polo Club on April 28, 2013 in Indio, California.

There was a time five or six years ago when Darius Rucker was a novelty in country music. He would walk the red carpet at awards show and feel questioning eyes following him down the carpet.

“Everyone was looking at me, just wondering why ‘Hootie’ was there,” Rucker, the former front man for Hootie & the Blowfish, said.

Six No. 1 hits on the country music charts and an October induction into the Grand Ole Opry made it pretty clear about his intentions.

“I’m a country singer until it’s over,” Rucker said. “Retirement for me is when country radio decides they don’t want to play my songs anymore.”

That time isn’t coming anytime soon as evidenced by his recent multi-week No. 1 hit, “Wagon Wheel,” and by his sold-out show today at the Toledo Zoo.

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Hootie & the Blowfish became a smash success with more than 20 million albums sold after Rucker founded the band back in 1986 with some buddies at the University of South Carolina. But the Charleston, S.C., native wasn’t sure he’d be taken seriously when he tried to step out as a solo country artist.

His longtime manager Doc McGhee secured him a record deal with Capitol Records and told him to take his best shot.

“I didn’t know if I’d be accepted by country radio, and I didn’t know if country fans would accept me. I just told myself to make the record you would want to listen to because this might be the only record you get to make.”

“Learn to Live” was released in September, 2008. The first single off the album, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” hit No. 1 a month later, and the next two singles, “It Won’t Be Like This for Long” and “Alright,” followed it to the top of the charts.

“Now, it feels great to be part of the family, one of the people you talk about when you talk about country music. It’s not like Hootie never happened, but the younger generation now thinks about me just as a country singer.”

Rucker is one of the few people qualified to offer insight into the rock and country music worlds, and he admits to being surprised at how close-knit the Nashville community is.

“I’ve had Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, Sheryl Crow, Lady A, Brad Paisley sing on my records. All of that just came from, ‘Hey man, do you want to be on my record?’ They just show up and do it,” Rucker said. “There are so many less egos in country music. The competition thing is not as prevalent. Sure, I want to sell a bunch of records, but I want Brad Paisley to sell a bunch too.”

The collaborative Nashville spirit paid off for Rucker with “Wagon Wheel.” He loved the bluegrass version of the song popularized by Old Crow Medicine Show, but never envisioned it as a country hit until teachers at his oldest daughter’s high school in Baltimore played it during a talent show.

“They did it so country, with the drummer and wide guitar. I texted my producer and said we’ve gotta cut this.”

Rucker laid down his vocals for the track, but he said Lady Antebellum took the song to another level when they agreed to add their backing vocals.

“They sent me their part, and it was this cool rock mix. I said this thing is going to be a monster.”

Darius Rucker and guests Jana Kramer and Rodney Atkins will be in concert at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheater today at 7 p.m. The show is sold out.

Contact Brian Dugger at bdugger@theblade.com or on Twitter @DuggerCountry.