“I love it because it’s so country, and it’s so… so…” The word that Darius Rucker is looking for comes to him. “… so me.”
He’s talking specifically about his latest radio hit, “For the First Time,” but Rucker could just as easily be referring to the entire new album that followed close on the single’s heels, When Was the Last Time. His fifth album for Capitol Records Nashville, Last Time includes ballads that alternately evoke old heartbreaks and pledge eternal vows… barroom-ready paeans to both true love and true suds… blissed-out remembrances of an only partly misspent youth… and, most characteristic of all, an overriding warmth that full matches the humidity of the beloved South Carolina he can’t help but constantly invoke.
That level of familiarity should not be taken to mean, however, that Rucker did not practice what he preaches when it comes to the lyrics of “For the First Time,”a rambunctious stomper that asks the musical question: “When was the last time you did something for the first time? Let yourself go, baby, follow that feeling — maybe something new is what you’re needing.” Given the continual career climb that he’s been enjoying, Rucker could have taken the attitude of: If the wagon wheel ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Instead, he decided to tie that wagon to a fresh producer, Ross Copperman, aiming for “something a little different for me, a little more upbeat,” and far more spontaneously recorded. When it came to allowing himself to have this much fun in the studio, Rucker really was, in effect, a freshman.
The good stuff and the bad stuff: both come into play throughout When Was the Last Time. “Bring It On” is the unabashedly hopeful flip side to “If I Told You,” with Rucker assuring a woman that he can take her at her worst as well as her best. Another love song, “Don’t,” is cut from the same together-through-anything cloth. “She’s” conflates love for a woman with the love of the South — an easy correlation to make, when you’re as partial to South Carolina as Rucker. Another song where his home state gets a shout-out is “Life’s Too Short.” “I think that when people write songs with me in mind now, they throw Carolina in to make me want to cut it,” he acknowledges — “and it works!”
As established a country star as Rucker is nearly a decade into the Nashville era of his career, Rucker still has the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store, whether it comes to the music itself or the little acting perks that come with it. “I’m still honored when I get asked to do things like voiceover work for television shows and stuff like that, even when I have to turn it down,” he says. “In my mind and in my heart, I’m still that kid from South Carolina who just wants to sing for a living, and here I am, a few decades after starting my first band, getting these phone calls — that still freaks me out.” It’s a very mindful freakout, mind you. “I think one of the biggest disservices I’ve ever done to myself is that at the beginning of Hootie’s real success, I wasn’t worried about remembering anything. I was just worried about where I was going to get my next party going on. So with all this stuff going on right now, I always tell myself: Pay attention and remember.” For Rucker, it really does always feel like he’s doing something for the first time.