Darius Rucker’s rare feat, and what it means
Something remarkable happened on the country charts this past week: A black man, Hootie & the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker, had the #1 entry on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for the first time since Ray Charles landed there almost a quarter-century ago. Then again, Charles had help. His #1, “Seven Spanish Angels”, teamed Brother Ray with that human duet machine Willie Nelson, who was at that moment enjoying the most successful chart run of his career. In 1985, you could have topped the country charts singing with Willie Nelson.
The last time a black man led the country charts as a solo act was when Charley Pride did it in 1983. That was for “Night Games”, the final of Pride’s 29 country #1 hits. And before that? Well, there is no before that.
A caveat: In 1944, Billboard first published a chart measuring what we now call country music. In the first half of that year, the Most Played Jukebox Folk Records chart, as it was then titled, included #1 records by such country legends as Al Dexter, Tex Ritter, Red Foley and Ernest Tubb, but it also included top-ranked recordings by the biggest pop star of the day, Bing Crosby, and by black R&B stars the King Cole Trio and (twice) Louis Jordan. After that, the chart was tweaked to more accurately separate country hits from R&B ones. The result was that no black artist charted country again until Pride scored his first hit, the top-10 “Just Between You And Me”, in 1967.
Two other asterisks need to mark Rucker’s achievement with the song “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” (from his new album Learn To Live, released last month by Capitol Nashville). First, a #1 by Darius Rucker in 2008 hardly signifies the same thing as did a chart-topper by Charley Pride in, say, 1968 because record-label promotions departments and radio programmers are more enmeshed now than ever. Second, although Rucker’s position atop the country charts says little about the belated integration of a format country radio is every bit as white in the 21st century as it was throughout the 20th it does speak volumes about the way the majors currently shuffle rock and pop has-beens onto the rosters of their country divisions. Essentially, it’s easier to promote an already famous country-come-lately such as Jessica Simpson or Jewel than it is to discover and nurture new talent.
In at least one sense, though, this last observation is nothing very new. Country music is, and has always been, where old sounds go to die or, rather, where they go to live on after they’ve been buried elsewhere. Country music is where the songs of minstrelsy, the medicine show and vaudeville went to survive in the 1920s. It’s where swing went in the ’40s and ’50s, and where Tin Pan Alley-styled pop moved during the Nashville Sound era.
Today, if you want to hear a blues lick or a solo on a mainstream radio outlet, you’d be well-advised to tune in a country station, and the same is true if you’re seeking rockabilly beats or southern rock. Or, for that matter, the singer-songwriter side of the last few decades of rock radio, which is where Rucker comes in. His success is just one more instance of a phenomenon that has been part of the country tradition since at least its commercial beginnings in the 1920s.
Still, all qualifications aside, I think Rucker’s chart topper remains a pretty big deal. Most obviously, this is because a black man on the country charts is beyond unusual. Never mind #1 hits; you can count on one hand the African-Americans who have over the last six decades! even managed to crack the country top-40.
Of course, it makes a poetic kind of sense that Rucker would top the whitest of charts at the very moment the nation appears poised to elect its first African-American president. And it’s ironic, too, that it should happen on the radio format most geared to those very white working-class voters the polls tell us have been most resistant to Barack Obama’s candidacy.
Telling as well, if depressingly so, is that both Obama and Rucker have achieved their very different successes by apparently sensing an imperative to present themselves, mostly, as studiously uninterested in the color of their own skin. “I didn’t make the record for that stuff,” Rucker, a native South Carolinian, told USA Today in what I expect to be his final word on the matter. That required my-race-is-no-big-deal attitude, after all, is not much different from how Charley Pride presented himself in the 1960s. The fact that, 40 years later, such an accomplishment remains so unusual is a reminder of just how little some things have changed.