Darius Rucker on Resilience and Reinvention

ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

Most of the guests we interview on this show come from business and management. But from time to time we like also like to bring in people from different fields for their perspectives and lessons on professional growth, resilience, and success.

Today we turn to a famous musician who has topped the chart in not just one but two genres. Depending on your age or location, you might know Darius Rucker as lead singer of the massively popular 1990’s band Hootie and the Blowfish; or, you’ll recognize him as the solo artist who defied stereotypes and expectations to become one of country music’s most prominent black voices for many years.

His new memoir is called Life’s Too Short. And I spoke to him about how he took a college hobby into a career, and then transitioned into a successful second act, by following his passions, ignoring haters, and staying and humble.

Your relationship with music of all kinds seems rapturous, almost spiritual. How did you turn that passion which you had at a very young age into a profession?

DARIUS RUCKER: Oh, I mean, a lot of luck. Music’s been so much a major part of my life since I was a young kid, and knowing that at four or five and six years old that all you want to do is sing, for me, the passion just turned into work, which turned into success because you have that old saying where if you do something you love, you don’t work a day in your life. That’s really how I felt. I just wanted it. If I wasn’t as passionate as I am about music, I don’t think I would’ve ever made it.

ALISON BEARD: Let’s talk about that hard work of the music business because in your book there are moments when it seems like quite a grind. Before Hootie hit it big, you spent years playing bars and clubs first in the south, and then all over the country. So what kept you going?

DARIUS RUCKER: The first thing that kept us going is we were loving what we were doing. We were just getting to play music and it was getting bigger and bigger. Every time we played someplace, more people were there, so that kept us going. But also, we knew that someday, somebody would give us a chance and that’s all we wanted, and when we got the chance, we made the best out of it.

ALISON BEARD: Did putting in all those hours better prepare you for when that break did come and you did get famous and you had a chance to play larger crowds?

DARIUS RUCKER: Oh, absolutely. I don’t think we would’ve been the touring band or the stage band that we were if we had made it early because all that came from years of playing small stages and bigger stages, and trying to figure out how we do what we do and all that work for seven or eight years helped so much when we finally made it because all the stuff that we would’ve had to learn about playing, we were already doing.

ALISON BEARD: At that time, grunge really dominated the airwaves. You were different. So was that a conscious decision to be innovative, to sort of think outside the box or was it a case of just doing what felt good and getting the timing right?

DARIUS RUCKER: Oh, no, it was just who we were. I guess we started before grunge hit, and then when grunge hit in the early ’90s, we even talked about it or tried to write songs that were a little harder or a little darker. It just wasn’t us. We write a song that we’d play it live and it just didn’t work because it wasn’t us, so we just decided instead of joining them, just keep doing what we do and sounding the way we sound and let’s see what happens.

ALISON BEARD: Right. So the authenticity is what eventually panned out?

DARIUS RUCKER: Oh, I think so. I think when we got our record deal, people were surprised that we got a deal because we weren’t grunge and grunge was king for everybody, but I think when we finally got out into the airwaves and got on Letterman and stuff, people realized that, I don’t know, we want this. I don’t know what’s happening over here, but we want this. And that was great to be a part of that and to watch that happen.

ALISON BEARD: Talk to me about the challenges of working so hard and so closely with three bandmates for so long. How do you deal with conflicts and stay collaborative?

DARIUS RUCKER: The hardest part I think was realizing that you have to put your ego aside for the good of the band because that’s what you have to do all the time when you’re a band like us because when you think you’re right, but three guys think you’re wrong, you lose. I think learning to put our egos aside when we’re talking about stuff with the band and also just listening instead of always talking, that was one thing that I’ve always loved about our band is we listen. And we want to know what your opinion is and maybe why your opinion is that way because it might change my mind.. Being in a band helped us all grow up. It helped us all just learn how to be in a group and how to be in an equal group like we are, and I think it helped us in all parts of our lives.

ALISON BEARD: Was it a weird transition then when you became a solo artist?

DARIUS RUCKER: Oh, yeah. At first, it was really weird because the little things that you don’t care about in a band, you just don’t worry about them. Somebody else will do it. Somebody else will give their opinion, and whatever they want, great. But when you’re solo, everything is up to you, so you’ll have to be on top of everything and that was definitely a big difference.

ALISON BEARD: You’ve now had two big acts, if you will, in the music business. How have you managed to stay engaged and avoid burnout, especially because you are sort of still that hardworking, grinding, touring musician?

DARIUS RUCKER: I think one of the things that happened was when I switched over, I think if I had stayed in Hootie a couple more years, I would’ve had extreme burnout. We had been doing it for so long every summer. It was a job. But when we decided to stop playing and I switched, it was a whole new thing. It was like I was a new guy again and I had to do all the new guy things. I wanted to do all the new guy things, and that experience definitely kept me from getting burned out in music, and now, I still love to play so much. I mean, writing songs or just going into the studio just still gets me so hyped because I just love making music.

ALISON BEARD: That transition though to country music, it’s not just going from being in a band to being a solo artist, but also changing genres. That was a big risk career-wise, so why did you think it was worth trying?

DARIUS RUCKER: I wasn’t looking for success. I mean, I just wanted to make the music. I’d been talking about it for years and I just wanted to make a country record. I wanted to. I wanted to. And I wanted to find somebody to let me do that. So I was never coming into it going, “Okay, I’m going to come in here and have all these hits and I want to open up the door for more African American artists and all that stuff.” No, I came over here thinking they’re not going to play my record. They’re not going to care about me because I’m the pop guy and the black guy. So it’s like, “Just go make the record you want to make and have fun with it.”

ALISON BEARD: So you start with small ambitions, and then they increase as you go along?

DARIUS RUCKER: Exactly. Because if you were smart, when I came out and you really looked at the situation for you to sit there and go, “Okay, I’m going to have big hits in country music,” I would’ve been lying to myself. I mean, there was nobody in country music that looked like me for 25 years. I know the stigma of the carpetbagger, the guy who comes from pop and wants to make a country record for a second and goes back to pop, how that’s frowned on in Nashville. So when I looked at the situation in a realistic way, which I like to do, there was no chance I was going to have the success. If I got a top 20 hit, that was going to be huge, let alone number one. So I just went in thinking, “I’m just going to make a great record, so maybe they’ll let me make another one.”

ALISON BEARD: And even when you were the front man for Hootie & the Blowfish, you faced some pretty blatant racism that you talk about in the book. You grew up in the South. You started your career in the South. So how did you handle those incidents and has the way you respond to it changed over time?

DARIUS RUCKER: No, I still respond to it the same way. I don’t think this is what I thought back then. But success is the best revenge. And for me, when I heard those things, what I thought to myself was I could go over there and fight this guy or I could let what this guy say affect me to the point to where I stop playing this music, and then they win. Anything I heard at a show or anything like that, that’s stuff I’d heard in my life walking around the streets, so it was just like if I could deal with it there, I can deal with it here.

ALISON BEARD: And I’m going to rock this crowd, and then they’re not going to be able to say those things anymore?

DARIUS RUCKER: Exactly. You go out and you’re great. One of the things that I’ll never forget hearing in my life, we played the KA House at Tennessee and we killed them. We killed them. We were so great this night and we’re packing our stuff up and three frat boys are standing behind us. They don’t think we can hear them, and one guy says, “That’s the best band we ever had here. They were awesome. I can’t believe they got an N singer.” I was like, “Wow, wow, wow, do you hear yourself?” But you hear that stuff and I’m not going to let it bother me. I’m going to keep playing music because if I let that bother me, they win.

ALISON BEARD: That takes a lot of resilience though.

DARIUS RUCKER: It does. There was a lot of times I wanted to fight, but it was 40 of them and four of us.

ALISON BEARD: Going back to that grind, the transition to country music, knowing that you might face hostile reception for a number of reasons, you decided to, even though you were already famous, sort of travel to radio stations around the United States, to sort of reintroduce yourself as a country artist and talk about your album. Why was that hands-on retail politics approach best?

DARIUS RUCKER: Because first of all, I wanted everybody to see that I wasn’t coming over here saying, “Look, I’m in Hootie & the Blowfish. Everybody should be playing my record.” Especially my label, I wanted them to know that I’m the new guy and I want you to know I know I’m the new guy, so I’m going to do all the new guy stuff. Because that’s the stuff that’s going to make me have success. And I also thought that if we went in and I met some program directors or music directors and we sat down and we talked and had a conversation, someone might like me and go, “Okay, I’m going to give this record a shot,” and it worked.

ALISON BEARD: So it was sort of relying on the music, humility, but then also your personality, them knowing you as a person, not as Hootie?

DARIUS RUCKER: Exactly. Not just that guy who was in that big rock band. Just knowing me as Darius and getting to know what I’m like and who I am. Going to those radio stations and meeting people, they liked me and I liked them. We’d see each other in Nashville and hang out and have a beer and everything, and I think that went a long way. That radio tour was the reason I made it.

ALISON BEARD: As you approached this solo artist career and had early success, how did you think about sticking to that same lane that was successful versus being innovative and trying new things?

DARIUS RUCKER: I just wanted to reinvent myself as a whole different kind of… Not my personality, but just what I do. I just wanted to reinvent myself as just a whole different kind of singer. Mike Duncan said, that signed me, “I never got that Hootie stuff, but I always thought you were a country singer.” That’s how I’ve always felt. I’m a country singer.

You get different songwriters and different people, different producers or different singers you want to write with, but then there’s also guys like Ashley Gorley that you could sit down and write five songs with him, and all five songs are totally different. Ashley knows the songs you’ve already written, and he didn’t want to write that song again. That helps a lot.

ALISON BEARD: And obviously, you had a huge hit with Wagon Wheel, which was a cover, so how do you make covers your own? How do you make something old new again?

DARIUS RUCKER: I always love to just start by pretending when you’re playing it, it’s never been played before. That’s what helped us a lot when we were recording Wagon Wheel. Everybody heard it, everybody knew it, but what we know is the bluegrass version. Let’s play it like George Jones was going to sing it or play it like Charlie Rich is going to sing it or something. Let’s play it like a real country tune, and that’s how we approached that.

ALISON BEARD: I have to say, this actually came on my playlist yesterday. Your cover of Losing My Religion with Hootie is excellent. I love it so much.

DARIUS RUCKER: Yeah. Thank you. I do too.

ALISON BEARD: I’m seeing you at Fenway, so play it there.


ALISON BEARD: Let’s talk a little bit more about the music industry and country in particular. There have been a lot of changes from radio to streaming, albums to touring. Has that affected at all how you operate?

DARIUS RUCKER: Oh, goodness, yeah. I mean, it’s changed the business 180. In the ’90s, when we were selling records, the only reason you went on tour was to advertise your record. You were making money on tour, but you were making crazy money on records. Nowadays, it’s the exact opposite. I mean, there’s no money being made making records. The only reason you make a record is to advertise your tour. It’s just changed 180.

ALISON BEARD: That’s a lot more work, right?

DARIUS RUCKER: Yeah, it’s a lot more work. I mean, it used to be great back in the day when the charts would come out on Friday or whatever. You know you sold that many records. Now, it’s streaming or whatever. You really have no idea. You see these numbers and 30 million streams, and you get paid $10 or something. I mean, it’s crazy.

ALISON BEARD: In terms of the country scene, do you feel as if it’s more inclusive now, both for artists and the people who are listening to it, the audiences?

DARIUS RUCKER: Oh, absolutely. It’s definitely more inclusive than it was 16 years ago when I came in. It wasn’t anybody that looked like me. Not just on the charts, but nobody looked like me that had a record deal. Now, you see all these labels signing Kane, who’s playing stadiums, and Willie Jones and The War and Treaty and Brittney Spencer, and all these folks getting record deals and getting these duets and stuff and getting these shots. I love to see it. I love to see country music looking more like America.

ALISON BEARD: You’ve obviously been a role model as a black artist in country music, but have you done other things behind the scenes to improve the way it operates?

DARIUS RUCKER: You do. The thing that’s been really cool for me is I’ve had people have meetings with me just to talk about that. “How could we improve this? How could we do that? Do you have an opinion on that?” And it’s great to see people caring. It’s great to see people wanting to improve how this is, instead of people fighting against it like I’m sure there was for 25 or 30 years, people just going, “Nope, not my business, not in country music.” And now, it’s not that way. Now, every label is looking for a person of color – that’s great, so they could make a record and then go see what happens and make careers. It’s great to see that happening. It’s great to see country music growing up a little, and then like I said, looking more like America.

ALISON BEARD: In those years when you were the sort of lone person that people pointed to when they said, “Oh, country’s getting more diverse,” how much pressure did you feel?

DARIUS RUCKER: The pressure didn’t start until after I had a hit, when I Don’t Think went to number one, and then Alright was next. It went to number two. It went to number one also. That was when I started thinking, “Okay, I don’t want it just to be me. What can I do to help other artists of color get in the door? Just sit in somebody’s office to give a chance to get a record deal?” So I do as much as I can. Yeah. I do everything I’m asked to do, but I do as much as I can, and that’s what I’m going to keep doing.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. But it didn’t take any sort of psychological toll being the only one for a stretch of time?

DARIUS RUCKER: No because I’ve been the only one since I’m 19 when I joined Hootie & the Blowfish. You know what? When we were playing clubs, we’d play a night with four bands and I’m the only black guy in the place. We walked into rooms of 15,000 people. I was the only black guy in the place. So I was show ready for country and whatnot. There was nothing they were going to do that was going to make me upset or anything. Okay. Throw your best shot, man.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. You must be following the discussion and conversation about Beyonce’s new country album with a lot of interest. What’s your view in terms of the reaction that she’s getting?

DARIUS RUCKER: I mean, Beyonce could put out an album of Gregorian hymns and she’s going to get a reaction, but she came over to country. I love it. I love the eyes she brought to it. I love the press she brought to it. I’ll be honest with you, it was a little disappointing seeing people say she’s down the only one fighting for black people in country music. I’m like, “Man, I’ve been here for 16 years. But the record’s so great. It’s so undeniably country, and I’m just so glad to have her there. I wish she had called me and put me on the record, but I’ll be okay.

ALISON BEARD: The next one. The next one.

DARIUS RUCKER: Yeah, exactly.

ALISON BEARD: I have two professors writing a piece about lessons for business leaders from Beyonce’s initial exclusion from country music and how she’s handled it, and I said, “I’m interviewing Darius Rucker today, and there really needs to be a paragraph at least on how he handled it too.” So don’t worry.

Tell me a little bit about how you get feedback and respond to feedback. There’s critical acclaim and there’s popular acclaim. Do you pay attention to both, neither, one more than the other?

DARIUS RUCKER: I don’t really pay attention to either one. I was, I guess you could say, lucky. Hootie & the Blowfish, we’ve never been a critics’ darling. I mean, even when we played clubs and we were outselling everybody else, we weren’t the band that people were writing cool stuff about. We’ve never really been the critics’ darling, so I never expect to be.

When I put out a record and critics love it, I’m surprised. So with that, I don’t care. You put on records so people like them. That’s something that’s important, the success of your record. If it’s getting streams, if it’s getting sales, if it’s doing all that, that’s important. But the critics, I mean, music’s subjective. I hate that we think there’s somebody that can go and say, “This record’s bad,” and everybody now has to say, “This record’s bad.” You don’t know it’s bad until you listen to it because it might be bad to him, but it might not be bad to you. You might think it’s great.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I love how eclectic your musical taste is. The book is organized around different songs, your own, and others, and everything from Al Green to Kiss. Let me ask you about your voice. It is totally one of a kind. How much of it is natural-born talent versus building it to be where it was when you were the lead singer of Hootie and where it is today?

DARIUS RUCKER: Oh, I’ve never taken a lesson or anything like that.. It’s just what it is. I think a lot of it’s natural talent, but a lot of it’s also singing for 40 years, and having to learn how to sing different genres of songs, and being in a cover band who would play R.E.M. but would also play 3rd Bass, but would also play Bill Withers. When you’re in a band like that, you’d learn to sing a lot of different stuff. Also, just the music I listened to growing up, I always sing all different stuff, so a lot of it’s just self-taught, trying to sing like other people, but most of it is God-given talent.

ALISON BEARD: Just to wrap up, you talked about luck at one point during this conversation and two lucky breaks in your career really stood out to me, David Letterman hearing one Hootie song on the radio and inviting the band to play on his show, which then propelled you to this sort of level of huge fame, and then also, you hearing the faculty band at your daughter’s school talent show playing Wagon Wheel and it becoming your biggest hit. So how do you think about the role of chance versus that God-given talent, and then also hard work in your career?

DARIUS RUCKER: Oh, I think you need talent to make it, for sure, but I think you equally need luck. Look at my career. If that DJ in New York doesn’t go renegade and play Hold My Hand that afternoon, are we here? Am I even here?

ALISON BEARD: I think he also just liked the band name too.

DARIUS RUCKER: Yeah, exactly. You look at that and you ask yourself, am I here? If I didn’t go to see Carrie’s talent show that night… I’m in the middle of making a record and I leave Nashville, fly all the way to Baltimore to go to this talent show, when I’m getting on the plane to go right back the next morning to go to the studio, and I go to do that because that’s what you do for you kids, and if I’m not there and I hear Wagon Wheel, I don’t have that big hit because I would’ve never caught it. I would’ve never thought to cut it because I knew the song. I loved the song. It was the bluegrass song. It wasn’t a country song, until I heard it like that. So I think luck has got a lot to do. I know it does for me.

ALISON BEARD: Well, thank you so much for your time.

DARIUS RUCKER: Thank you very much.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Darius Rucker, chart topping musician and author of the memoir Life’s Too Short.

And we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at HBR dot org slash podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Thanks to our team: Senior producer Mary Dooe. Associate Producer Hannah Bates. Audio product manager Ian Fox. and Senior Production Specialist Rob Eckhardt. And thanks to you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.

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