After taking a year off due to COVID-19, the popular Windy City Smokeout returns July 8-11, becoming one of the first large-scale events to take place in Chicago. The barbecue and country music festival, hosted by Bub City and Joe’s Bar, will take place in the parking lot of United Center for an expanded four-day weekend featuring live performances from the likes of Brett Eldredge, Darius Rucker and Dierks Bentley, alongside some of America’s best smoked meat purveyors and makers of craft beer.
But with an eclectic array of vendors to choose from, Friday night music headliner Darius Rucker has one piece of advice: “Go to Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ and you’ll be okay,” says the singer-songwriter, touting his hometown friend from Charleston, South Carolina.
Rucker, famously known for fronting ’90s alt rock gods Hootie & The Blowfish (which formed in the ’80s at the University of South Carolina), is also one of contemporary country music’s brightest stars. Since 2008, he’s released four No. 1 albums on the Billboard Country Charts and 10 massive No. 1 singles that have dominated country radio, including his latest effort, the gushing love ballad “My Masterpiece,” which came out in May.
“I didn’t think it was where I was going to end up,” he admits of his musical about face, a journey he profiles in his 2010 hit called “This,” about being able to pursue his musical dream during a Hootie hiatus. “I’ve been saying for years that I wanted to do a country record some day and here we are. And the fact that I’ve been able to make a difference has been really cool.”
Rucker, a self-proclaimed lifelong country music lover who cites influences such as Lyle Lovett, Nancy Griffith and in particular Radney Foster and his album “Del Rio, TX 1959” (“it changed the way I heard music”), is one of a handful of Black artists in the genre. Along with modern day stars like Lil Nas X, Rucker reflects a growing diversified talent pool in country music.
He landed a coveted primetime spot hosting the CMA Awards with Reba McEntire last November, more than 10 years after Rucker earned the organization’s New Artist of the Year honors in 2009. It’s a success story he attributes to a legion of devotees: “Country fans are so freaking loyal,” he says, of course not counting out Hootie fans who have migrated to his solo work, which includes an upcoming, yet-to-be-named new album.
During the pandemic, Rucker found time to hone in on the material, a follow-up to 2017’s wildly popular album “When Was The Last Time.”
“Going through the pandemic and the way that life changes, there was so much to write about and so many things to say. And I’m really excited about the record,” says the songwriter, who worked with writing companions J.T. Harding, Josh Osborne and Ross Copperman for sessions, mostly via Zoom. “I really don’t want that to become the norm — ever,” he says, joking.
One thing Rucker tried to take up during the pandemic — to augment his prolific charitable work and playing golf — was learning to play the piano. “Yeah that didn’t work out so well,” he says, laughing. “I had this great fantasy of getting up on stage one day and playing [Hootie hit] ‘Let Her Cry’ on piano, but I guess that’s not going to happen.”
Though other surprises may be in store for the quartet who’s beloved 1994 debut “Cracked Rear View” still remains among the Top 10 best-selling studio albums of all time. In 2019, the band regrouped for a full-fledged tour and their first album in 15 years, “Imperfect Circle,” an experience Rucker calls “incredible.”
“The one thing I will say about Hootie & The Blowfish is whenever we get together we’re us. It was like being back in the day in college — except everyone now has their own bus,” he jokes, adding, “I’m sure there will be another tour and another record when we all think the time is right. …The year 2019 really showed us that those ’90s fans still want to come and see us in the big places — we can still do that.”
One of the band’s biggest fans happens to be rapper and musician Post Malone, who released a cover of Hootie’s hit “Only Wanna Be With You” in February.
“I was blown away,” says Rucker of the take, noting he and Malone have even discussed collaborating at some point. “Post is a friend, and I’m a huge fan of his. As an artist, to have someone that big and who I think is so talented want to do one of our songs was pretty freaking amazing. …It’s amazing to me that I’ve been here doing this for so many years and still have hits. I’m very thankful.”
Selena Fragassi is a freelance writer.