2021 Southerner of the Year: Darius Rucker
He may be one of the most successful musicians in the South, but Darius Rucker has never forgotten the lessons his mother taught him.
Darius Rucker grew up in a small house in Charleston, South Carolina, with his mother, grandmother, three sisters, and two brothers. The family sometimes struggled to make ends meet, but Rucker has fond childhood memories thanks to his mom, Carolyn, who worked as a nurse at the Medical University of South Carolina. "She came home, and no matter how tired she was, if you wanted some time or attention, she was always there to give it to you," he told me last fall on our Biscuits & Jam podcast. "Compassion is something she really instilled in us—and empathy for other folks." Carolyn died of a heart attack in 1992 when Rucker was 26, but she continues to have a profound impact on his life.
Darius Rucker may be known for his multiplatinum success as the lead singer of Hootie & the Blowfish as well as a solo career as a chart-topping country artist, but the accomplishment he's proudest of is his charity work. Among many efforts, he's raised over $2 million for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, serving as an ambassador and hosting frequent benefit concerts after he was inspired by visiting the facility in 2008. He's supported public education and junior golf in South Carolina through nearly $3.2 million in donations from the Hootie & the Blowfish Foundation. And he cochaired the campaign to build a children's hospital at the Medical University of South Carolina, where he's helped raise over $150 million through concerts and appearances.
As if that weren't enough, Rucker is also a national chair for the National Museum of African American Music, which just opened in Nashville. And last November, he continued to inspire a new generation of artists by becoming the first Black cohost of the CMA Awards since Charley Pride in 1975. As always, he's been busy, but there's never been a better time to honor the legacy of Carolyn Rucker—and to call him our Southerner of the Year.
What does it mean to be named Southerner of the Year right now?
"This is the toughest time we may have seen in the history of our country. Even when things are good, it's amazing how many people could use help. Whether you're supporting a charity or an orphanage or a hospital, it seems to brighten days and make people feel better—and isn't that what you're supposed to do?"
You've been raising money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital for a long time. I'm wondering if you can tell me about that first visit to the hospital and what it meant to you.
"Oh, man. I'll give you the Reader's Digest version of it. I was on tour with Brad [Paisley] and Dierks [Bentley]. We were in Memphis and went down to St. Jude and really hung out there that day. We walked around and met so many of the wonderful kids and talked to the doctors and the administrators, who told us how no parent ever gets a bill. That was so amazing to me, and I just wanted to be a part of it."
In all these years that you have been working with St. Jude, have you gotten to know some of the children?
"There are kids I see every year. There are kids I see at shows who aren't kids anymore. And there are parents I met when their kids were there who now work for St. Jude. That just shows what a great organization it is."
You recorded a song called "Possibilities" with a patient named Brennan Simpkins and his father. What was that experience like?
"Brennan's father, Turner, is a friend of mine—a really good friend. I knew the story of this boy, and I watched him live some of it. Turner has always been a guitar player, and he's an amateur songwriter. And he said, 'Man, I've got this song that I wrote about St. Jude.' And I said, 'Well, send it to me.' We figured it would be a cool thing to just cut it and let all the proceeds go to St. Jude—so that's what we did."
What did your mom teach you about nurses and doctors that made the biggest impact on you?
"My mom was a nurse my whole life. It was not just her job. She lived it; she loved it. Her compassion for people was something she taught all of us—telling us to care about other folks and try to help. When you're a nurse, that's what you do. And it wasn't something she just did at work. She did it at home, in our community, and at our church."
Do you see some of your mom's courage and spirit in the health-care workers who've been striving to keep us all safe in the past year?
"Oh, absolutely. You know, my mom has been gone for a long time now, and I still miss her dearly. But during this whole thing, I've thought about her so much. If I were a kid right now and my mom were a nurse, I would never see her because she would take every shift available to help people—not just the patients but the other nurses who just need a break."
You cohosted the CMA Awards last year, making you the first Black person to do that since Charley Pride did in 1975. Was that the last time you spoke with him?
"Yes. When I saw him, we talked for a minute, and I told him I wanted to come to Mississippi. I said, 'This is the perfect time. I'll come, and we'll social distance and sit and talk and drink some coffee.' And he was like, 'Yeah, let's do that.' It was the last time I spoke to him."
What are some of the memories of that night that stand out?
"Oh, the moment for me—the whole deal, really—was seeing Charley receive that [lifetime achievement] award and get it when he was still alive. You can look at all the legends who are still around, all of whom are great, and none of them deserves it more than Charley."
What do you hope that people will discover when they tour the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville?
"How truly important African Americans are to the history of American music. It's so rare that you and I just had a conversation about the African Americans in country music, but I hope people realize how important African Americans were in all genres."
Why do you spend so much time and effort giving back?
"Because it's the right thing to do. You know, I'm so fortunate. Even before, when I was performing at clubs making $100 a night, we used to play a show every year for an orphanage in Columbia, [South Carolina], just because it was something we wanted to support. But really it's what my mom taught me."
Listen to Southern Living's "Biscuits & Jam" podcast with Darius Rucker.