As a kid, Darius Rucker -- who plays Farmingville's Pennysaver Amphitheater on Saturday -- listened carefully to Kenny Rogers singing "Coward of the County" on the radio. As a 28-year-old, he fronted Hootie & the Blowfish, a band whose impossibly smooth-sounding 1994 pop album "Cracked Rear View" sold more than 16 million copies. At 42, Rucker rediscovered his commercial voice after years of drifting in and out of Hootie -- beginning in 2008, with his hit "Don't Think I Don't Think About It," he began to redefine himself as a country singer, writing songs not with a band but with a rotating group of Nashville session pros.
"I've been lucky," says Rucker, 48, by phone from his South Carolina home. "We've never had any writers say, 'No, I won't write with Darius.' " He spends 20 minutes on the line, discussing pop, country and other subjects.
When you switched to country, how did you change the way you sing? On the surface your voice sounds the same, but there's also a subtle twang in there now.
I sing whatever the music tells me to sing. I didn't think I was doing anything different or whatever. With Hootie, it was never about letting the southern boy in me come out -- we were a straight-ahead rock and roll band. With country music, the Southern side of me comes out.
You've talked about how Kenny Rogers was an early influence. What did you learn from listening to him?
I don't have a high voice, and Kenny always stayed in that great realm where I could sing every one of his songs, even when I got older and my voice changed. It always amazed me how he could tell a story like he did. When I was flipping through channels, I heard Kenny on the pop station, you'd hear Kenny on the soft-rock station, on the country station. When he had a hit, it was played everywhere.
How did your singing change when your voice changed?
For the first year or so, it was tough on me because I couldn't sing Al Green songs anymore. That just broke my heart. I couldn't sing "For the Good Times" and "Let's Get Married." Then I realized the old Al songs were country songs -- Kris Kristofferson, "Funny How Time Slips Away," the Hank Sr. songs he would make into these R&B songs. That was important to me as a songwriter, when I started discovering that Al Green could do that -- "Wow, he just heard it in a totally different way."
People think African-American country singers are so rare, but Green and Ray Charles and many others have been singing country songs for decades.
Oh, absolutely. I think those are boundaries that were really put up in the late '70s. When Charley Pride stopped having hits, people thought, "Black guys can't play country music" or "Country and R&B were so different." But it really wasn't. We all use the same notes and the same chords. Music is music, and it's what you like and don't like.
In Hootie, you and the band did everything together -- not just music, but you and guitarist Mark Bryan did joint interviews. How much did you miss that when you went solo?
We're so close, and we were such a band, and we always made sure we did everything together, and there was always two of us doing everything. It was a wild thought that I would have to take on everything, whether it's doing interviews or songwriting. At first, I was like, "Man, this is going to be crazy," but once I started doing it, I realized it was fun.
WHEN|WHERE Next Saturday at 5 p.m., Pennysaver Amphitheater at Bald Hill, 55 South Bicycle Path, Farmingville
INFO 631-648-2500; Pennysaveramp.com
IT'S A TWANG THING
Darius Rucker, formerly of Hootie and the Blowfish, is far from the first pop-rock-R&B singer who has gone country. Here are five others:
SHERYL CROW After racking up nearly two decades of pop hits, the "Leaving Las Vegas" singer collaborated with Loretta Lynn and Miranda Lambert on a Lynn tribute album in 2010, then plunged enthusiastically into Nashville. Her latest album, 2013's "Feels Like Home," is at least as country as Taylor Swift, and she's on tour with Rascal Flatts.
AARON LEWIS The front man for late-'90s metal band Staind figured out how to repackage the deep well of sadness in his voice. Although he doesn't live in Nashville, he put out "The Road" in 2012, and performs not in arenas but honky-tonk clubs around the country.
KID ROCK Unlike Rucker or Lewis, the Detroit rapper hasn't shifted to country so much as incorporated it into one of his many styles.
His 2010 album, "Born Free," includes guest appearances by Martina McBride, Zac Brown and rapper T.I.
LIONEL RICHIE The easy-listening godhead has tried several comebacks since his '80s peak, and none have stuck -- until 2012, when he revisited his old hits in a country vein for the smash album
"Tuskegee." Collaborators on that album include Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, Shania Twain and . . . Rucker (who duetted on "Stuck on You").
RAY CHARLES If you haven't heard the great R&B singer's 1962 album, "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music," for heaven's sake, stop reading this sidebar and pick it up.
-- STEVE KNOPPER