Let’s just say it: There aren’t a whole lot of black people in country music. In fact, if you do a Google image search right now for “black country music stars,” Darius Rucker pops up on the front row four times. Charley Pride shows up once. Country singer Clint Black — who’s actually white — shows up once. And the last image slot is taken up by Cowboy Troy, who makes his living as a country rapper.
Farther down the page, for some reason, Lionel Richie and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson pop up a few times. And after a couple of swipes of the finger, the page is taken up by white country artists. Of course, this is hardly an accurate measurement of the diversity — or lack thereof — in popular country music. But in 2014, none of the nominees for the Country Music Association Awards were black. And in the 48-year history of the CMAs, Rucker and Pride are the only two black artists to ever win an award. And that, well, that says something.
But all this doesn’t mean you should be mad at Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan. No, if anything, what you should feel is an immense sense of respect and admiration for Darius Rucker. Because, as an artist who has been steadily climbing his way to the top of country music — a land that has not always been the kindest or most comfortable for minorities — with a humble and resolute determination, he deserves it. And he doesn’t always get it.
Like when he was criticized on Twitter for singing “White Christmas” at the Rockefeller Center Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony while Eric Garner protesters marched a few blocks away. How quickly we forget, or don’t seem to care, that while with Hootie and the Blowfish, Rucker sang about the absurdity of the Confederate flag flying above the South Carolina statehouse on the song “Drowning.”
Or how about when he released a hit cover of the song “Wagon Wheel” that was met with what seemed like an unusually heightened sense of disdain by those who claimed he’d ruined the “original” Old Crow Medicine Show version, like this Tweet.
Darius Rucker ruined my favorite song wagon wheel, black people shouldn't sing country. #StopPlayingIt— Zach McDonald (@zmcdonald124) January 4, 2013
Or this one.
Darius Rucker's "Wagon Wheel" doesn't compare to the original..if you disagree, your either stupid or black.— Courtneyy (@CourtneyBingel) March 12, 2013
Or this one.
Are we really saying Darius Rucker sings wagon wheel better....Lemme guess next olympics black people gonna start swimming too!— Rolling Stone (@aaronmclendon_) August 7, 2013
Or this one.
There will always be those who prefer original versions over covers, but make no mistake: There is also a specific reason — for some, at least — to hate Rucker’s version a little more. Those same purists seem to be oblivious to the fact the original shell for the song “Wagon Wheel” came from an unfinished Bob Dylan tune.
Regarding Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel,” there’s an uncomfortable undertone of theft, like he stole something that belonged to someone. It’s a notion rarely applied to other country artists’ covers, like Rascal Flatts’ version of “Life Is a Highway.”
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Rucker’s struggle isn’t as visible as, say, Jackie Robinson’s. It’s more subtle and lies beneath a few more complex layers. But that doesn’t mean that what he’s doing — what he’s achieving right now — won’t make a measurable difference in the lives of all the minority country music stars who will come after him, like up-and-coming Texas crooner Mickey Guyton, a black female artist who just this January released her debut single, “Better Than You Left Me,” to much national praise. Rucker will help grease the wheels for her and others like her, just as people like Pride and Ray Charles made life a little easier for him.
And whether you prefer his version of “Wagon Wheel” or Old Crow Medicine Show’s or Bob Dylan’s or your grandmother’s — that’s something you must respect.
Darius Rucker with Brothers Osborne, Brett Eldredge, and a Thousand Horses. 7 p.m. Saturday, May 23, at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansbury’s Way, West Palm Beach. Call 561-795-8883, or visit cruzanamphitheatre.net. Tickets cost $25 to $324 plus fees via livenation.com.