In the last decade, Rucker has become one of country music’s biggest stars, not a complete shock, given that Hootie provided a template for the roots-rock that occupies such a prominent spot near the center of contemporary country music: Zac Brown Band, Luke Combs, Eli Young Band. “‘Cracked Rear View’ would have to be a country record today,” Rucker said.
That might say less about country music than it says about the desiccated state of contemporary rock. The sort of centrist, agnostic, big-tent rock that Hootie specialized in, and that served as a bridge between eras of far more abrasive material, has all but vanished from the rock mainstream, inasmuch as there is even a rock mainstream anymore.
Which is one reason the band isn’t sure where its forthcoming album — to be released on a country label, Capitol Nashville (which also puts out Rucker’s solo work) — might fit in. When Hootie was in Nashville in March, it recorded familiar-feeling songs written by band members, and also “Wildfire Love,” which Rucker recently wrote with Ed Sheeran, and which has Sheeran’s weightless melodies delivered with Hootie’s trademark patina.
When collaborating with songwriters for the album, the band had one dictum. “We don’t want you to write the Hootie song ” Rucker said. “Write a song and we’ll make it sound like Hootie.”
That’s what they did at the opening night of the new tour, at the Veterans United Home Loans Amphitheater at Virginia Beach in late May. After preshow shots with the crew and opening act, Barenaked Ladies — toasting, in Hootie tradition, to Slash, an early rock-star inspiration — and after an introduction recorded by Samuel L. Jackson played over the loudspeakers, the band took the stage.
Rucker was magnetic, fully in control of his voice. Bryan, playing barefoot, occasionally windmilled his guitar. The band was impressively flexible — rowdy country funk on the bawdy “Go and Tell Him (Soup Song),” a summery yet tragic “Alone,” gut-punch piano balladry on “Goodbye.” Covers of songs by R.E.M., Led Zeppelin and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” as well as tracks by Public Enemy and Digital Underground (with Bryan rapping the Shock G parts).