Darius Rucker will make history when he co-hosts the 54th annual CMA Awards with Reba McEntire. He'll become just the second Black person to host the event, with the other being Glen Campbell's co-host in 1975, Charley Pride.
Rucker's role as one of the faces and voices of a major country music awards show is well-earned, but let's not gloss over the fact that he's breaking a ridiculous 45-year drought. As Rucker shares with Rissi Palmer on this Sunday's (Oct. 8) episode of Apple Music Country's Color Me Country podcast, it's not the first maddening Music City trend magnified by his career success.
Examples date back to Rucker's transition from the singer of Hootie & the Blowfish to a rising Nashville star.
"I just come from the Hootie thing, and so, when I came here and said I would do a radio tour, they were all excited," Rucker told Palmer about his early experiences with country radio. "And I was doing what my label wanted me to do. I guess I hadn't had any hits. So I wasn't really thinking about the Black country singer thing. I was like, you. I wanted people to play my music for my music. If you like the song, please play it. If not, don't. Don't play it because I'm Black and please don't not play it because I'm Black. And the first time it really hit me was....The first time I walked into [a country radio station] - nobody said they wouldn't play it. What was said was, 'I don't think my audience will accept a Black country singer.' Just like that. 'I love the song. I think it's country. Love it. I'm going to play it tomorrow, but I don't think my audience will accept a Black country singer.' I go, 'Wow. Really? I thought music was notes and words and chords. I didn't know music was color. I found that out today.'"
Despite scoring eight No. 1 hits on the Billboard Country Airplay chart since 2008, Rucker still feels like an outsider when it comes to country radio.
"I mean, a lot of the bigger stars don't have to call every radio station. I still got to be on every radio station," he told Palmer. "I still got to do all the work, and do all the stuff that you have to do to get your song to move the charts. So I just feel like every time I put out a single, I feel like I'm starting over."
In the same interview, Rucker described the feeling when he learned that he'd follow in Pride's footsteps as a CMA Awards co-host.
"It overwhelmed me because I've really started to study the history of all this stuff and country music," Rucker said. "I remember Charley getting to do it back in the day and how big of a deal that was and how huge of a thing that was in the business. Here I am, 30 years later or whatever it is, and I'm getting this opportunity. It was overwhelming for a minute, because I came into country music so innocently. I just wanted to make a country record. I didn't even think I was going to get a record deal, let alone have the success that I've had."
Rucker's deep dive into country music history taught him about more than Pride's career highs. He's also learned about the genre's many ties to African American performers, such as Linda Martell and DeFord Bailey.
"The people that did it before you, the songwriters and the musicians that played together back in the day... When those folks were doing it, just nobody was talking about them," Rucker said. "Nobody would talk about them. And so now I feel like I'm out there for them too. I'm trying to have success for them too. So, maybe if somebody sees me, they can go read some history and know about DeFord Bailey.... And he was such an integral part of country music and such an integral part of the Opry, which is the heart of country music. And everybody wants to talk about everybody else, and DeFord was there at the beginning and through it all until he died. And that history is the stuff that I'm hoping that people discover if they're discovering country music or 'Black country music' - whatever you want to call it - because it was a lot of people before us. They just didn't get talked about."
By chance, Rucker's big night doubles as the evening when Pride will officially receive the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. Pride's the sixth recipient, following Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson.
"It's truly surreal because I've listened to Charley Pride since I was a kid," Rucker told Palmer. "When I was a little kid in the early '70s and Charley's making these records, I remember having a Charley Pride record in my mom's collection that I don't think my mom ever put on, but she bought that record because he was a Black man singing country music...I remember the first time I saw Charley on Hee Haw because Hee Haw was so big for me because I love music and one of the three places you could see music on TV was Hee Haw. It was Hee Haw, American Bandstand and Soul Train. That's where you saw music on TV and here comes this guy that looks like me singing 'Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'' and you're like, 'Oh my goodness,'...and now, decades and decades later, to be a part of him getting an award... There's nobody that deserves it more than Charley. Nobody. And just to be a part of that, I'm so honored and just I'm honored to call him a friend."
Rucker's hosting debut and McEntire's fifth time as a master of ceremonies on country music's biggest night airs Nov. 18 on ABC from the Music City Center.
"I look forward to the CMA Awards every year because of the incredible performances and the opportunity to celebrate the year in country music," Rucker said (as quoted by Billboard). "To be invited to host this year's awards alongside Reba -- are you kidding me?! -- it is an absolute honor. Even though this year will look a little different than normal, I know that we're all eager for a night of musical celebration, and this year's show definitely won't disappoint!"
From the sound of things, CMA officials expect this year's co-hosts to gel on-screen, much like longtime hosting tandem Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley.
"We are beyond thrilled to welcome Reba and Darius as this year's CMA Awards hosts," adds CMA CEO Sarah Trahern in a statement. "Their playful chemistry and genuine warmth are exactly what we know our viewers want to see this year. We look forward to bringing fans a night of celebration, live performances and a television experience unlike any other. We cannot wait to share more details about our show in the coming weeks."
The night's top prize, Entertainer of the Year, draws attention to another ugly statistic. Underwood and Miranda Lambert are challenging Eric Church, Luke Combs and Keith Urban for an award that hasn't had two solo women performers as nominees since Crystal Gayle and Barbara Mandrell were both in the running in 1979. If we count groups featuring women, it's still been a decade since Lambert and Lady A made the final cut in 2010.