"I always knew I was going to make a country record someday; I was talking about it back in the mid-90s," Rucker said. "I always knew country music was something I could sing, and hopefully sing well."
Indeed, his distinctive, soulful baritone has proven an ideal fit for the genre's emotive, often plaintive storytelling. Rucker's 2008 country debut, the platinum-selling Learn to Live, raced up the charts; its first single, "Don't Think I Don't Think About It," made Rucker the first African American to chart a No. 1 country hit since Charley Pride more than 25 years earlier. Two more chart-topping singles followed, and the record went on to earn Rucker the Country Music Association's New Artist Award.
"I know there were probably some people who were wondering what was up with me being a country singer, but I think I proved there's room enough for everyone if you're good," Rucker said, adding that being an African American country singer has proven a nonissue: "I've felt very welcomed by the country music industry and the fans. I'm having a blast."
Rucker's gold-selling sophomore country effort came out late last year. He titled it Charleston SC 1966 as homage to Radney Foster's Del Rio, TX 1959, the 1992 album Rucker says "showed me the possibilities of what country music could be."
"My second record picked up where the first one left off, but my third one - which we're working on now - will have some surprises," he said.
Onstage, Rucker - who has been opening for Lady Antebellum on their nearly six-month tour - is backed by a five-member band of what he describes as "true Nashville cats . . . who play their butts off."
"We have a great time. The other night during a show, I leaned over and said to one of them, 'Can you believe this is my job?' It's just so much fun." Along with Rucker's country songs, fans of his Hootie-era hits will get to hear their favorites, too.
"If I didn't play those songs, I'd be ripping everyone off," Rucker says, adding that songs such as "I Only Wanna Be With You" and "Hold My Hand" will be "instantly recognizable, even if they're a little bit countrified."
And as for Hootie and the Blowfish, well, Rucker says he expects the band to record at least one more album in the next couple of years, even though he quips that "country's definitely my day job now."
"When I'm done with this, I'm done," he said.
Darius Rucker and Thompson Square will open for Lady Antebellum at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Susquehanna Bank Center, 1 Harbour Blvd., Camden. Tickets: $25, $39.75, $59.75. Information: 800-745-3000, www.livenation.com.