Nashville has seen no shortage of washed-up adult contemporary stars trying to “go country” over the last few years, but none of them have been able to pull off the transition as well as Darius Rucker. What Learn to Live, his Capitol Nashville debut, proved was that Rucker, more so than other would-be crossover acts like Jewel or Jessica Simpson, is willing to play into the currently popular trends in pop-country, and his latest, Charleston, SC 1966, makes no attempts whatsoever to stray from the path set forth by its predecessor. The result is a perfectly serviceable, contemporary country record that Rucker uses his affable charm and warm baritone to sell.
In terms of maintaining commercial momentum, Rucker was wise to stick with producer Frank Rogers, best known for his work with such top-tier country talent as Brad Paisley, Josh Turner, and Trace Adkins. Throughout Charleston, SC 1966, Rogers adds flourishes of traditional country instrumentation to songs like “Might Get Lucky” and “Southern State of Mind,” which otherwise lean primarily on electric guitar riffs and heavy snare-drum percussion lines. In other words, it sounds like the majority of records coming out of Nashville these days. Not that Rucker’s tenure with Hootie & the Blowfish was characterized by anything more than MOR frat-boy rock, but there isn’t a single risk here.
It’s up to Rucker’s performances, then, to elevate the record. That his vocal timbre is immediately distinctive works to his advantage: However anonymous their production or rote their songwriting might be, there’s never any doubt as to whom is singing “Love Will Do That” or “Come Back Song.” Rucker is at his best when he lapses into a ragged, soulful rasp on “Whiskey and You,” and when he and Paisley trade knowingly awful punch lines on the clever “I Don’t Know.” The last thing country music needs is another George Strait or Tim McGraw clone knockoff, so Rucker really does get considerable mileage out of the fact that he has such a strong presence on record.
A less versatile or likable vocalist wouldn’t be able to overcome Rogers’s by-the-numbers production or such predictable songwriting. Other than “I Don’t Know,” which bears co-writer Paisley’s signature wise-ass humor, few of the songs on Charleston, SC 1966 linger for more than a few seconds past their run times. The co-writes with Radney Foster and ex-SteelDrivers frontman Chris Stapleton fare best, but even those songs lack the polish and clear-eyed points of view that Foster and Stapleton typically bring to their writing. That Rucker is credited as co-writer on every song on the record gives a pretty clear indication that he’s primarily responsible for the album’s banal material. Still, it’s hard to imagine that Charleston, SC 1966 won’t continue Rucker’s hot streak within the country genre, even if the album suggests that he’s content to follow the genre’s trends rather than set them.