Unlike Jewel’s Perfectly Clear and Jessica Simpson’s Do You Know, which did little more than tack the occasional banjo or steel guitar part onto what would have otherwise passed for their respective artist’s earlier pop albums in an effort to recast them as country music stars, Darius Rucker’s Learn to Live makes a concerted effort to sound like a modern country album. With Frank Rogers, best known for producing Brad Paisley’s albums, serving as his producer and principal co-writer, Rucker sounds as though he’s made a serious commitment to re-launching his career. That move is not exactly a surprise, given that 2005’s Looking for Lucky, his last album with the on-hiatus Hootie & the Blowfish, was recorded in Nashville and included some collaborations with respected country industry veterans like Matraca Berg and Radney Foster.
While Looking for Lucky incorporated some traditional elements into Hootie’s brand of bland frat-boy rock, Learn to Live is strictly a mainstream country effort, and that doesn’t always work to Rucker’s advantage. Though he shows a far greater facility at singing this type of material than, say, the perpetually flat Kenny Chesney or Rascal Flatts’s completely tone-deaf frontman Gary LeVox, it is still up for debate whether or not anyone should be singing some of this middling material at all. Though there are definite highlights to the set (lead single “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” already a Top 5 hit, is more soulful than much of what gets played on country radio, while “All I Want” does its damndest to turn its hook, “All I want you to leave me is alone,” into a sing-along bar anthem), songs like “It Won’t Be Like This for Long” and “Forever Road,” with their conventional three-act structures and empty uplift, seem like bald-faced attempts to replicate current trends in pop-country songwriting.
That its writing and production are so strident ultimately speaks to the fact that Rucker and his collaborators have made a sincere effort at finding a place in mainstream country. Given the genre’s historical lack of diversity, that Learn to Live is crafted as such a seeming sure thing perhaps overcompensates for concerns about whether or not Rucker might face some resistance at breaking into the Good Ole Boys’ Club that still calls the shots in Nashville. The result is an album that covers nearly all of the bases of what’s popular in modern country: “Drinkin’ and Dialin’” recalls Paisley’s humorous novelty hits like “Alcohol” and “Ticks” (and Paisley himself contributes the memorable guitar hook on “All I Want”), while “Forever Road” and “Learn to Live” are cast in the Keith Urban emo-lite mold and “If I Had Wings” (with harmony vocals from Vince Gill and Alison Krauss) is the type of cloying ballad that has kept Rascal Flatts at a level of fame disproportionate to their talent.
If not as singular an artist as Paisley or Urban, Rucker is nonetheless a superior, more distinctive vocalist than many of his contemporaries in mainstream country. As Learn to Live currently stands to make him by far the most successful of the erstwhile pop stars to make the transition to country, it will be interesting to see on his future projects if he’s able to stake a claim as one of the acts who sets the tone for the genre instead of just making reasonable facsimiles of what those artists are doing.