Song Review: Darius Rucker, “Fires Don’t Start Themselves”

Unfortunately for Darius Rucker, fires need fuel to start, and there’s nothing here to burn.

Rucker certainly deserves some props for building a fifteen-year career in Nashville following a pivot from Hootie and the Blowfish, but after “My Masterpiece” was summarily ignored in 2021 and a pair of 2022 single releases didn’t chart at all, you had to wonder if Music City was pushing him towards a retirement with fellow fifty-somethings Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. McGraw wasn’t done, however, and it seems that Rucker isn’t either, as he’s now released his own new single “Fires Don’t Start Themselves.” Sadly, this song is another failed attempt at a country music sex jam, a track that fails to set the proper mood and puts everyone involved in an awkward position.

The production here just screams “wasted potential.” It seems like the original idea was to cash in on 90s nostalgia and give the song a retro feel with a fiddle, steel guitar, and a Hammond organ, but for the most part these instruments are buried in the background of the mix (only the fiddle gets any notable screen time at all), blended into a wall of noise behind the same old guitars and drums that define the modern meta. The guitars have a retro tint to their tone as well, for the most part they strike a neutral tone and don’t create a romantic atmosphere—instead, it tries to take the minor chord angle (which can work, but not if it’s only done halfway as it’s done here) and generates a vibe that’s more ominous and foreboding than anything else. It’s a mix that just isn’t sensuous or fun enough to draw listeners to the song, and given what the producer had to work with, that’s a darn shame.

Rucker is a talented and experienced vocalist, but this song puts him in a really awkward position. For one thing, the verses drive him deep into his lower range, and he loses most of his vocal tone when he drops down that far. (He occasionally sounds a bit strained in his upper range as well, making me feel like this was a really bad song choice for him overall.) I think he could pull off a song like this, but he comes across a bit too neutral to sell the narrator’s role, and isn’t able to share whatever passion he feels with the listener. (He’s also fighting the other pieces of the track the whole way, especially the wall of noise underpinning the sound, and he isn’t able to set the mood properly as a result.) It’s just kind of a so-so performance overall that doesn’t encourage the audience to stay tuned in, which isn’t great when you’re trying to break out of the kind of slump that Rucker’s in right now. Just like with the production, when you’re working with a vocalist this skilled, this feels like a squandered opportunity.

The lyrics here are a pretty standard sex jam: Both partners have been working hard for so long, and they’re ready to engage in some heavy lovemaking now that they have a spare moment. What really strikes me about this song is just how awkward some of the phrases sound: “Pull the Conway off of the shelf” makes it sound like Mr. Twitty is a brand of whiskey (which is probably what they wanted to use, but they’d just finished the bottle of wine at the start of the chorus), saying someone “just fits like the shirt that I got on” feels like the most awkward compliment ever, and the “fires don’t start themselves” hook is a lifeless line that just lets all the air out of the chorus. The descriptions and actions here are too cookie-cutter to grab the listener’s attention, and aren’t spicy enough to generate any real passion or romance. In other words, it’s exactly like every other sex jam Nashville has shoved in our faces, and it’s no more successful than any of the others.

As a song, “Fires Don’t Start Themselves” is more sad than sensual because it feels like it had the potential to be so much more. The production has some interesting pieces that are criminally underused, Darius Rucker is a good singer who gets put in a tough position, and the writing is underwhelming at best and flaccid at worst. Given his current status, Rucker and his team really needed to go big here to get him back into the country music conversation, and instead they chose to follow the crowd, sneak back onto the radio, and hope their promotional team can push it into the Top Ten by the end of the year. Rucker deserves better than this, but he’s going to need material that’s better than this to keep his mainstream career afloat.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Song Review: Darius Rucker, “My Masterpiece”

There’s a reason Darius Rucker has lasted this long in the music industry, and it’s his ability to make lemonade out of generic lemons like this one.

It’s been 27 years since Cracked Rear View hit store shelves, but Rucker remains a staple of the music industry and of country music in particular, even if he’s become more of a trend-hopper over the last few years. Material selection has been my main gripe with Rucker ever since I started this blog: While both “For The First Time” and “Beers And Sunshine” reached #1 on Billboard’s airplay chart, the former had a slight Bro-Country odor and the latter was a late, blatant attempt to ride the Cobronavirus trend. The difference, however, is that unlike most of his contemporaries, Rucker has the talent and charm to elevate less-than-stellar material into something that catches the listener’s ear and invites you to listen in. That’s the case with Rucker’s latest single “My Masterpiece”: It’s a cheesy love song that sits on the very edge of Boyfriend country, but Rucker brings enough emotion and charm to the table to make it feel deeper and more genuine, giving the song a noticeable edge over its competition.

Rucker isn’t the only standout on this track: I’ve called out a lot of producers for relying on the same tired guitar-and-drum arrangement, but I have to give props to the producer here for bringing in more and different pieces to add some flavor to the mix. The track opens with a piano (serious song alert!) and a drum machine at its core, but we get some steel guitar riffs and some bouzouki (!) chords right off the bat, and as the song progresses it continues to add instruments like a dobro and Hammond organ along with the acoustic/electric guitars and real drums you expect. Despite the piano and the periodic minor chords, the overall vibe of the mix is happy and optimistic thanks to the bright instrument tones that dominate the sound, and the producer wisely avoids the trap of trying to turn a song into a sex jam by keeping the feel lighter and generally romantic (actually, I’d argue that that avoiding the slick, sleazy of most country sex jams actually makes increases the sensuality of this mix). It’s a solid all-around effort that provides adequate support for the subject matter, and takes some needed steps to help it stand out among its peers.

The writing itself is probably the weakest part of the entire track, as the love story is a paint-by-numbers affair: Our narrator is a simple, unremarkable individual who will never produce works of art like Michelangelo or Ray Charles, so they aim for their greatest creation to be the their love for their partner (“I hope they say my masterpiece is lovin’ you”). It’s a fairly common and nondescript sentiment in the genre, and while the references aren’t usually this explicit (Charles and the Sistene Chapel are name-dropped here, which is at least a step up from the usual Strait/Jackson callouts), they don’t really make the song any more interesting by themselves. Some of the wordplay here feels a bit forced as well: The “Georgia On My Mind” reference comes across as clunky and awkward, and the “Picasso never had that color in his wheel” tries to cram one too many syllables onto a line. (I’m also not a fan of the bridge, which is the one place the song gets a little too close to sleazy sex-jam territory for my tastes.) As a love song, it’s just not all that compelling by itself, with its main redeeming feature being it leaves plenty of room for the performer to infuse the writing with the emotion necessary to allow them to forge a connection with the audience.

An love song this vague is the kind of track that an artist like Dustin Lynch would drive right into the ground with their nonexistent charm and insufferable attitude, and for the majority of the faceless young white male artists off the Nashville assembly line, pulling this off would be a coin flip at best. Thankfully, Rucker is a longtime veteran with charm and charisma to burn, and he knows exactly how to pull off a song like this. His performance here is equal parts relaxed and heartfelt, and while he falls a bit behind the beat with his cadence, he delivers his lines with such warmth and gratefulness that you can practically hear the smile on his face as he sings. There’s an honesty in Rucker’s voice that convinces that audience that the narrator is deeply and truly committed to what they’re saying, filling the void left by the writing’s lack of detail and causing the potential implications of the bridge to barely register in their mind. It’s a great performance that elevates the track and make it worth hearing, and with all respect to the production, Rucker is the main reason for checking out this track.

“My Masterpiece” isn’t a masterpiece itself, but it’s a solid offering that demonstrates why Darius Rucker is still a part of the mainstream country conversation. The writing may be a bit “meh” by itself, by Rucker and the producer combine to create a positive, believable song that convinces the audience that the love on display here is deep and long-lasting. While it makes you wonder how good Rucker would sound if he had some better writing behind him, given the doldrums the radio are in right now, I will absolutely take this song, and while Rucker was part of the problem in 2020 with “Beers And Sunshine,” I’m hopeful that he can part of the solution in 2021.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth giving a few spins on the turntable to see what you think.

Song Review: Darius Rucker, “Beers And Sunshine”

*sigh* Et tu, Darius Rucker?

Rucker may have begun his musical journey at the frontman for Hootie and the Blowfish, but one could argue that he’s actually had more success as a solo country artist: The Blowfish’s peak only lasted for three years in the mid-90s and is mostly based on the strength of Cracked Rear View, whereas Rucker has scored eight No.1 hits across a decade in country music and has become the second-most-successful Black artist in the genre’s history (…well, in terms of official chart success—Charley Pride is the clear No. 1 by nearly every metric, but Ray Charles was mostly excluded from the country charts despite his acclaimed Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music albums, and there are many influential Black performers from the early days of the genre who’ve never gotten the credit they deserve). However, Rucker is 54 now, and his chart numbers have become less consistent over the last few years (after “If I Told You” and “For The First Time” reached #1 on Billboard’s airplay chart, “Straight To Hell” only made it to #40, and the Blowfish’s reunion single “Hold On” only rebounded to #30.) An aging artist starting to see their relevancy slip is a prime candidate for trend-hopping, and that’s what we get from “Beers And Sunshine,” the presumed leadoff single for Rucker’s next solo project. It’s a paint-by-numbers Cobronavirus track with the same old denial of reality that everyone else it pitching, and offers nothing but Rucker’s own personality as a reason to tune in.

Rather than puling directly from the loud, electronic Bro Country playbook, the production here takes a cue from Luke Bryan’s “One Margarita” and aims for something more acoustic and atmospheric. The song opens with a choppy acoustic guitar, a simple clap track, and some oddly-bent tones (maybe from a synthesizer? It’s hard to tell),creating an arrangement so sparse that you could argue that Rucker himself is carrying the melody with his vocals. The choruses sound a bit more conventional/generic with the addition of a prominent drum set, but rather than cranking up the volume with heavier guitars, the mix opts for some lighter tones with more texture, featuring ukelele chords and steel guitar stabs…and yes, a token slow-rolling banjo too. (Brad Paisley isn’t credited anywhere on this track, but the tone and riffs of the electric guitar solo are heavily reminiscent of his work.) The result is a relaxing, slightly-tropical vibe that feels springier than its slow tempo would lead you to believe, although its signal strength falls short of Bryan’s track. I wouldn’t call it a terribly memorable mix, but it won’t offend your sensibilities like other Cobronavirus arrangements.

There’s a reason Rucker has been able to successfully navigate multiple genres: He’s a darn good vocalist with disarming charisma and distinct tone. For all its limitations, “Beers And Sunshine” at least avoids putting him in any awkward positions (he covers the limited range and flow demands without breaking a sweat), and while the narrator here is as flat as Paper Mario (and nearly as predictable), Rucker infuses them with enough personality through his delivery to at least make them likeable, albeit not terribly interesting. What’s missing, however, is that extra something to make the song memorable: Rucker channels the relaxed feel of the song so well that is encourages the listener to pay less attention to the song rather than more, and keeps the track from really sticking in their mind. It’s the sort of performance that puts a smile on your face for a few seconds, but then gets washed away like an ocean sandcastle by the next song. (The harmony vocals are the opposite of the guitar solo: They’re credited to a certain group that can’t seem to get their name right, but they’re honestly pretty nondescriptyou’d never know it was them.) For someone in Rucker’s position, it needs a lot more staying power.

As usual, the weak spot for tracks like this one is the writing: It’s the same old Cobronavirus song-and-dance we’ve heard a million times before, with the narrator trying to unplug from reality via the usual recipe of drinking, boating, and bonfires. (You really have to question the timing of this track: This is clearly a summer song, so why release it in August and put it on track to peak in the middle of winter?) The “only BS I need is beers and sunshine” hook is groan-inducing, and not only does does the song espouse the same old nihilistic, defeatist attitude towards the rest of the world, but the whole “get our friends and hit the lake” idea comes across as both unimaginative and a little irresponsible these days. (Come on guys, the pandemic’s been raging since at least March—the whole “it was written/recorded way before then” excuse doesn’t fly anymore.) There’s just nothing here for the listener to hold on to: No clever wordplay, no interesting observations, no reassurance that things will get better… The song offers nothing but shallow escapism, and there’s enough of that on the airwaves already.

“Beers And Sunshine” isn’t bad for a Cobronavirus track, but isn’t good for a country song either. The production tries to be a little more organic and Darius Rucker is the same charming vocalist that he always was, but at the end of the day this is just another “forget the world and drink yourself into oblivion” track, and gives the audience no reason to pay attention to it. Rucker’s at the age and point in his career where he needs to be careful: Nashville is going to start looking to put him out to pasture, and forgettable songs like this aren’t going to buy him any time.

Rating: 5/10. *double sigh*

Song Review: Darius Rucker ft. Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Charles Kelley, “Straight To Hell”

I don’t know about you, but the only place this song sends me is straight to sleep.

While Darius Rucker’s career appears fine on the surface, the warning lights on the dashboard are beginning to flash yellow. His first two singles from his latest album “If I Told You” and “For The First Time” did eventually top Billboard’s airplay chart, but both took nearly a year apiece to do it, indicating a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Rucker’s material on the radio. Now, in an effort to spice things act, Rucker has teamed up with a smorgasbord of current country hitmakers (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley) for his third single “Straight To Hell,” an inexplicably-truncated cover of a 1989 Drivin’ N Cryin’ album cut. However, Despite the best efforts of Rucker and his team to turn the track into an old-school barroom stomper, the performance feel surprisingly lifeless, and leaves the listener feeling more sleepy than anything else.

I’m really not sure what happened with the production here: All the pieces are here to put together a classic arrangement ripped straight from the country bars of yesterday, but for whatever reason these pieces don’t quite fit together the way they should. It’s got the requisite guitars, fiddles, pianos, and drums, and it’s got the bright tones and unstructured feel to really set the mood, but everything feels too dialed back to be effective. The guitars don’t have enough bite, the drums don’t have enough kick, and the whole mix lacks the pace and volume it needs to generate the power and energy to really connect with its audience. Had the producer thrown caution to the wind and really let the musicians loose (as it is, only the fiddle stands out enough to be worth mentioning), this could have a really fun tune, but as it is, it’s too restrained to do anything but plod along weakly. It gets an A for effort, but a D in execution.

Vocally, Rucker is his usual charismatic self, and fills the narrator’s role with just the right amount of roguish charm to be a endearing figure (while also showing off his great vocal tone and effortless delivery). Everyone else, however, is used so little that I question whether they deserve “featured” status on the track: Bryan gets a few lines and offers some barely-noticable backing vocals, Kelley gets even fewer lines but is a bit more noticeable on the choral harmonies, and Aldean wins the Brian Kelley award by being completely invisible. I’m sure the artists had a fun time getting together and recording the song, but throw everyone but Rucker out of the studio and the song would sound roughly the same (only the lack of Charles Kelley’s harmonies would be noticed). What we’ve got here isn’t bad by any means, but it kind of feels like overkill for a song that required more help in other areas.

The lyrics, which chronicle the trials and tribulations of a young man growing up amidst, well, suboptimal circumstances, honestly weren’t that good to begin with: The lines don’t fit the meter half the time, and while the images are certainly vivid, they’re also incredibly bizarre, and the story feels more confusing than anything else. This version of the song, however, makes things even worse by blindly discarding the middle stanzas of the first two verses, completely destroying whatever story was there and leaving the listener even more confused! Throw in a barely-there chorus and an uninteresting “straight to hell” hook, and you’re left with a song that feels like a lazy excuse to make a bad barroom sing-along.

“Straight To Hell” feels like a poorly-photocopied facsimile of an actually-good song, featuring too many bad traits and not enough good ones. It’s certainly a change from Darius Rucker’s usual sound, but it’s a change in the wrong direction, with writing that’s too poor and production that’s too lightweight to let the user in on the fun the artist is supposedly having. While I’m normally in favor of recycling, this song would have been best sent straight to the wastebasket.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

Song Review: Darius Rucker, “For The First Time”

If this song proves anything, it proves that it’s not what you say, but how you say it.

When you stop and consider the degree of difficulty involved in establishing oneself as an older black singer in an industry dominated by young white males, Darius Rucker’s transition from the frontman of Hootie and the Blowfish to a successful solo country artist has been nothing short of remarkable. He’s been going through an “every other single” pattern lately, however, with his last five singles earning airplay peaks of #4, #48, #2, #33, and #1 respectively. This trend suggests that his latest single “For The First Time” will struggle, and while the Bro-lite nature of the song lends this idea weight, Rucker is able to elevate the song to something respectable in a way that few of his contemporaries can pull off.

The production opens with a stomp-clap beat that sounds slightly synthetic, but soon adds an electric guitar and fiddle (!) to the mix to signal that the sound here will be more traditional than modern. The guitar does most of the heavy lifting on the melody, while the fiddle jumps in mostly to fill space between the verses and chorus. (While the producers get props for just having the fiddle at all, I would have like to see it used a bit more prominently.) An amplified acoustic guitar is tossed in for a pre-bridge solo, and it acquits itself fairly well. The song’s heavy reliance on minor chords makes it feel a bit more serious than it should, but the brighter instrument tones mitigate this issue somewhat. Overall, the mix is unique enough to catch people’s attention and stand out on the radio.

The writing is probably the weakest part of the song, as it pulls heavily from the Bro-Country playbook and makes the listener question the narrator’s true motivations. The imagery used is generic and passé (night driving, laying on a car under the stars, drinking cheap wine, etc.), and there’s nothing particularly unique outside of running “barefoot through the mud.” What’s worse is that although the singer seems to be asking the woman he’s with to take a chance and experience the thrills of a relationship with him, the reliance on stock Bro-Country themes and  some questionable word choices (you’re “daring” someone to take a chance on you? Really?) make the narrator feel a bit more nefarious than they should, as if they’re just looking for a one-night stand with a hot girl instead of looking to build a long-term relationship. (The admission that “you don’t know me well” adds credence to the idea that this might be a short-term proposition.)

In the hands of a lot of country singers, the narrator would feel inauthentic and the song would come off as irredeemably sleazy. There’s a reason Rucker’s career has lasted as long as it has, however, and it’s the emotion and earnestness he can exhibit through his voice. Rucker is one of the better singers in country music today, and he shows off a smooth delivery, decent range, and more than enough charisma to take a song like this and make it feel heartfelt and sincere. While it’s not always enough to save a song (no one could have redeemed “Homegrown Honey”), “For The First Time” is vague and lightweight enough that Rucker, buoyed by some decent production, can keep it out of the gutter and steer it a more respectable direction.

Overall, “For The First Time” is a weak song carried by a strong performance that does just enough to make the whole thing an interesting listen. While I’d prefer to see Rucker take on some weightier material (his prior single “If I Told You” was a step in the right direction), I’ll take this track for now.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two to see what you think.