Three singles from the album Cracked Rear View made Hootie & the Blowfish one of the defining groups of the mid-1990s.
The band’s crossover success also made Darius Rucker an improbable country singer. Many artists attempt to transition into country from other genres, but few are able to turn it into an actual second career. Thus, Rucker’s debut on the May 3, 2008, edition of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart with “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” was the beginning of a run that has reached a remarkable length.
“Fifteen years,” he mulls. “That’s crazy.”
Rucker’s latest single — “Fires Don’t Start Themselves,” which Capitol Nashville released to country radio via PlayMPE on March 30 — extends his presence while recalling his first go-’round as a frontman. Some of his ad-libs in the new single lean on unresolved blue notes, creating a tone and texture that reflects his Hootie days — particularly “Let Her Cry” — more than any of his previous country singles. The production simultaneously recalls the sound of ’90s country. Cumulatively, it’s as if the Blowfish were covering “Party Crowd.”
“Even when it was a demo, you could feel the ’90s thing,” says Rucker of “Fires.”
It incorporates some other influences, too. There’s a reference to ’70s and ’80s icon Conway Twitty in the chorus, and the verses scrape a rich, low area of Rucker’s voice that he associates with a fellow South Carolinian.
“Every time I sing it now with the band, I say to myself, ‘I’m Josh Turner,’ ” Rucker notes. “The song is just so cool, and to start off real low like that is not something I do very often.”
“Fires” ignited some time in 2022 in a last-minute fit of inspiration, as songwriter Ben Hayslip (“I Lived It,” “When She Says Baby”) arrived at the studio of Jacob Rice for an appointment that included Dan Isbell (“Better Together,” “The Kind of Love We Make”). Hayslip had spent his entire 35-minute drive brainstorming for an idea, but had nothing as he turned off the engine.
“I get out my truck, and I’m walking down the sidewalk,” he remembers. “Soon as I hit the steps to walk up to Jacob’s building — this never happens — but the title ‘Fires Don’t Start Themselves’ literally popped into my head out of the blue. I had no idea where it came from.”
Hayslip and his co-writers didn’t know exactly where it might go, but they thought it was worth chasing. They hit a midtempo groove and wrote the chorus first, working toward the hook with Rice building the musical track while the other two drove the lyric. A phrase from that chorus, “Pull the Conway off of the shelf,” was designed to emphasize the sound of romance, but it also extended Hayslip’s history with the Country Music Hall of Famer — Twitty was previously name-checked in Hayslip’s songs “Honey Bee” (recorded by Blake Shelton) and “I Can Take It From There” (Chris Young).
The group was temporarily stumped by the setup line, though Hayslip came up with “We’re holding the lighter.” It’s a phrase that could easily sound like “holding the ladder,” particularly since those words are already used in conjunction with cleaning gutters. “I was worried about that when we wrote it,” admits Hayslip. “I put that out there, and they loved it.”
To create some variation, they pitched the opening verse in a lower register and set up the characters as a couple in need of some alone time. As the melody edged upward, the first verse’s penultimate line, “Making that temperature rise,” mimicked the music’s ascendance.
“I’ll pretend that that was intentional,” Isbell quips. “That is part of the magic of songwriting and actually getting a song cut. Occasionally, those little, little pieces fit together and help sell it a little bit more than usual.”
They included space for an instrumental solo with a punchy, syncopated rhythmic change of pace, plus a short bridge. And Rice finished the demo after the other two left, throwing in enough real guitars on top of the programmed percussion to create that ’90s vibe.
Shelton — who has covered Twitty’s “Goodbye Time” and referenced him in at least two of his singles — was the first artist approached with “Fires,” though it was Rucker who ultimately connected with it, in part because of his own appreciation for Twitty. Rucker was known to perform “Hello Darlin’” informally in his younger days.
“My Conway thing is always seeing him on Hee Haw,” says Rucker. “Hee Haw was so big for me. He was just one of those guys that when they’d say, ‘Conway Twitty,’ I was excited that he was going to be on. He’s a legend, even when I was a kid.”
Rucker called on producer Dann Huff (Kane Brown, Keith Urban) to direct “Fires” during a three-song session that also included a cover of Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up.” Huff emphasized the ’90s roots of “Fires” even more than the demo had suggested.
“I played sessions during the ’90s, so I kind of know the landscape,” he says. “To be true to that, I had to make sure that I didn’t overstep into a type of production that takes away from that live feeling on the floor. There should be a bit of recklessness about it, and also, not too pristine, you know. I mean, in every respect, the parts shouldn’t sound like everybody’s rehearsed this thing for a month.”
Bassist Mark Hill punctuated the recording with active accents in key spaces, and fiddler Stuart Duncan split the solo section with electric guitar, fighting against the syncopated chords. “I tend to like his fiddle playing when it resembles the recklessness of a rock guitar,” says Huff. “I do remember humming and doing air fiddle to work with Stuart and give him some [ideas], but I don’t give him too much because he always makes it better than what you suggest.”
Rucker easily tackled the lead vocal during overdubs at Huff’s home studio. “Dann was really laid back and real cool and complimentary to work with it,” Rucker says. “And then, when he sent me the first mixes, I went, ‘Holy shit.’ ”
The writers had a similar response, in part because Rucker provided a certain amount of fulfillment for their ’90s-style effort. “My 40-year-old self was excited about getting a Darius Rucker cut, but my 12- and 15-year-old self was screaming from the rooftops,” says Isbell. “I’m pretty excited about that.”