Took us long enough, but Aftermath finally understands the rodeo. After one performer who left us cold, and another who turned Reliant Stadium into the world's biggest gospel/R&B revival, Darius Rucker's set Tuesday was the definition of "mass entertainment." It doesn't matter if the music is country, rock, pop or soul - and it was all of them - as long as it's entertaining. And it was. Very. Rucker is enjoying quite a second act these days, making his second consecutive rodeo appearance behind hit 2008 album Learn to Live, which made the former Hootie & the Blowfish front man one of New Country's hottest stars without changing, well, much of anything. He's not the greatest singer in the world, but his broad, full vocals proved more than up to Reliant's tricky acoustics and his aw-shucks, one-of-the-guys demeanor came through in both his songs and banter. Rucker also benefited from his Carolina Greyboy backing band, obviously skilled musicians who were able to give an extra snap and crackle to even the most pedestrian material. Opener "Forever Road" was a pleasant toe-tapper enlivened by mandolin, "Learn to Live" carried traces of fellow South Carolinians the Marshall Tucker Band in its fluid keyboard lines, and the guitars of "Drinkin' and Dialin'" mirrored the swaggering bravado of someone who's had a shot or two too many and is about to punch in some digits he probably shouldn't. "All I Want," though, ripped a page straight out of Dwight Yoakam's roadhouse L.A. honky-tonk playbook, a straight-up fiddle-and-twang two-stepper that sealed the deal with one of the best lyrics we've heard in a long time: "All I want you to leave me is alone." It wasn't difficult at all to imagine Mike Stinson doing the song at Under the Volcano or the Continental Club. Stinson is a friend of ours, and we're not quite sure how he'd feel about our saying that, but if "All I Want" wasn't country - and by country we mean country - Aftermath will be glad to kiss your ass.
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While we're on the subject of David Allan Coe, Rucker's version of the longhaired redneck's "You Never Even Called Me By My Name" - which he introduced with a shout-out to Texas country radio, saying anytime a program director would tell him he's not country, he'd counter with "but they're playing me in Texas" - brought the house down. Of course it did, but it was more than pandering to the Lone-Star-belt-buckle set. Besides slipping in sly digs at Kenny Chesney and his former band, Rucker delivered the line "you don't have to call me Charley Pride" with knowing relish. Same goes for Hank Jr.'s "put yourself in my unique position" in "Family Tradition," which came near the end. Rucker's unique position is not the only African-American voice in the whitest genre on the radio dial, but someone whose former band had more influence on modern country than perhaps anyone realizes - confirmed Tuesday in the Mellencampy "Hold My Hand" and "Let Her Cry," which he introduced as "the first country song I ever wrote" - and who has now rightfully taken his place among the genre's biggest stars. Rucker was once nearly laughed out of the music business because of his affiliation with the Blowfish, but he's the one laughing now. But anyone who can sell Prince's "Purple Rain" to a rodeo crowd, who ate it up like deep-fried Oreos or pizza on a stick, and do so in a first-class version exuding conviction and charm - "Can't get it out of your head, can you?" one kicker said to another on the ramp outside after the show - deserves to laugh as loud and as long as they can.