When That Branding Moment
Strikes, You Have to be Ready.
Darius Rucker Was Ready and
Now He's Hot! Hot! Hot!

By Lew Marcus

NEPAtoday Magazine Editor

After 27 years in the business as a semi-known artist, Darius Rucker has finally found out what it means to find your brand. He is hot and on top of his game, not as the leader singer of Hootie and the Blow Fish but as a solo artist. There isn't a talk show on television where you don't tune in and find Rucker singing his ubiquitous Rock Me Momma Like a Wagon Wheel. He finally found his brand. Marketing when you are hot is the key to permanent, or near-permanent, success.

Now let's understand this branding phenomenon.  Hootie and the Blow Fish are not some slouch band hugging the edge of the stage of success and popularity. These South Carolina boys managed to get 16 singles on the Billboard charts and sold 20 million albums in the U.S. since their national debut album in 1994. Their hit album, Cracked Rear View, went platinum 16 times. But I dare you: name me one Hootie and the Blow Fish song. Sing me the chorus of one song off Cracked. Success is one thing. Branding is another.

   Rock Me Momma was an abandoned Bobby Dylan song. Dylan wrote the chorus of the song for the movie Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid but it was considered a dud and didn't make the cut. Dylan kind of even admitted that the song was just a lark, written more for his own pleasure than as a song he considered having legs. Ironically, one of the great Dylan songs contributing to his brand came out of that writing session, a song that also didn't make it in the movie: Knocking on Heaven's Door. Rock Me Momma laid around gathering dust until a popular festival circuit band, Old Crow Medicine Show, dragged it out of the attic. Old Crow's Ketch Secor worked on the Dylan fragment, cleaning up Dylan's mumbled lyrics and adding to it until it morphed into Wagon Wheel.

   Bandsman Chris Fuqua recalls how it became a superhit for Old Crow:

"I'd gotten a (Bob) Dylan bootleg in like ninth grade and I let (band co-founder) Ketch (Secor) listen to it, and he wrote the verses because Bob kind of mumbles them and that was it. We've been playing that song since we were like 17, and it's funny because we've never met Dylan, but the song is technically co-written by Bob Dylan. What's great about "Wagon Wheel" is that it has grown organically. The popularity of it was all based on word of mouth. There was no radio airplay for it. We made a music video for it, but it wasn't "November Rain" or anything. No one was like, "Oh my God, what's this video about?" And 16 years later, it went gold, then Darius Rucker cut it."

   Even though the song went platinum last April no one north of the Mason-Dixon line was singing it in the shower. It was another catchy song by a B-Plus roots-rock band. Now, don't get me wrong. I love listening to Old Crow. I think these guys are talented and a great band to spend the afternoon with, along with a big glass of Jack, a twist and plenty of ice. But it took Rucker, another B-Plus singer who again I love to spend the night with, again with a Jack and a smoke, to get me to sing it in the shower.

   I knew it was viral when I told my friend that the song kept running around in my brain. He called two days later to curse me. "Damn it, Lew," he snapped into the phone, "I can't get Wagon Wheel out of my head. That's all Debbie wants to listen to. But did you hear the Old Crow version. I think it's better than Rucker's."

   Well, music is all about how it grabs you and Rucker's version seems to be grabbing the nation's attention. This is an important breakthrough for the artist because this is his branding moment. For those of us who are not into the jargon, branding is the creation of an asset that pertains to a particular person or individual. It could be anything: clothing, physical appearance and areas of knowledge. Branding leads to a uniquely distinguishable, and ideally memorable, impression. And that is just what has happened to Rucker. He surprised himself in making Wagon Wheel his brand. Just like Sinatra was branded by I'll Do It My Way this is now Rucker's lifetime identifiable song. It is the moment that propelled the lead singer of Hootie into a country sensation.

   Branding in the 21st century is such a strange thing. Someone like Paris Hilton is branded as being famous because she is famous. Ryan Seacrest is branded as the new Dick Clark. Hilton went out and worked on her brand. Seacrest's brand was the result of his relentless work ethnic that pushed him into a dozen successful projects, including producing all The Kardashian spin offs. Rucker's brand as America's latest country star is a combination of his decision to seek a solo country career and the magic that happens when you select that perfect song. Rucker was lucky. The brand sought him. Now let's see what he does with it. Branding does not insure fame.