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Makin’ Tracks: It Ain’t ‘Ray Charles,’ But Darius Rucker Comes Up With a ‘Masterpiece’

Billboard logo Billboard 4/20/2021 Tom Roland

Darius Rucker’s new single, “My Masterpiece,” is practically an audio embodiment of the song’s title.

The piano-based arrangement operates like a frame. It’s simple and understated, present enough to call attention to the words it’s wrapped around, but not so bold that it overwhelms the message. Appropriately, the lyrics allude to a number of landmark musical and visual artists — Ray Charles, Pablo Picasso, Michelangelo and Vincent van Gogh — whose voice or brush strokes were worthy of thoughtful framing.

Rucker’s smoky baritone is, by itself, one of the most distinctive voices of country’s modern era, and as such, it likewise deserves a frame that enhances it without distracting the listener.

But right up until the final days before its March 12 release on PlayMPE, Rucker was engrossed in a minor battle about how the single was being presented. He specifically resisted what ultimately became the title.

“When we were writing it, we talked about naming it ‘Masterpiece,'” he recalls. “We all agreed [that] it sounded pretentious.”

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Instead, he was wedded to its original, more soulful title: “Ray Charles.” The late icon was the inspiration for the song in the first place. Plus, the song’s existence is an ironic extension of Rucker’s previous single, “Beers and Sunshine,” which peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart dated Feb. 27.

Rucker wrote “Sunshine” on Zoom in May 2020 with J.T. Harding (“Sangria,” “Different for Girls”), Josh Osborne (“Body Like a Back Road,” “One Man Band”) and Ross Copperman (“Get Along,” “What She Wants Tonight”). In October, Harding — who was camped out for a couple of months at a home that his family owns in Santa Barbara, Calif. — happened to start up his Jeep at the very moment Rucker was talking about “Beers and Sunshine” in a radio interview. And Rucker unwittingly transmitted the title for their next Zoom write during that on-air conversation.

“The DJ said, ‘What have you been doing during quarantine?'” recalls Harding. “And Darius said, pretty much verbatim, ‘I’ve been teaching myself how to play piano, but it has only been a couple of weeks. I’m not exactly Ray Charles.’ The DJ laughed, and Darius laughed — the whole morning crew was laughing — and it kind of just hit me like a lightning bolt: We should write a song called ‘Ray Charles.'”

Harding’s pitch at their next Zoom writing appointment, on Oct. 20, had Charles’ songs on a jukebox to set the mood for a guy as he attempts to catch a woman’s attention in a bar. But Rucker and Osborne quickly headed in another direction, building a chorus that played off Rucker’s on-air one-liner.

“The concept was, ‘I can’t play piano like Ray Charles, but I can love you,’ basically,” says Osborne.

The chorus worked up to that notion with a set of other masterful achievements, including Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon and Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel. And after they referenced Charles, they still had to wrap the chorus in a way that embraced a romance, ending with the words “loving you.” They landed on a melody that rose and receded, and the actual lyrics were a figurative blank until they found the right phrase.

“We literally just stumbled onto the ‘masterpiece’ thing at the end,” says Osborne.

Once the chorus was finished, the verses were designed to provide the background for the relationship. Verse one established the guy as a bit of a lost soul until he meets his mate: “I never made sense to me, ’til I made sense to you.”

“It’s really telling the story of, ‘I love you and I think I want to be with you, but I’m a mess,’ ” says Rucker. “You know: ‘Never did I realize where I was supposed to belong’ — that’s me, man. That’s me.”

Verse two celebrates the woman in artful ways: Rucker tucked in the phrase “starry night” to reference a Van Gogh painting, and the stanza also suggested her eyes were beyond the scope of Picasso’s palette.

Rucker “knows what he wants,” says Harding. “I remember he said the girl’s eyes should be hazel. He doesn’t think like maybe they’re green, maybe they’re blue. He knows what he wants to say.”

Since they still assumed the piece would be titled “Ray Charles,” they wedged in an additional “Genius” line: “If I wrote the song, your name would be Georgia/And you’d be on my mind.”

“That was where we really knew we had a special tune,” says Rucker.

They injected oblique sexuality into the bridge, pledging to “take all night,” then left the production of the demo to Copperman, who would also produce the final master. He didn’t attempt to approximate the complex jazz chords at the heart of Charles’ piano playing.

“If you write a song called ‘Ray Charles’ that sounds like Ray Charles, it’s going to kind of collapse under the weight of its own hubris,” says Osborne. “It’s sort of like, ‘Oh, they think they can do Ray Charles.’ But literally the guy in the song is saying, ‘I can’t do Ray Charles.'”

Rucker recorded the track at Nashville’s Blackbird Studios with the musicians playing atop Copperman’s demo, some of which would be muted later. Danny Rader contributed a twisty guitar solo, and Rucker dug in deep on his final vocal, doing extra takes even after Copperman thought he had nailed it.

“I was like, ‘No, we don’t have the vocal,’ ” recalls Rucker. “I was riding around in the car listening to it for so long before we cut it that once we got there, I just knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

When Copperman asked what he wanted the background vocals to sound like, Rucker suggested Old Dominion. So Copperman called in Brad Tursi for harmonies and some extra guitar layering.

“He was super-stoked to do it,” says Copperman. “Brad did all the background vocals on the chorus, and I also had him add that guitar on the intro. It’s kind of a phasey guitar. It’s just really unique, and it’s not something that I would have thought to do. It added a whole new level of magic.”

Rucker suspected, even during the writing session, that “Ray Charles” would be his next single, and Capitol Nashville arrived at the same decision independently. But they debated the title right up to the deadline.

“There was talk of it being like ‘Ray Charles (My Masterpiece)’,” says Copperman. “I wanted to call it ‘Loving You,’ because that’s kind of how the hook ends, but they were like, ‘Oh, there’s a million songs called that.’ That’s why we liked ‘Ray Charles,’ because there weren’t really any songs with that title.”

“My Masterpiece” occupies a space on the New & Active chart dated April 24, as some of Rucker’s quarantine pursuits — writing songs by Zoom and learning keyboards — find their way into the public forum. And that “I can’t play piano like Ray Charles” line continues to resonate.

Rucker says with a laugh: “I still can’t play anything.

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.

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