Life is coming full circle for Darius Rucker.
When the country star, 54, takes the stage to host the Country Music Association Awards for the first time next week, he'll also present the Lifetime Achievement Award to trailblazing singer Charley Pride, someone he's looked up to ever since he was a kid.
"It's truly surreal," Rucker tells fellow singer Rissi Palmer on the upcoming Nov. 8 episode of her Color Me Country radio show on Apple Music Country, of which PEOPLE got an exclusive preview. "I remember having a Charley Pride record in my mom's collection that I don't think my mom ever put on, but she bought that record because he was a Black man singing country music."
"I remember the first time I saw Charley on Hee Haw," he adds. "Hee Haw was so big for me because I love music … here comes this guy that looks like me singing 'Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'' and you're like, 'Oh my goodness.' Now, decades and decades later, to be a part of him getting an award … There's nobody that deserves it more than Charley. Nobody. To be a part of that, I'm so honored. I'm honored to call him a friend."
When he first found out that he would host the 2020 CMAs alongside Reba McEntire, Rucker says he was reminded of the time Pride, 86, hosted the annual awards show in 1975. Pride was the first Black man to ever do so.
"I remember Charley getting to do it back in the day and how big of a deal that was and how huge of a thing that was in the business," he says. "Here I am, 30 years later or whatever it is, and I'm getting this opportunity. It was overwhelming for a minute, because I came into country music so innocently. I just wanted to make a country record. I didn't even think I was going to get a record deal, let alone have the success that I've had."
Years after finding mainstream success with his rock band Hootie & the Blowfish in the '90s, thanks to hits like "Let Her Cry" and "Only Wanna Be With You," Rucker embarked on a solo career in country music. His journey as a Black artist in a predominantly white genre, he soon found out, would come with some unanticipated challenges.
"I'd just come from the Hootie thing, and so, when I came here and said I would do a radio tour, they were all excited," he says. "I was doing what my label wanted me to do. I guess I hadn't had any hits. So I wasn't really thinking about the Black country singer thing … I wanted people to play my music for my music. If you like the song, please play it. If not, don't. Don't play it because I'm Black, and please don't not play it because I'm Black."
"The first time I walked into [a country radio station] — nobody said they wouldn't play it," he continues. "What was said was, 'I don't think my audience will accept a Black country singer.' Just like that. 'I love the song. I think it's country. Love it. I'm going to play it tomorrow, but I don't think my audience will accept a Black country singer.' I go, 'Wow. Really? I thought music was notes and words and chords. I didn't know music was color. I found that out today.'"
His past experiences combined with "everything that was going on in the world" led him to become more outspoken about racism in recent years.
"It was Charlottesville, it was a whole bunch of stuff," he says, referencing the violent 2017 white supremacist "Unite the Right" rally in Virginia. "Just watching the world that we knew change, and watching people think it's cool now to hate … I'm not a real political guy. I don't really get into that stuff. I make music for me, and I hope people like it! But I just felt like it was time to say something, because I was feeling different."
Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, Rucker says he was used to being told "that's just the way it is" when witnessing racism.
"I grew up in the early '70s and '80s where that's what you were told: 'That's just the way it is,'" he says. "So that's what you accept after a while … Then I get here in Nashville and you already have your preconceived notions."
"I remember saying to myself, 'You can put up with whatever happens here because whatever happens to you is not going to be 1/10th, 1/100th of what Charley Pride went through," he adds. "Whatever happens to you is not going to be close to what Charley went through, so you could put up with all the crap that you have to. Just go get this.'"
Now he's teaching his three kids — daughters Caroline, 25, and Daniella, 19, and son Jack, 15 — about racism.
"My daughter … she grew up in Charleston too," he says. "You've got your friends, the people you love, and she went to public school and everything, so she had a group of friends. And all that's going down, and I just remember her saying how hurt she was to find out how really some of her friends were just so racist."
"I mean, that was a stay-at-home a couple of days thing … to really deal with that. And there's nobody in the world that could talk to her more on that than me," he adds. "So I talked to her about that … and she came out much better on the other side. But at the time, for me, it was just hard to watch."
Despite all of his success, Rucker admits that he still doesn't feel like he's "made it."
"I'm still trying to get on the radio, you know?" he says. "It's that point where I don't even see it like [I'm a 'big deal']. I'm begging. I'm still putting out this song, which is a smash hit, and watching it slosh its way up the charts like everybody else. You're praying that it does something, and it's still the same thing. So, I still don't feel like I've made it … A lot of the bigger stars don't have to call every radio station. I still got to be on every radio station. I still got to do all the work, and do all the stuff that you have to do to get your song to move the charts. So I just feel like every time I put out a single, I feel like I'm starting over."
Palmer, 39 — whose 2007 single "Country Girl" made her the first Black woman to chart a country song since Dona Mason in 1987 — tells PEOPLE she couldn't have been happier to have Rucker on her show.
"The driving force behind Color Me Country Radio is to make sure that the Black, Latinx, and Indigenous artists and contributions to country music are not forgotten or swept aside," she says. "I’m so excited every time we are able to speak with these talented and deserving artists, tell their stories, and expose the audience to new music and ideas."
"The time is now to add to the country tapestry, showing how rich and colorful its roots really are," she adds. "Getting the call that Darius Rucker not only knew about the show but wanted to be a guest was something out of my wildest dreams. I appreciate his transparency and enthusiasm during our interview, it’s one of my new favorites of the bunch."
Darius Rucker's full Color Me Country episode with Rissi Palmer will be available Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. EST on Apple Music Country.
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