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  1. Music

Why is 'Hold My Hand' an all-time classic? Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum explain

Here's how Darius Rucker recalls the conversation with Lady Antebellum singer Charles Kelley.

"I want you to do a Hootie song with us," Kelley told Rucker as they prepared for their joint summer tour.

"All right. Which one do you want to do?"

"Well, you know, the only one we can do."

"What? We can do a few of them."

"Well, I want to do Hold My Hand."

That was it, end of story, Kelley got his way. And that's how it came to pass that when Rucker and Lady A hit Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Friday, you will see two of country's top feel-good acts team up on the decades-old Hootie and the Blowfish hit, a pop-rock anthem that screams '90s radio, but also never really went away.

Somewhere in the DNA of Hold My Hand, you will find the secret sauce that led both Rucker and Lady A to country megastardom. One is a soulful South Carolinian singer of alternative roots rock, the other a glossy vocal trio known for nostalgic love songs. Hold My Hand is the missing link between the two, which makes it the perfect centerpiece of their 2018 co-headlining tour.

"That song is so beautifully perfect in its simplicity: Three chords and a chorus that everyone can sing," said Lady A's Dave Haywood. "Very repetitive, and just a great-feeling groove. It's a moment in time, for sure. That's one of those magical, top 20 or 30 songs of all time."

No, he's not kidding. You have to remember, Hootie's Cracked Rear View came out on July 5, 1994, which happened to be Haywood's 12th birthday. To this day, he can't believe he's up there playing with Hootie himself.

Cracked Rear View was my guitar lesson for life," Haywood said. "When I was learning to play, sitting in my room playing Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Hootie and the Blowfish, I'd sit in front of my CD player and just play that thing over and over, figuring out how to play Let Her Cry and Hold My Hand and Only Wanna Be With You and all that stuff. That's really where I was learning a lot of guitar chord progression and stuff like that. That record was just massive for me and my formation of love of music and guitar. So yeah, I still see him as that."

• • •

For a decade, much of the discussion on Rucker's smashing transition from rock to country has focused on his boundary-blurring voice, or the doors he's helped open as an African-American country A-lister. And Rucker does take pride in that.

"If I helped one singer get listened to, that's good enough for me," Rucker said, citing Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen as examples. "It's great to see how country fans are opening up, because that was the one thing I heard (early on): 'I didn't think my fans would accept an African-American country singer.' And that's been proved very wrong."

But Haywood's not wrong about the cross-pollinating impact of a Hold My Hand. Country fans and artists alike have an intense nostalgia for all things '90s, a decade Haywood calls "the story-song era," when "you felt that you were living in a mini-movie." In 1994, Hold My Hand was a pop and even alternative hit. But 24 years later, its simple strumming, back-porch pacing and irresistible sing-along chorus don't sound that out of place alongside Brooks and Dunn or Sawyer Brown.

On tour, Rucker and Lady Antebellum are digging even deeper into the era, covering earworms like Diamond Rio's Meet In the Middle, Deana Carter's Strawberry Wine and Drivin' N Cryin's Straight to Hell.

"It still puts a smile on my face," Haywood said. "We wrote a song the other day that kind of had a '90s groove to it. Maybe that's coming back around."

Rucker would like to see more artists cross lines and put new-school spins on the hits of yesteryear. Hootie and the Blowfish still play a few times each year, and they usually sprinkle in songs by R.E.M., Kool and the Gang, Alice Cooper or Oasis.

A couple of years ago, Rucker started doing Purple Rain as a tribute to Prince. He was on the fence about working up a similar tribute to Aretha Franklin ("You want to do Respect, but everybody's doing Respect"), but in general, loved the idea of more country acts digging into rock and R&B — and vice versa.

"Hearing some R&B group take on, like, Miranda Lambert, one of her more R&B songs? Oh my goodness!" he gasped. "Can you imagine how great that would be?"

• • •

Here's the funny thing about Lady A touring with Rucker. Kelley, Haywood and Hillary Scott have a combined six kids under age 5, all of whom have spent time backstage on the road. They'll grow up only knowing Rucker as a country star, not the guy from Hootie and the Blowfish. These kids today, right?

"My son, it's so weird, because the only Lady A song he's really known is You Look Good," Haywood said. "He doesn't even know Need You Now."

But that's the way it goes: Singers grow. Bands evolve. They find inspiration in unlikely places. Rucker pointed to the old Kris Kristofferson tune For the Good Times as proof of the inspiration pop and country acts have long taken from another, propelling both genres to new heights.

"People always want to put labels on songs," Rucker said. "If you've heard the Ray Price version of Good Times, and you hear the Al Green version of Good Times, you really say to yourself, 'What a genius, to hear that like this.' "

Is Hold My Hand one of those songs? Maybe it is. Maybe Haywood's right. Maybe that one Hootie hit will outlive us all.

"It's a feel-good song, you know?" Rucker said. "If you've never heard it before, after the first chorus, you know the chorus: 'Hold my hand.' You can sing that. It's one of those songs that fits into the criteria of all those songs we still remember. We still remember Rock Around the Clock. There's a reason for that. It resonated with something. A good song's a good song."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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