Making Music: It Ain't 'Ray Charles,' But Darius Rucker Creates a 'Masterpiece'
"My Masterpiece," Darius Rucker's latest track, is essentially an audio embodiment of the song's title.
The piano-based arrangement functions as a framework. It's understated and understated, bold enough to draw attention to the words it's wrapped around without overpowering the message. The lyrics allude to a variety of iconic musical and visual artists, including Ray Charles, Pablo Picasso, Michelangelo, and Vincent van Gogh, whose voice or brush strokes were deserving of careful framing.
Rucker's smoky baritone is one of the most recognizable voices of the new age of country music, and as such, it deserves a frame that complements it without distracting the listener.
Rucker was engrossed in a minor dispute over how the single was handled right up until the final days before its March 12 release on PlayMPE. He was particularly averse to the title that was eventually given to him.
"We thought about calling it 'Masterpiece' when we were writing it," he recalls. "We were all of the same opinion that it sounded pretentious."
He was more attached to the song's original, more soulful title: "Ray Charles." In the first place, the late icon was the source of inspiration for the album. Furthermore, the song's presence is an ironic continuation of Rucker's previous hit, "Beers and Sunshine," which reached No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart on February 27.
In May 2020, Rucker collaborated with J.T. Harding ("Sangria," "Different for Girls"), Josh Osborne ("Body Like a Back Road," "One Man Band"), and Ross Copperman on the Zoom single "Sunshine" ("Get Along," "What She Wants Tonight"). In October, Harding, who had been camped out for a couple of months at a home his family owns in Santa Barbara, Calif., started up his Jeep just as Rucker was talking about "Beers and Sunshine" on the radio. During that on-air talk, Rucker unintentionally transmitted the title for their next Zoom write.
"During quarantine, the DJ asked, 'What have you been doing?'" Harding remembers. "'I've been teaching myself how to play piano, but it's only been a couple of weeks,' Darius said, almost verbatim. 'I'm not Ray Charles,' says the narrator. The DJ, Darius, and the rest of the morning crew were all laughing, and it hit me like a bolt of lightning: we should write a song called 'Ray Charles.'"
Harding's pitch for their next Zoom writing session, on Oct. 20, included Charles' songs on a jukebox to set the tone for a guy trying to get a woman's attention in a bar. But Rucker and Osborne rapidly shifted gears, forming a chorus that referenced Rucker's on-air one-liner.
"The idea was essentially, 'I can't play piano like Ray Charles, but I can love you,'" Osborne explains.
The chorus built up to that idea with a list of other great accomplishments, including Neil Armstrong's moonwalk and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel drawing. They also had to wrap the chorus in a way that welcomed a relationship, finishing with the words "loving you," after mentioning Charles. They settled on a rising and falling melody, but the actual lyrics were a figurative blank before they came up with the right word.
"At the end, we literally just stumbled upon the'masterpiece' thing," Osborne says.
After the chorus was completed, the verses were written to set the scene for the relationship. "I never made sense to me, 'til I made sense to you," says the first verse, establishing the character as a bit of a lost soul before he finds his friend.
"It's just telling the story of, 'I love you and I think I want to be with you,'" Rucker says. "That's me, man: 'Never did I remember where I was meant to belong.' That's me on the left."
Verse two pays homage to the woman in a creative way: Rucker included the word "starry night" to allude to a Van Gogh painting, and the stanza also implied that her eyes were beyond Picasso's range of color.
Harding says Rucker "knows what he wants." "He said the girl's eyes should be hazel, I believe. He doesn't consider whether or not they are green or blue. He has a clear idea of what he needs to say."
They threw in an extra "Genius" line because they always thought the piece would be named "Ray Charles": "If I wrote the album, your name would be Georgia/And you'd be on my mind."
"That's when we realized we had a special tune," Rucker says.
They injected oblique sexuality into the bridge, promising to "take all night," before entrusting the demo's creation to Copperman, who would also handle the final master. He didn't try to imitate Charles' piano playing, which is based on complex jazz chords.
"If you write a song called 'Ray Charles' that sounds like Ray Charles, it's going to fall apart under the weight of its own arrogance," Osborne says. "'Oh, they think they should do Ray Charles,' it's like. But the guy in the song is basically saying, "I can't do Ray Charles.""
Rucker recorded the song at Nashville's Blackbird Studios, with the musicians performing over Copperman's demo, which was later muted. Danny Rader contributed a twisted guitar solo, and Rucker went all out on his final vocal, right after Copperman thought he'd nailed it.
Rucker remembers, "I was like, 'No, we don't have the vocal.'" "I had been listening to it for so long in the car before we cut it that when we got there, I knew exactly what I wanted to do."
Rucker proposed Old Dominion when Copperman asked what he wanted the background vocals to sound like. So Copperman enlisted the help of Brad Tursi for harmonies and guitar layering.
"He was ecstatic to do it," Copperman says. "On the chorus, Brad did all of the background vocals, and I also had him add the guitar on the intro. It's a phasey guitar, in a way. It's just so different, and it's not something I'd have dreamed of doing. It brought a whole new dimension of magic to the table."
Even during the writing session, Rucker believed that "Ray Charles" would be his next song, and Capitol Nashville came to the same conclusion. However, they argued about the title right up until the deadline.
"It was being compared to 'Ray Charles (My Masterpiece)'," Copperman says. "I wanted to name it 'Loving You,' because that's how the hook ends, but they said, 'Oh, there's a million songs with that title.' That's why we liked 'Ray Charles,' because it was one of the few songs with that name."
As some of Rucker's quarantine pursuits — writing Zoom songs and learning keyboards — make their way into the public forum, "My Masterpiece" appears on the April 24 New & Active map. And the line "I can't play piano like Ray Charles" still rings true.
"I really can't play something," Rucker says, laughing.