“Her advice was, ‘Just be you. Let’s go out and have fun.’ That was great for me,” Rucker said. “She’s such an icon, and … she’s so Oklahoma. She’s so laid back and funny and doesn’t take herself too seriously.”
This will be McEntire’s fifth time hosting the CMA Awards, which air on ABC on Nov. 11. However, putting on an awards show in the middle of an ongoing pandemic is a first for all those involved.
It’s been “weird” planning the show with COVID-19 restrictions, Rucker said, but “I’m really proud of being a part of what we’re about to do.”
Watch “Country Strong 2020: Countdown to the CMA Awards” on Tuesday, Nov. 10 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.
The “Beers and Sunshine” singer was touring in Europe when the pandemic came to the U.S. in March. He and his team found themselves scrambling to get home when President Donald Trump announced sweeping travel restrictions. When he returned to the States, he realized how serious the situation was here, too.
“No one was going to work and no one was really leaving their house except to go to the grocery store, and I thought, ‘This is real,’” he said.
As COVID-19 shutdowns took effect across the country, Rucker watched as tours were canceled, live performances were stopped and Nashville’s iconic music venues, bars and clubs were closed.
“Stuff in December was getting canceled. Stuff in November. And it’s May and June... You realize, ‘Wow. This is going to be something really big, really long and hurtful,’” he said.
Rucker, who has had a Grammy-winning career as the frontman of ‘90s alt-rock band Hootie and Blowfish, said he did as much as he could for his band members, most of whom have been with him for 14 years.
“We weren’t playing, which means the crew wasn’t getting paid [or] the bands,” Rucker said. “I started to stress… [I paid] my band and crew for months -- as long as I could.”
In addition to the stress from the shutdown, Rucker said that over the summer he was also paying attention to the Black Lives Matter protests, the country’s reckoning around racial issues and people’s demands for equality.
As an African American artist in a predominantly white music genre, Rucker said he had conversations around racism with his teenage children, including his 19-year-old daughter -- a New York University student who moved back home due to the pandemic.
“My daughter has a bunch of friends and she came home one day, and… when she said this to me, this crushed me, when she said, ‘It’s tough when you realize your friends are all racist,’” Rucker said. “And that was like, ‘wow’… that was crazy.”
The country singer also described the moment when he realized he had to have “the talk” about racism and racial biases against Black men with his 16-year-old son.
“You talk to your daughters about it, but not the way you talk to your son,” he said. “It was crazy to me, the day I realized I’m gonna have to sit down and tell him the whole thing about when the police officer comes to your car, keep your hands on the wheel, don’t do anything... You’re giving that whole speech.”
“[My son] is going, ‘Dad, I get it,’ and you’re going, ‘Dude, listen to what I’m saying,’” Rucker continued. “That was scary to me because he’s going to be a Black kid driving a nice car. I was like, ‘Dude ... I want you to do what I say,’ and that’s a speech that we have to give our boys and it’s sad.”
In June, the “Wagon Wheel” singer posted a lengthy statement on Instagram and Twitter in reaction to George Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis police custody.
"This whole thing just really breaks me down to my core," Rucker wrote in his post. "My heart goes out to George Floyd, his family and friends, and to all those whose loved ones have been taken because of the color of their skin. No man should die that way. I cannot watch that without tears welling in my eyes and a raw feeling of pain. The men who did that should face the justice that is promised by our laws."
Rucker said he posted that after watching his kids going through a tough time with it and because he wanted to share his voice.
“It was time for me to say how I felt, and how I felt at that time was that things aren’t OK,” Rucker said. “I can’t just keep saying, ‘It’s OK,’ or that thing you hear growing up: ‘That’s just the way it is’ … I can’t any longer let it just be that way, not in my world.”
As hard as the past few months have been, Rucker said he has been excited to see more artists of color, such as Kane Brown, getting record deals recently and becoming stars in their own right.
“There’s really this big discussion about what’s going on in country music with people of color and women getting their shots and getting equal opportunities to be on the radio and stuff like that,” Rucker said. “I think taking a break from touring and sitting back and looking at where we are … everybody seems to be talking about it. It’s something that everybody is addressing.”
Years from now, when we all look back on the COVID-19 pandemic, Rucker said he knows everyone will remember their favorite “pandemic song.”
“Music helps people get through hard times,” Rucker said. “I’m sure when this is all over, everybody is going to have their pandemic song ... because that’s what music does. It takes the time of your life and helps you have a snapshot of it.”