How does a big rock star go from having an album that sells a staggering 16 million copies to playing in front of a few hundred people at the Cabooze bar?

It happens when you abandon your band (Hootie & the Blowfish) and try to launch a solo career as a country star under your own name.

As a Nike cap-wearing Nashville neophyte, Darius Rucker sure showed Minneapolis country fans a good time Tuesday night. Backed by new sidemen, he played all the songs from his new CD, "Learn To Live," which will land at No. 1 on the country chart today. He threw in a few country covers -- Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition" and David Allan Coe's "You Don't Even Call Me By My Name" (in which he inserted Hootie & the Blowfish for yucks) -- that brought the biggest hoots and hollers from the crowd of maybe 700.

And, of course, he did three Hootie favorites -- "Hold My Hand," "Let Her Cry" (with lots of mournful fiddle) and "Only Wanna Be with You" -- from the 1994 blockbuster "Cracked Rear View." Not surprisingly, the crowd sang along to every one of those rock hits. Heck, the night's biggest crossover sensation was the finale, Georgia Satellites' rambunctious "Keep Your Hands to Yourself," which always walks the line between rock and country.

With a No. 1 album and a No. 1 single ("Don't Think I Don't Think About It"), Rucker, 42, is on the verge of serious country stardom. The sweaty but easy-going South Carolinian proved that he has more natural stage presence and a more distinctive and delicious voice than most of the male singers in Nashville these days. Plus, he has the songs, marked by heartfelt sentiment and a polished style not far removed from Keith Urban or Rascal Flatts.

Rucker established his country bona fides with "Drinkin' and Dialin'," a self-penned story song from the Brad Paisley school of honky tonk. As he worked his way through that drinking ditty, a little Hank Jr., a little Hootie and several toasts with a bottle of Jack Daniels, there was no question that this ex-rock star is more country than Kid Rock.

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719