Wren Graves looks back 25 years later at how roots rock band Hootie & the Blowfish conquered grunge and alternative rock with their album Cracked Rear View to become one of the best-selling artists of the decade.
Let’s talk about backlashes, deserved and undeserved. When it comes to things we really like, humans can be surprisingly unmotivated. But when it comes to the things we hate — when we’re annoyed, bothered, or mildly inconvenienced — cowards become lionhearts, idiots become Einsteins, and nice people turn into comment-section psychopaths.
Before the Internet, when the music industry had a lot more clout, the big labels sometimes created these backlashes accidentally. Fans depended on radio to discover new music, and airplay was guarded by middlemen. The gatekeepers liked to find something profitable and double-down, to take no risks and jam the profitable thing down our throats.
In 1991, Nirvana and Metallica rode a backlash against glam metal to surprise No. 1 albums. By 1993, hard rock dominated the charts, and many labels forgot there were other kinds of music. But change was coming. And its name, inexplicably, was Hootie & the Blowfish.
Hootie & the Blowfish were founded at the University of South Carolina in 1986. Guitarist Mark Bryan heard Darius Rucker singing in the shower. With bassist Dean Felber and (after a false start) drummer Jim Sonefeld, the band played covers in rowdy Carolina bars. They self-released two EPs as well as an album with an awful name, Kootchypop.
By 1993, Hootie had established a local following. They played to Jager-swilling college bars on what is sometimes called the SEC circuit. The songs were slick Southern rock, twinged with folk and country. But for eight years, there was almost no interest from the big labels. Finally, in 1994, Tim Sommers and Atlantic Records signed them for $75,000 total — that’s $75,000 to record the album, and anything left over the band kept as an advance. According to Sommers, the standard deal at the time was $250,000 all-in. Hootie & the Blowfish were valued at far less. Atlantic wouldn’t even pay for a music video.
The recording of Cracked Rear View took only three weeks. It was easy for the band; they had been playing some of the songs for eight years.
And now we get to the fun part: Slowly, one single at a time, a band that nobody believed in went 20x platinum. Today, Cracked Rear View is the 19th best-selling record in the country.
This baffled lots of people, and it can partly be understood as a backlash against too much grunge. The week that Tim Sommers signed Hootie & the Blowfish, he said, “In the US Top 10 Albums, there was a pile of grunge records and Bob Seger’s Greatest Hits.” It was Bob Seger that caught his attention. People who weren’t interested in grunge were buying old songs from the ’60s and ’70s. “This indicated to me that there was a major part of the marketplace not being served by the record companies, who were signing grunge and only grunge.”
After Nirvana and Metallica threw gasoline on the rock fires, Hootie & the Blowfish were ready to cool things down.
“Hold My Hand” was the first single and, consequently, the band’s first top 10 hit. The guitars are muscular, the tone is bright, and the lyrics are as deep as a bumper sticker. “’Cause I’ve got a hand for you/ ‘Cause I wanna run with you!” The melody is effortless, with a hook that’ll turn any live show into a sing-along.
Musically, Hootie & the Blowfish have an almost philosophical commitment to keeping the good times rolling. However, this isn’t true of the lyrics, which are often rooted in regret and loss. On songs like “Look Away”, “Goodbye”, and “Hannah Jane”, the tension is in romance gone bad. But the music always promises that things will turn out all right. “Hannah Jane” is a rollicking good time. Rucker sings, “One step and tomorrow comes/ Two steps and she’s off with someone,” which is darker to read than to hear; the way Ruckus shouts, “One step” and “Two steps” makes it sound like directions for a dance.
The darkest lyrics are on “Drowning”, especially when Rucker recalls being told, “Go back to Africa!” He wails, “I”m a man! I’m a man!” in the most powerful vocal performance on the album. But even then the music is relentlessly upbeat. Mark Bryan unleashes his inner guitar hero with a lick that sounds like heartland Eric Clapton. This keeps “Drowning” afloat; when Rucker sings, “Hating everybody else ‘cause they don’t look like you!” it’s not depressing or angry. It feels like an anthem, a call to action.
Cracked Rear View has a tight runtime of 43 minutes. There isn’t a real miss on the album, except perhaps the hidden track, an underwhelming cover of “Motherless Child”. The best cut — perhaps the very best Hootie & the Blowfish song in their 15-year discography — is “Let Her Cry”. The storytelling is excellent, with each verse sketching a little scene. Call it conventional. Call it melodramatic. Call it whatever names you like, but I dare you to listen to that soaring chorus and not sing along.
Hootie & the Blowfish were virtually unheard of in 1993, rising stars in 1994, and the best-selling act of 1995. That meteoric rise elicited a predictable backlash. Some of this came from coastal critics who preferred the rawer aesthetics of grunge. Hootie are a commercial rock act, and commercial art is never cool. Some criticisms directed at the band are more a matter of taste. Hootie routinely makes lists of worst band names. Perhaps you don’t think Hootie & the Blowfish is truly terrible, but remember, they also called an album Kootchypop; they do not get the benefit of the doubt in this department.
Years ago, VH1 used to run a segment making fun of Hootie & the Blowfish, especially “Only Wanna Be with You”. The fourth track on Cracked Rear View, “Only Wanna Be with You” was the life-changing single, the song that launched them into another stratosphere. Today, it remains their signature song and a staple in Darius Rucker’s solo shows. It’s also easy to mock. As a vocalist, Rucker sounds great belting at full voice. But on “Only Wanna Be with You”, he inflects that “You” with a playful warble. The lyrics are goofy, most famously “I’m such a baby, yeah, the Dolphins make me cry.” But with a melody this perfectly infectious, these quirks are easy to forgive.
As Nirvana and Metallica prepared listeners for the next wave of heaviness, Hootie paved the way for smooth commercial rock. Matchbox Twenty, Creed, Third Eye Blind, and more were signed in the wake of Hootie’s success. They also were part of an unfortunate precedent, where it was cool to hate the most popular radio rockers. Hootie was uncool for as long as people cared about such things, before passing the torch to Nickelback. Hopefully, that particular backlash is dead now, along with the old music industry gatekeepers.
The band plowed on for a few more albums with diminishing commercial results. Around the time rock was moving towards The Strokes and The White Stripes, Hootie disbanded, and Darius Rucker launched a solo career in country radio. Listening to cuts like “Let Her Cry” and “Running from an Angel”, this feels like a natural progression, though some mocked him at the time. As a country artist, Rucker scored four No. 1 hits.
There are a number of lessons to be gleaned from the unexpected blockbuster Cracked Rear View. How does this sort of thing happen? Well, it helps to be lucky and good. Hootie & the Blowfish benefited from a skewed rock landscape, where copycat record labels inundated music fans with similar sounds and oversaturated the market with one particular thing — something they offered an alternative to. But while the timing surely gave them a boost, they would have found some success eventually. Across multiple radio formats, Darius Rucker has proved to be a hitmaker.
Hootie also proved, if you had any doubts, that the old gatekeepers were mostly incompetent and deserved to die off. Today, the structure of the industry is a lot harder on the artists, but infinitely better for fans. And finally, in music, just like in middle school, they taught us that we shouldn’t be so obsessed about what’s cool and what’s not. In 1995, lots of music fans would have called Morrissey great and Darius Rucker lame. Today, Morrissey is an unrepentant racist while Darius Rucker plays multiple charity shows a year and has raised tens of millions of dollars for schools and hospitals in South Carolina. Until 2015, a Confederate flag flew at the South Carolina Capitol building. According to Tim Sommers, Hootie & the Blowfish were politically agitating to have it removed even before they signed to Atlantic. In other words, they seem like genuinely good people whose only crime was using good-time music to briefly become the biggest band in the world.
Cracked Rear View isn’t a masterpiece in the traditional sense, but it’s a classic of its time and place. It’s easy to see that now, 25 years later. And you know what? I’ve changed my mind. I even like the name Hootie & the Blowfish.
But somebody should be in jail for Kootchypop.
Essential Tracks: “Let Her Cry”, “Only Wanna Be with You”, and “Drowning”