A quarter-century after “Cracked Rear View” launched Hootie & the Blowfish into the pop stratosphere, and more than 30 years after the band began as college rockers at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, guitarist Mark Bryan still remembers the early days well.
In the beginning, Bryan and his bandmates learned the ropes just like every other fledgling band in a 1980s college town: playing club and party gigs, making demo tapes, touring around the home state and region whenever possible. But Bryan also remembers getting a leg up from Musician magazine, a monthly publication that was a must-read for both aspiring performers and die-hard music fans at that time.
“Every month, they would have one feature piece on how to make it as a young band,” recalls Bryan, speaking by phone from South Carolina, where he still lives. “It would be like, how to send your demo tapes out, or how to get gigs, or how to add merch to your shows for extra money.”
Decades later, after Bryan and his bandmates put Hootie on hold while singer Darius Rucker pursued a second career as a country singer, he put those lessons to good use. Taking a job at the College of Charleston in 2009, Bryan helped create a music industry program at the school, something that’s now a point of pride for him. “It’s some really great knowledge that I wish I would have had when I was in college,” he says.
Bryan stopped teaching last fall for an auspicious reason: For the first time in a decade, Hootie & the Blowfish are recording and touring again. They made an album that's due out later this year and began a string of about 50 U.S. dates a couple of weeks ago. The tour comes to the Austin360 Amphitheater on June 13.
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“It’s not a reunion, in the sense that we never broke up,” Bryan says, explaining that the band has continued to do a few shows every year in South Carolina, mostly for charity causes. “But we haven’t made an album or toured in a decade, so it is a reconvening of sorts.”
The new material won’t be part of the set list on the current tour, save for an introductory single, Bryan says. The band will hit high points from “Cracked Rear View,” which topped 20 million in sales, as well as other hits and a few choice covers. They’ll also touch on a couple of high points from Rucker’s impressive solo career.
THE NARRATIVE that has been building since the band announced its 2019 plans late last year is one of re-evaluation and even contrition. A January article in Esquire featured the melodramatic headline “How our cruelty killed Hootie & the Blowfish — and damaged our souls.” Last week, The New York Times chimed in with a piece that suggested “it’s time for a reassessment” of the band’s legacy.
It’s true that the group’s rise in the mid-1990s led to a significant backlash. An unabashed pop band that arose just as the early-’90s grunge wave was cresting, Hootie ran counter to the hip cynicism of the Lollapalooza age. Whether that was a good thing ultimately depended on the attitudes of the listeners.
“A couple of the interviews I’ve been doing recently, they asked about that,” Bryan says. He welcomes the new perspective, citing the Esquire piece as especially “cool and positive. It was as if to say, ‘Hey, maybe that backlash thing is no longer; let’s start fresh with these guys.’”
It’s easy to do so, for several reasons. For starters, context is everything. The popular music landscape of 2019 spreads out in so many directions that Hootie’s sound and style simply seem like part of a much broader tapestry today. Further, fans of pop singers such as Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith seem likely to appreciate Hootie’s music. (To wit: Sheeran co-wrote a song on the band’s upcoming album.)
And Rucker’s impressive success in the country realm — he’s had four No. 1 albums and a half-dozen chart-topping singles — clearly has primed the band for crossover appeal. It’s telling that the new album is coming out on Universal Music Group Nashville, not the label’s New York or Los Angeles hubs. Country music’s gradual move toward pop music makes Hootie’s sound perhaps more suited for that audience in 2019. Rucker went so far as to suggest to The New York Times that “‘Cracked Rear View’ would have to be a country record today.’”
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Simple nostalgia for the ’90s, arguably America’s last great decade, may play a part as well. “I think their appeal can also be found in the same sphere that sends people to ‘Friends’ reruns each night,” said a fan who first saw the group in their formative mid-’80s years at the University of South Carolina. (Indeed, one of Hootie’s bigger hits was a cover of 54-40’s “I Go Blind” that appeared on the 1995 “Friends” soundtrack CD.)
AND YET this “reappraisal” of Hootie in some ways feels as awkward as the backlash did back then — precisely because the backlash was so hollow in the first place.
I was fortunate, perhaps, to have encountered Hootie & the Blowfish differently than most fans did when the band first hit the radio in the summer of 1994. The previous fall, I’d been on a driving trip around the Southeast, and a friend suggested I stop by the office of Dick Hodgin, who managed several bands. Hootie, as it turns out, was one of them.
I left the office with a handful of his bands’ cassettes, including two Hootie demos stamped with 1991 copyright dates. They got a lot of play in my rental car over the next few days. That’s how I first heard “Hold My Hand” and “Let Her Cry” and other songs that ended up on “Cracked Rear View.”
So when an Atlantic Records publicist called a few months later to pitch a story on them, I was already on board. It didn’t take a genius to recognize that Darius Rucker was a major talent as a singer. Beyond that, these guys just wrote really good pop tunes, played with a near-perfect balance of polish and energy. And they were willing to dig deeper: On “Drowning,” Rucker sang forcefully, “Why is there a rebel flag hanging from the state house walls?” — two decades before South Carolina removed the flag from its grounds.
What I didn’t know, but which was clear to their legions of fans in the Southeast who’d been seeing them play the club circuit there for years, was how rooted they were in the 1980s alternative-rock scene. The sad irony to the mid-’90s hipster disavowal of Hootie was that Rucker, Bryan, bassist Dean Felber and drummer Jim Sonefeld revered many of the same underground bands as their detractors.
That single from the “Friends” soundtrack should have been a clue: “I Go Blind” was on 54-40’s debut album from 1986, but the great Canadian band was known in the U.S. only to those who were actively seeking out non-mainstream music. (In our interview, Bryan noted that he recently found VHS footage of the band playing another 54-40 song, “Baby Ran,” at a mid-’80s live show. The footage surfaced while the band was digging through historical material for a documentary film on the band that’s in the works.)
As "Cracked Rear View" was blowing up, the band hired Peter Holsapple of acclaimed North Carolina band the dB's as a sideman, another signal of where their hearts were. Holsapple, who'd previously had a similar sideman stint with R.E.M., is with the band on the current tour, alongside longtime percussionist Gary Greene and multi-instrumentalist Garry Murray, who has played with Rucker in recent years.
In 1996, Hootie teamed with Austin native Nanci Griffith to record “Gravity of the Situation” on a tribute album to brilliant singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, whose early-1990s indie-label albums were among the most idiosyncratically beautiful records of the era. They invited Griffith to sing that song with them when they appeared on "Austin City Limits" in 1999. (Bryan later launched a similar PBS series in South Carolina called "Live at Charleston Music Hall" that won regional Emmy Awards.)
More evidence of the band's bona fides came in 2000 with “Scattered, Smothered and Covered,” an odds-and-sods collection that included Hootie’s versions of songs by New York band the Silos and North Carolina producer-musician Don Dixon — and two by Austin’s own ’80s alt-rockers the Reivers, “Araby” and “Almost Home.”
Much of this stemmed from Bryan’s lifelong tendency to keep his ear very close to the ground. He’s like Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top in that respect. It’s no coincidence that when I first launched an alternative-country magazine called No Depression in the mid-1990s, both Gibbons and Bryan got in touch within the first couple of years, when we were still printing just a few thousand copies.
And when I ask Bryan about his band's past visits to Austin, it's not huge concerts that come to mind first, but a gig at Liberty Lunch before the band's big breakthrough.
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"I have a really fond memory of that show," he says. "There were only 30 people there, but that was my first time here, and we were playing a real club in Austin. I went to Strait Music and bought a 1972 Fender Thinline Tele that I still have, and I love dearly."
Liberty Lunch co-owner J'Net Ward remembers that night as well. "Darius said he wanted to show us they could draw a crowd," she recalls, "and they came back the next year and played to a packed house."
HOOTIE’S HOMETOWN, at least, always seemed to get it. Among the factoids you’ll find on the band’s Wikipedia page is this one: “In 2009, Hootie & the Blowfish performed live in a ballet which chronicled their rise and success in the 1990s.”
“This is true,” says Bryan, who also spent time producing South Carolina bands during the Hootie hiatus. “The City of Columbia Ballet scripted a story of our career to that point and cast a ballet to tell the story. They had dancers that looked like each one of us, and then a bunch of other dancers who played everything else. We were the band in the orchestra, so we played the whole time; I actually didn’t see a lot of the show because I was playing.
“But I give them credit — they went ahead and wrote it before they came to us. They were like, ‘We really want to do this, and here’s how we see it going.’ We were impressed that they took it seriously. But it wasn’t like they were trying to take advantage of us. They were just like, ‘We want to pay homage to you.’”
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