Hootie & the Blowfish: Yet Another Worship Temple

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Hootie and the Blowfish

I love you!

I want to have your children!

Somewhere in the charged darkness of the Music Hall, in Omaha, Neb., a young female fan is sharing her feelings -- with 2,540 strangers -- about Darius Rucker, lead singer for Hootie and the Blowfish. Her repeated importunings fill the pregnant pause after an a cappella verse of the traditional "Motherless Child," which serves to introduce "I'm Goin' Home," Rucker's moving and oddly uplifting lament about the death of his mother.

As Rucker is joined by his band mates -- guitarist Mark Bryan, bass player Dean Felber and drummer Jim "Soni" Sonefeld -- on the song's Van Morrison-like cascade of sha-la-las, screams and cries of undying devotion emanate from every corner of the hall. They intensify as the band delves deeper into familiar territory: "Only Wanna Be With You," an upbeat love song that's slated to be Hootie's next single; "Let Her Cry," the slow, mournful breakup ballad that's currently moving up the singles chart; and "Hold My Hand," the sing-along anthem that's been ensconced in the Top 40 for months.

Still, the pandemonium Hootie and the Blowfish elicit is a little surprising if you accept the judgment from certain quarters of the rock press that they are "dull" and "conservative." Granted, they're not capering around the stage like shirtless punks, precipitating a Green Day-at-Woodstock mud sling, nor are they inciting to riot, `a la some of the choicer gangsta-rap acts. There's no hair show, no flash pots, no video screen, no Bee Girl. They're simply standing up there singing their well-liked songs, and a youngish, high-school- to college-age crowd is reacting fervently to them. Without smoke or mirrors, Hootie's solid, unpretentious pop tunes evoke a surprisingly visceral reaction.

Judging from comments made by fans after the show, whatever it is that Hootie and the Blowfish are doing, it reaches people.

"The music is happy, the songs make sense, and you can understand the words," says 18-year-old Stephanie Fidmore.

"It's not like they were fake," notes Kate Wilkins. "They were real and down-to-earth. They were sincere in what they were saying."

"They have a real hometown feeling," adds Tricia Galvin, a student at nearby Creighton University. "Very personable."

The South Carolina quartet has watched Cracked Rear View, its major-label debut, sell nearly 3 million copies. In early May, 10 months after its release, the album was holding fast at No. 3 for the fifth week in a row. Earlier this year the group saw its first single, "Hold My Hand," go Top 10. "Let Her Cry" looks to do at least as well. What's more, there is no end of potential singles to be drawn from the album. The evidence is insurmountable: Hootie and the Blowfish are the hottest rock band in the country right now.

Just don't tell them that. The magnitude of their popularity hasn't sunk in and isn't likely to change the band members, who are all in their late 20s, when it does. The only thing that these regular guys from Columbia, S.C., get even remotely bigheaded about is how down-to-earth they are.

"We are the most unassuming band in the country," Rucker asserts as their tour bus glides across drab Midwestern terrain. "We are so no bullshit. You can look at so many bands out there, and they're writing good songs, but they're mad at this or aloof or whatever. If you look at the four of us sitting in a restaurant, you wouldn't say, 'Oh, that's a band.' I think people really connect with the fact that we could be the guys you're sitting next to in your calculus class."

Mark Bryan addresses the issue of image, or lack of it, while hiking up his green leprechaun-covered socks before a St. Patrick's Day show in Davenport, Iowa: "What people fail to understand all the time is that it's just music. I like to play guitar and sing. Fuck all that other shit."

Darius Rucker is on a winning streak. Not just with Hootie and the Blowfish but at a blackjack table on a riverboat casino in Davenport after the show. He is dealt a pair of fours and splits them. A cartel of female fans that has tagged along for an evening of gambling peers over his shoulder. Nervily, Rucker ups the ante, nudging a small stack of $50 chips toward the center of the table. Rucker nods for a few hits from the dealer, holding at 17 and 20. Then the dealer turns up a face card that puts the house over 21. The dealer's busted, out. Rucker's small stack of chips is now a big stack, and his smile is as wide as the Mississippi River, upon which the floating casino is docked. "I can't believe I split on a pair of fours," he confides.

Other band and crew members are scattered about the tri-level casino, tugging at slots, wagering per diems at the gaming tables. Amid the alien buzz and burble of machines, cocktail waitresses dispense free booze to the glazed-over throngs who watch their piles accrue or diminish. Rucker falls in the former category. By the time he calls it a night, he is $1,000 richer. When you're hot, you're hot.

Hootie and the Blowfish are savoring the no-pressure opening slot on this low-key tour of 2,000- to 4,000-seat venues. It leaves ample opportunity to have fun after the show. They are, make no mistake, post-collegiate party animals, the kind of guys you could wind up sitting next to not only in a calculus class but more likely on a bar stool at the local college-town watering hole.

"We've never wanted to be anything but Mark, Dean, Darius and Soni," Rucker says on the band's bus, a two-lounge, 12-bunk pleasure dome dubbed the Blue Mirage. "I think it's got a lot to do with being so laid-back, living where we live, never in a hurry to get anywhere or do anything."

"All the bands we played and partied with in the Southeast while coming up were the same way," adds Felber, who shares a house with Rucker back in Columbia. "They weren't trying to be anything different onstage. They were who they were. It worked in the Southeast, and it works everywhere now."

Rucker's earlier restaurant comment indeed holds true as the bus driver turns off the interstate to give band and crew a fast-food break. Lugging trays of burgers and fries, the musicians blend in easily with the crowd at a McDonald's situated in a cornfield-turned-outlet mall somewhere near the geographical center of America. There's nary a ripple of recognition that a multiplatinum rock group is having a Big Mac attack.

These are guys whose favorite pastimes are golf and basketball, who have been known to order their bus driver to pull off the highway when they've seen signs pointing to a golf course. The tour bus carries, among other things, 11 sets of golf clubs. The appeal of golf, according to Rucker, is that "we get to gamble, talk shit to each other and be outside." When they're not golfing, they're off shooting hoops or throwing around footballs and baseballs. While on tour, time permitting, they head to local YMCAs and take on all comers for a game of basketball. They'd like to find other rock bands to challenge in hoops -- for fun, beer, charity, whatever. The ground rules: "Most of the team has to be your band," says Rucker. "No ringers."

"We're sportsbillies," says Rucker. "We play sports all the time." It is Rucker's secret wish to finish his broadcast-journalism degree at the University of South Carolina -- he's lacking about a year's worth of credits -- and someday work as a sportscaster for ESPN. "Eventually I want to be sitting there, talking about sports," he says.

Back on the bus, the conversation returns to music -- in particular, Cracked Rear View's lukewarm critical reception. Bryan bemusedly recites a stinger from a recent review: "If there were a rock & roll strike, these guys would be the replacement players."

"Hey, are they saying we're as good as the Replacements?" quips Sonefeld.

"And here I thought it was a bad review," Bryan deadpans.

Despite such grumbling, even critics are slowly catching on to what a growing audience of millions has understood from the start: Hootie and the Blowfish play sharp, tuneful pop songs written from an honest, nongimmicky perspective. The songs aren't knotty or complex, but because they draw upon the fabric of the band members' personal lives for material, neither are they formulaic. In Sonefeld's words, "We play simple four-minute pop songs with acoustic and electric guitars and good harmonies." He cracks a smile, glancing at Bryan as if sharing a private joke. "We're good prom music."

Cracked Rear View, which takes its name from a line in a John Hiatt song, is a diary of the band members' lives -- especially that of Rucker, who writes most of the lyrics. "I'm Goin' Home" is about the profound sense of loss following the death of his mother, Carolyn Rucker, in 1992. In "Let Her Cry," Rucker takes an emotionally candid look at the waning of an eight-year relationship, although he reverses the gender in the song's retelling. ("I'm actually the girl, and she's the guy," he says.) "Running From an Angel" is about an errant brother's prodigal behavior: "I gave up on you a long time ago," sings Rucker. The harmony-rich "Hannah Jane" was written about a close friend who got married and started a family -- the song title is actually the child's name -- amid Rucker's fears that the friendship would inevitably change.

"All I know is what's happened to me, so I write about that," says Rucker. "The album is pretty autobiographical." On April 21, Rucker became a father by an old flame, the longtime girlfriend who's the subject of "Let Her Cry." Carolyn Pearl Phillips was born healthy and happy, and Rucker professes to be enthralled by dadhood, even though he's no longer romantically attached to the mother. "It sucks because we're not together," he says. "But it's cool, because if God had come down and said, 'You can have a kid with one person,' it'd be her." Look for songs to follow.

Politics is not high on the group's agenda, but there was one issue it couldn't ignore. "Drowning" confronts the specter of racism at home in South Carolina, which is the only state in the union that flies the Confederate flag over its capitol building. This is South Carolina's dirty little secret, a hot-button issue that divides and inflames all who live there. Stars and Bars partisans use the phrase "heritage, not hate" to defend it.

On March 30, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted to protect the Confederate flag atop the statehouse. In "Drowning," first recorded in 1991 for a demo tape, Hootie and the Blowfish tackle the issue head-on: "Why is a rebel flag flying over the statehouse walls?/Tired of hearing this shit 'bout 'heritage, not hate'/Time to make the world a better place."

"The funny thing is, it would be heritage if it had been up there for 150 years, but it hasn't been," notes Felber. "They got together in 1962 and voted it up because they wanted South Carolina to step up and say, 'We're going to hang the Confederate flag from our statehouse and say we don't agree with all these changes going on."

"If I didn't love South Carolina so much," Rucker muses, "and if I didn't love my friends and family, I would never live there 'cause the government is absolutely asinine. I can't speak for 'we,' but I know I don't want to have any fucking thing to do with them at all. As far as I'm concerned, the South Carolina government can all go to hell. And that's really how I feel about it. The governor [David Beasley] tried to introduce us at our show in Columbia, and he's pro-flag. I told Rusty [Harmon, Hootie's manager] that if he introduced us, I wouldn't play."

Being an interracial band, Hootie and the Blowfish are no strangers to racist attitudes. "There's one fraternity I won't mention by name that tends to be a very proud Southern-heritage fraternity," Sonefeld says. "There are some great people who come out of it, but there's also some very strong hate lines bred in that group. We've had a couple times where we'd turn to walk away and hear the n word. We're like 'This is bullshit. We're being paid to play their fraternity, but there's no way they should talk about anybody like that.'"

Many songs that appeared on two early demo tapes that were peddled by Hootie and the Blowfish at club gigs -- songs as yet unheard by the general public like "I Don't Understand" and "Little Girl" -- deal with race. "I always knew people were going to judge me because I was playing rock & roll with three white guys," says Rucker, "so I went in with a chip on my shoulder. I'm older and mellower now. I just don't feel every song has to be about it anymore."

Hootie and the Blowfish are Darius Rucker's first and only band. He did belong to show choirs in high school and college -- including one, Carolina Alive, that performed for Ronald Reagan -- but he never publicly sang rock, soul or even church music. Rucker was born and raised in Charleston, S.C., in the coastal low country. His family's roots there go back as far as can be remembered or traced. "Great-grandmothers, great-great-grandmothers, they all lived in Charleston," Rucker says. He has five siblings: two brothers, three sisters. His late mother was a nurse; his father left shortly before he was born. "I had a typical Southern African-American upbringing," Rucker recalls. "Went to church every Sunday for three hours. We weren't rich by anybody's standards. There was one point where we had my mom and her two sisters, my grandmother and 14 kids living in a three-bedroom place. We had a lot of hard times, but I loved it. I look at my childhood with very fond memories."

One of Rucker's sisters, L'Corine Gilchrist, remembers that "he was always singing around the house, using a broomstick as a guitar. Mom played Al Green and Betty Wright, stuff like that, but Darius had his own tunes -- a lot of what he heard on the radio and at school. Being a singer was always his dream." Rucker was raised on rhythm & blues but began tuning in to rock & roll in high school. "Whatever came on the radio, I listened to," he says. "All that New Wave stuff in the '80s like the Police. Of course, you discover R.E.M. and realize no one else is really worth anything." He also admires Don Dixon, the solo artist and producer who's worked with everyone from R.E.M. to the Smithereens. "I think he is just the cat's meow," says Rucker. "Those vocals . . . if I ever make a record and say, 'That's as good as Don Dixon,' then we're retiring, 'cause I can't do any better than that. I idolize him immensely."

Rucker was a self-described preppy ("Man, I was gross"). He brought his Polo shirts, penny loafers and chinos with him to USC, where they lasted one semester. Seemingly a born extrovert, the fun-loving singer admits he wasn't always so outgoing. "At first I was a hermit, never left my room," he says. "Then I met Chris Carney -- who's Hannah Jane's father -- at a hall meeting. He said, 'I've lived on this hall the whole semester and never met you.' He was like 'C'mon, let's go have a beer.' Everything changed at that moment."

Down the hall lived Mark Bryan, a lanky, curly-haired guitarist who was studying broadcast journalism. One floor above them resided Dean Felber, a sleepy-looking finance major and childhood friend of Bryan's from Gaithersburg, Md. They had played in high-school bands together, growing up under the spell of classic rock before New Wave reformed their taste in music. Bryan had heard Rucker singing in the halls, and before long the two were performing as a duo at a hangout near campus called Pappy's. Calling themselves the Wolf Brothers, they covered the varied likes of Simon and Garfunkel, the Commodores, R.E.M. and Hank Williams Jr. Even then, Rucker's talent shone through. "Whatever song we decided to do, he could sing so well it didn't matter," Bryan recalls.

The pair persuaded a reluctant Felber to join. He and Bryan taught Rucker to play guitar, and Hootie and the Blowfish -- a compound of nicknames for a couple of characters in Rucker's college show choir -- were born in 1986. They plugged away on the local-club and frat-house circuit, performing reams of R.E.M. and U2 covers. Sonefeld, a member of a rival Columbia band, joined in 1989. The stringy, athletic Sonefeld grew up in Chicago and came to USC to play soccer. The band got serious about songwriting after he came up with "Hold My Hand."

"We'd been writing some stuff, but it had a different feel," says Bryan. "Soni slowed down the groove a little, laid it back the perfect amount. It fit Darius' voice and my guitar style better in the long run."

Hootie and the Blowfish cut two demo tapes with producer Dick Hodgin (Flat Duo Jets, Corrosion of Conformity) and sold them at shows and record stores. "I knew they had what it took: great voice, good songs."

Hodgin says. "All they needed was to be plugged into the right machinery." Unfortunately, they plugged into an abortive deal with an independent label out of California that resulted in little more than lost time. Still, they salvaged a self-financed EP, Kootchypop, and learned a valuable lesson.

"We're sticklers about business," Rucker says. "We don't want anybody to screw us. Nobody was banging down Hootie and the Blowfish's door back in 1991, so now it's our way or no way."

Kootchypop wound up selling 50,000 copies, astounding for a self-marketed release. Those numbers caught the attention of Tim Sommer, a talent scout at Atlantic, who brought Hootie to the label. The band recorded Cracked Rear View in Los Angeles early in 1994 with Don Gehman (John Mellencamp, R.E.M.), who captured the clarity and immediacy of Hootie's live shows while fleshing out the arrangements with sparing touches like piano and fiddle. David Crosby added harmony vocals on "Hold My Hand" and gave the band a frank talk about drugs, alcohol and the music business. "They'll fuck you in the ass with a wooden rasp" was his honest, if inelegant, bit of counsel, according to Bryan.

The reason for Cracked Rear View's meteoric rise is no mystery to Don Dixon, who worked on Kootchypop. "People like that sort of personal, gravelly voice they can connect with emotionally," he says. "I'm just so proud of their stick-to-itiveness -- being loyal to one another, being loyal to putting their money where their mouth is and going out and playing."

Hootie's popularity has even reached the nonmusic minded: David Letterman proclaimed them his "favorite new band" and has had them on the show three times. VH1 jumped all over the "Hold My Hand" video, which helped launch the band. The group performed the song on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee one morning, charming the hosts. "There's not a Hootie in the bunch!" crowed Regis, while Kathie Lee bantered, "I heard that you guys started your group because you wanted free beer, to meet girls, and what was the other reason?" "That's reason enough," Rucker retorted to much laughter.

The Omaha gig is history, and the gregarious band members are ready to party. As is usually the case, Rucker's got the inside track on a good after-show place to hang out. This is truly a band for which stage and street clothes are one and the same. Trailing Rucker on foot from the arena to the bar, which is some distance away, the musicians are attired in the same generic wardrobe -- college-logo T-shirts, baseball caps, jeans and sneakers -- that they'd worn onstage. The band trudges across weedy fields and up a muddy embankment as Rucker gamely declares, "We're almost there."

Sure enough, Hootie and the Blowfish soon find themselves at the door of a low-slung, popular beer joint near Creighton University that is named after the school's mascot, the Blue Jay. They are hustled inside. Mugs of beer and shots of Jaegermeister materialize instantly and disappear just as quickly. A buzz circulates around the club; most of the patrons have just come from the show. Rucker holds court at the end of the bar, lip-syncing to every syllable the New Wave-fixated cover band plays, from Modern English to A-Ha, with forays into '70s funk by the likes of KC and the Sunshine Band. The expression on Rucker's face is half put-on (the falsetto hysteria of "Take on Me" elicits some priceless karaoke) and half rapture (his unerring radar has again found the party palace in yet another strange town). Hootie and the Blowfish are obviously in their element, having graduated from college to a spring-break-style road trip that never ends. You gotta envy them.

"It sounds like such bullshit, but we just love to be together," Rucker says on the bus the next day. "You've seen it: All we do is laugh. Call each other names and laugh. We never leave each other alone. That's how we've stayed together for 10 years, and that's why we don't change. You've always got somebody giving you shit, you know, to keep you down."

"We're still at the point where if you tried something new as far as clothing or attitude," says Felber, "you'd catch so much hell, you'd probably end up crying."

"Those guys bought Doc Martens, and I still haven't let them forget that one," Rucker guffaws.

"It's all right," Dean says. "We had him buy these boots in England."

"Oh, man, they talked me into buying these square-toed Harley boots that will sit in the closet for the rest of my life," says Rucker. "I spent a hundred bucks on something I'll never wear."

Surrounded by videotapes and CDs, the members of Hootie and the Blowfish settle back to watch a basketball game on the tube as the miles roll by.

"It's wonderful being out on the road," Rucker says matter-of-factly, staring out the window. "It really is."

Hootie & the Blowfish: Yet Another Worship Temple
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