Every now and again someone will call the lead singer of Hootie & the Blowfish a nigger. The rock band from Columbia, South Carolina, is made up of three white instrumentalists and a black vocalist. Such interracial camaraderie should be inspiring: ebony and ivory, the universal language of music, and all that. The reality is that there have been few truly successful mixed-race rock bands in America, and when some people, particularly in the South, see Hootie entertaining concert audiences with its mix of Southern rock and soulful blues, they have a problem with it. "We were in this bar in South Carolina, and this guy in a traditional Confederate hat comes up between sets," recalls Hootie drummer Jim Sonefeld. "He says, 'Y'all are pretty good for having a nigger as your lead singer.' Both my fists got clenched, and I was about to kill this guy."
Nobody got murdered that night. The guys in Hootie would rather get into an extended jam than a barroom brawl. And the band's burgeoning success seems to indicate that it's got far more fans than redneck detractors. The quartet's absorbing debut album, Cracked Rear View, has become an unexpected commercial smash, selling more than a million copies. Hold My Hand, a catchy sing-along number from the album, is in Billboard's Top 10. The music-video channel VH-1 - once seen as a kind of easy-listening, out-of-touch uncle of mtv - recently changed its format to feature contemporary "adult alternative" acts, and has virtually adopted Hootie as its house band, playing its videos more often than those of any other group. And when Hootie appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman two weeks ago, the host held up a copy of their new album, Cracked, and declared, "If you don't buy this album, there's something wrong with you."
Popularity for Hootie & the Blowfish was a long time coming. The four band members - singer Darius Rucker, guitarist Mark Bryan, bassist Dean Felber and drummer Sonefeld - got together at the University of South Carolina in Columbia in the mid-1980s. Rucker likes to sing after taking a shower and, thanks to his loud voice and the dorm's thin walls, his habit became well known - and, surprisingly, well liked. Says Bryan, who lived down the hall: "I'd hear him and think, 'He's got a really great voice."' Bryan was learning to play the guitar at the time, and pretty soon the two were performing cover tunes down at Pappy's, a chicken-wing joint near the dorm. Felber and Sonefeld joined later. The band has been together for nine years, and all the members are in their late 20s or early 30s, but they still joke with one another like freedom-giddy freshmen away from home for the first time. "We're doing what we did in college," says Rucker. "So it feels like we're still there."
The band's goofy name - which comes from Rucker's nicknames for two of his buddies, one with owl-like glasses (Hootie) and another with big cheeks (Blowfish) - belies the serious themes dealt with on Cracked. One cut, Running from an Angel, is a countrified stomp about a wayward brother. "Your lying and cheating really tore us apart," go the lyrics. Two of the album's best and most melancholy tracks - the folksy I'm Goin' Home and the moody Not Even the Trees - are about the death of Rucker's mother in 1992. "I'm not really sure what my dad does; he left before I was born," says Rucker. "I don't really care. But my mom supported us (Darius and five siblings) on a nurse's salary. She was my best friend." Hootie's music may be deeply personal, but it's not wimpy. The band's sound is big and guitar stuffed, and Rucker's voice is always bluesy and confident. Although the group's songs often seem dour, band members say their outlook, all things considered, is essentially optimistic. Says Bryan: "I think every song of ours that's depressing also says, in some way, that you can learn from your mistakes."
Aside from the occasional Confederate-hat-wearing heckler, South Carolinians have been wildly supportive of their homegrown rock stars. Hootie is the most prominent band ever to come out of Columbia and one of the most successful Southern rock groups since R.E.M. broke out of Athens, Georgia, in the early '80s. "I used to dream of being one of the members of R.E.M. when I was growing up," says Bryan. "We used to cover 10 R.E.M. songs every concert." The thought of a hard-rocking, blues-based band like Hootie breathing life and fire into such R.E.M. classics as Radio Free Europe and Don't Go Back to Rockville may quicken the pulse of many music fans, but don't look for it to happen again soon. "We don't do their songs anymore," says Rucker. "We've got our own now." They sure do, and now there are, no doubt, college kids - black and white, north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line - who dream of performing tunes by Hootie & the Blowfish.