Can 13 Million Hootie Fans Really Be Wrong?
On a warm, bright day in Columbia, South Carolina, the rock band Hootie & the Blowfish find themselves struggling to do something they used to do with ease: keep a very low profile. The occasion is the city's annual St.Patrick's Day celebration. It's considered a big event - although, truth be told, just about anything that carries with it the promise of free music and cheap beer is considered a big event in this frat-heavy college town. The members of Hootie, hometown heroes who made it big, have decided to join the festivities unannounced. The other acts are mostly smaller, local ones with monikers that evoke the names of long shots on racing forms - Cowboy Mouth, Gracie Moon, Treadmill Trackstar. So it's sure to cause a commotion when Hootie - a band that has sold 13 million copies and counting of its debut album, Cracked Rear View - suddenly shows up and starts playing at one of the dozen or so small festival stages. Says drummer Jim "Soni" Sonefeld: "It's outdoors, there are a lot of drunks, it's our hometown - this has the potential for being really out of control." He says this happily.
Late in the afternoon, the four members of Hootie & the Blowfish - singer Darius Rucker, guitarist Mark Bryan, bassist Dean Felber and Sonefeld - leave the small bar where they have been hiding/waiting/drinking and head to a tent behind the stage where they are scheduled to perform. The crowd begins murmuring in delight and shock as word spreads that the band is backstage. A chant builds: Hoot-ie! Hoot-ie! But just then - and, if you're a student of outdoor rock festivals, you knew this would happen - it begins to rain. Hard. Noah's ark hard. But at this point, there is no turning back. Everyone in Columbia, practically everyone south of the Mason-Dixon line, knows Hootie is lurking. By the time the band waits out the rain, its entrance will be about as much of a surprise as the appearance of one of its ubiquitous videos on VH1. Bryan is crushed. He unleashes what, for him, is the ultimate epithet: "Bummer".
A scant two years ago, surprising people was a snap for the unknown, unheralded, alarmingly goofy-named Hootie & the Blowfish. When the band released Cracked Rear View, in 1994, it came across as something fresh and different, in large part because it didn't try to come across as anything fresh or different. Modern rock needed some new life, figuratively and literally - Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder's misunderstood-misanthrope act got tired about five seconds after Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain's suicidally depressive lyrics turned out to be all too genuine. Hootie was embraced as an alternative to alternative, a straight-ahead zig to the posturing zag of the rest of contemporary rock, and Cracked Rear View, with its brawny, melodic, heartfelt songs, went on to become the second best-selling debut of all time.
If the Chicago Bulls have become America's Team, Hootie & the Blowfish are now America's Band - down-home, upbeat and immensely popular, a group of rock stars who don't look or act like rock stars. Typically dressed in baseball caps and baggy jeans, they look as if they're about to do some farm work or finish the back nine. While Rucker, 29, and Felber, 28, are still single, Bryan, 28, and Sonefeld, 31, are both engaged, settling down. All four still live in Columbia, within walking distance of one another, in homes that are sizable but modest (Sonefeld's pad boasts a Foosball table - the perfect just-a-guy, have-a-beer, I-love-you-man touch). But don't let the downscale bonhomie deceive you; the band is a corporate money machine. Cracked Rear View cost around $200,000 to make and generated more than $100 million in gross revenues for Atlantic Records, Hootie's label.
That's the kind of return on an investment that would make Silicon Valley instantaires envious - and now Hootie is back for an encore. This week the band will release its eagerly awaited second album, titled Fairweather Johnson. Although Atlantic Records head Val Azzoli is cannily trying to lower expectations - "I don't want to overhype the record," he says, "because I know we're not going to do what Cracked Rear View did"; - at the same time he's vigorously cranking up the hype machine. MTV will air a Hootie Unplugged special on April 22; just after midnight, Hard Rock Cafes around the country will hold listening parties at which the new CD will be sold. The day the CD comes out, the band will appear on Late Night with David Letterman. And, thanks to encouragement from Atlantic, Wal-Mart stores will be stacking Fairweather Johnson right next to the cash register, so patrons will have no trouble picking up a copy with their next bag of Lawn Gro.
Overall record sales were flat last year, and the industry could use a megahit. But while music-industry suits may be understandably breathless about Fairweather Johnson's impending release, not everyone is panting. Now that Cracked Rear View has sold more copies in the U.S. than any single album by Pearl Jam, U2, the Rolling Stones and even the Beatles, the Hootie backlash has begun. A page surfaced on the Internet recently calling for readers to join PAHB - Peoples Against Hootie & the Blowfish. This week the New York Times dismissed Rucker as rock's "reigning crybaby," a reference to his emotive lyrics. Some of the criticism cuts deeper. A writer for the Village Voice compared the band to a minstrel show, and Saturday Night Live did a sketch where Rucker leads beer-swilling white frat boys in a countermarch to Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March (apparently, to the mostly white staff at SNL, successful blacks must be sellouts).
Hootie has become a kind of rock-'n'-roll Rorschach test for fans and detractors alike. Fans often see them as a shiny, happy people band, a safe band, an integrated group of nice boys who play golf - a comfortingly Eurocentric sport - and who specialize in songs that are tuneful and direct, such as their irresistible sing-along hit Hold My Hand; indeed, the band's cheeky but wholesome appeal is not dissimilar to the early, hand-holding Beatles'. Detractors basically agree with this characterization. But they find the straightforward, seemingly optimistic nature of the band's music profoundly, aggressively boring and see the group's goofy, Dan Marino-in-a-cameo videos as shamelessly unironic throwbacks to the don't-worry-be-happy aesthetic of the '80s. Matters won't be helped any by the new album's packaging, which includes an order form for merchandise like Hootie golf balls and beer cozies.
The band sometimes takes the criticism hard. "I've always wanted Dean to be in Bass Player magazine," says Rucker, who is great friends with Hootie's bassist and shares a house with him. "But he showed me this article the other day in that magazine where this guy does this whole Toad the Wet Sprocket review, and at the end he says the only drawback with Toad is that they toured with the worst band in the world - Hootie & the Blowfish. I mean, why do you have to go out of your way to bash us? I honestly believe that if we had sold 100,000 records, people would have nice things to say about us. At the beginning of the record there were nice reviews... and all of a sudden - BOOM! -we're the worst band in the world."
Hootie's music is actually rooted in more sadness and struggle than the band's detractors are willing to admit and fans are prepared to accept. Three of the band members come from comfortably middle-class upbringings - Felber and Bryan grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Sonefeld hails from the cozy Chicago suburb of Napersville, Illinois. Rucker's upbringing in Charleston, South Carolina, however, was poorer and harder. His mother was a nurse and his father was "never there" money was tight and times were hard. "The only time I really dealt with my dad was Sunday morning before we went to church when he sang with a band," Rucker says, recalling his childhood. "I think they were called the Rolling Stones, believe it or not. They were a gospel group." Rucker will tell anyone who asks that his childhood was happy, but reveals his concealed resentment toward his father in a song called Where Were You, released only in Europe (where Rucker says he figured his dad would never hear it). "Where were you when I needed a friend?/ Where were you when I kissed my very first girl?" he sings to his absentee father. "Go away/ Mama didn't want you/ So I don't need you."
Rucker, Felber, Bryan and Sonefeld met in 1986 as undergraduates at the University of South Carolina at Columbia - the band's name came from nicknames given to two university classmates, one with owl-like glasses and another with full cheeks. Making the cultural transition from the North to the South was a difficult one for the group's three Yankees. At the university at that time, band members recall, whites would sometimes be kicked out of frats for having too many black friends. Hootie & the Blowfish's very first gig was held at an off-campus fraternity with a reputation for racism - and the interracial band was understandably wary. "We were a little concerned about going out there and playing," says Bryan. "So we brought our Marine buddies along."
After college, the group began to tour full time. The Southeast has a fertile music scene with plenty of places for young bands to find an audience, from the Georgia Theater in Athens to the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta to Rockafellas, the Elbow Room and Green Streets in Columbia (young bands on this circuit don't earn much; if you're in it for the money, move to Seattle). Hootie fitted right into the Southern pop-rock scene, playing clubs, bars, parties: any parties - birthday parties, frat parties, you name it. They would would sing REM and U2 covers and maybe a few Hootie originals, then crash on a dorm-room floor. "We'd drive 12 hours to do a show," Bryan recalls. "For $150 and two free beers," Sonefeld says, finishing his band mate's sentence, a habit among all four members of Hootie.
Throughout the early '90s, the band logged a couple of thousand miles a week and earned only $6,000 to $10,000 apiece annually, but from the start the supposedly carefree group displayed a nascent business sense and an instinct for organization. "Even when doing cover songs for frat parties they used their earnings wisely," says Dick Hodgin, the band's first manager. (Rusty Harmon took over when Hodgin decided he didn't have the time to focus on the band.) "They put money away instead of doing what most bands do - split it and spend it." Today the band has four corporations, including Fishco, Inc., which handles record royalties and related matters, and Breaking Records, the group's new label, which will focus on finding and developing grass-roots bands.
In 1992, after borrowing cash from friends and families, the band spent $8,000 to release its own mini-album, Kootchypop - an endearingly amateurish six-track production that featured an early version of Hold My Hand. The CD sold about 40,000 copies and got the attention of Atlantic, which, intrigued by the band's home-brewed fan base, signed Hootie to a modest $75,000 deal in 1993. "I don't think Atlantic was hoping for anything when it came to the deal," says Tim Sommer, who brokered the contract for Atlantic. "Did I think they'd make a million dollars? No. But I did know they'd sell records. Before I signed them, they'd already sold half a million dollars' worth of Ts. If you can sell a T shirt, you can sell a record."
The success of Cracked Rear View was credited to five main reasons - good timing, great music, and marketing, marketing, marketing. The strategy also depended to a great degree on VH1. Around the time the album was released, the cable channel, which had been an MTV-lite for aging baby boomers, was undergoing a format change to capture younger viewers. Hootie, Blues Traveler, Melissa Etheridge and others were adopted as the reformatted channel's signature acts, and all received loads of album-moving airplay. Later, after Cracked Rear View sold its first million or so copies, Atlantic decided to focus on Middle America, to target folks too square for VH1 and definitely not hip enough for MTV. Joint TV ads were taken out with K Mart and Wal-Mart; and ads even appeared on the Country Television Network - the station wasn't playing Hootie, but Atlantic figured the channel's audience might be interested anyway. Within 11 months of its release, the album's sales topped 3 million, and it was on its way. Today, almost two years after its release, the album is still in the top 20 on Billboard's charts.
The music, however, remains the biggest factor in Hootie's rise. Cracked Rear View featured 11 strong, tuneful songs, with brawny guitar work, commanding percussion and Rucker's low, gruff, charismatic voice, which made it all come together. And despite the ebullient sound of the music, some songs were lyrically downbeat. Let Her Cry was about a love affair torn apart by drugs and alcohol; Not Even the Trees was a tribute to Rucker's late mother. Another song, Drowning, decries the flying of the Confederate flag above the South Carolina statehouse. Rucker has received death threats for singing it.
Offstage too the band has shown a conscience. The group does plenty of charity work, and refuses to play golf at country clubs that don't have black members (not a huge sacrifice, but a notable one). Last year the group was drawn into controversy when it was nominated for the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina's highest civilian honor. Critics were quick to attack the nomination, charging that the band members weren't proper role models. After all, they argued, Rucker's ex-girlfriend had had a daughter by him out of wedlock (the baby is now a year old). Others were angry over the band's Confederate-flag stance. The group withdrew from consideration for the honor.
Fairweather Johnson faces a huge challenge in trying to follow up the success of Cracked Rear View. History has not always been kind to pop-culture sequels - just look at The Two Jakes and everything Michael Jackson has done after Thriller. Still, Fairweather Johnson is a more complex, more nuanced album than Cracked Rear View, although, it should be pointed out, greater subtlety is not something that necessarily translates into greater sales. The CD starts with a rush - a ragged, propulsive song called Be the One - before going into a trio of engagingly sweet-sounding songs, Sad Caper, Tucker's Town and She Crawls Away. Hootie's core sound hasn't changed a whole lot; this isn't their Sgt. Pepper's. But the lyrics are more enigmatic, and the songs have ebb and flow instead of the straight-ahead sonic attack that characterized Cracked Rear View. When I'm Lonely, the last song on Fairweather Johnson, is pure, classic pop - wistful, mature and well crafted. Rucker's voice has never sounded better.
Meanwhile, back at the Columbia festival, the rain has finally stopped. The band takes the stage to a massive roar from the crowd, a Beatles in Liverpool, U2 in Dublin, Nirvana in Seattle hometown roar. With abandon, joy and a little bit of out-of-practice sloppiness, they tear through some old songs - Hannah Jane, Let Her Cry and Time - as well as a couple of the new numbers, Sad Caper and Be the One. Rucker screams his way through that last one, pulling and pawing at his shirt as if he's about to come out of it. He howls, "See it's not like they/ Are gonna take my faith away."
Afterward the band is giddy with excitement, exchanging bear hugs and high-fives. But as the others celebrate, Rucker just sits smiling, his baby in his arms, looking satisfied. Who cares if some critics, after seeing a white band with a black singer out front, conclude that somebody somewhere must be selling someone out? What does it matter if some people take the band's collegiate, party-hearty Southern past to mean that its music must have as much intrinsic worth as a Confederate bank note? Every time Rucker opens his mouth and his booming baritone roars out, strong, sure, suffused with history and hidden hurt, it overwhelms the doubts. Nobody is going to take this band's faith away.