200 Years In The Making: A Hootie Homecoming
Michael Miller, The State
October 19, 2001
When I asked Hootie guitarist Mark Bryan last week if Blowfish fans were still keeping up with the band, he replied immediately, "Oh yeah. We've got the TFJ, true fans jumpin'. They're on the Internet day in and day out talking about Hootie. Some fly to our shows; then there are the everyday fans who show up to see us play in every town and ask when the new record is coming out."
The TFJ. That's a new one on me, but I like it. Any band that's been playing together for more than a decade and has sold, depending on which chart-watcher you ask, between 15 and 20 million records, is sure to have a ton of true fans, jumpin' or otherwise.
But none could have been jumping harder for the past six months than the members of the University of South Carolina homecoming commission. When these elected commissioners first got together earlier this year, they began to brainstorm ideas for a very special occasion, the university's bicentennial homecoming.
"We wanted to do something special, something people would remember," said USC senior Shelly Crawford. "The first name that came up was Hootie and the Blowfish."
The homecoming planners agreed that Hootie had represented USC well, and a concert by the Blowfish on homecoming Saturday would be exciting for everyone. But USC had tried to lure the Blowfish several other times over the years. Things like scheduling conflicts and prior commitments prevented Hootie from playing a gig at its alma mater. (Except, of course, the landmark MTV Unplugged episode filmed on the Horseshoe in 1997, which one school administrator described as the most powerful recruiting device in USC history.)
So commission members knew they had to do something special to pique Hootie's interest and persuade them to play at homecoming. Crawford had an idea.
"I thought we should do a letter-writing campaign," said the 21-year-old psychology major from Florence. "So I went to every sorority and fraternity and told them what we were trying to do. They all thought it was a great idea and started writing letters."
Operation "We Want Hootie" was under way, but there was a snag early on. Crawford didn't know exactly where the letters should be sent. Then she discovered drummer Jim Sonefeld's Columbia address, and in no time, letters began pouring into the Sonefeld home.
Jim's wife, Debbie, was a bit suspicious at first when letters from USC sorority girls began filling her mailbox day after day, and the little hearts drawn on some of the envelopes sure didn't help matters. But Sonefeld managed to convince her that the letters weren't from old girl friends who wanted to get reacquainted, only USC students who wanted Hootie to play at homecoming.
After about 300 letters had arrived, Sonefeld called Hootie's manager at the time, Rusty Harmon, and asked him to deflect the letter-writing campaign from his home mailbox. Harmon contacted USC and told the commissioners that if they had to write letters, they should send them to the Hootie office.
"We knew we had their attention then," Crawford said. "So I said, 'OK guys, it's time to take it to the next level.' "
Before you could say "only wanna be with you," balloons were arriving at the Hootie office, along with big cakes with "We Want Hootie" written on them.
"I sent them some poems with funny little rhymes about how much we loved Hootie and wanted them to come and play," Crawford said. "After about the third one, I called Rusty Harmon and said, 'Are you ever going to call us back?' "
Unbeknownst to the USC homecoming planners, Hootie was going through a bit of turmoil of its own at the time. The band and Harmon were parting ways after a 10-year association; lead singer Darius Rucker was haggling with the record company over his solo R&B album; and everyone in the band was trying to find time to spend with their wives and newborn babies.
But when things calmed down a bit, Hootie's tour manager Jeff Smith stepped in and tried to come up with a solution to the homecoming dilemma. It was finally agreed that a concert would take place on the afternoon of the homecoming football game on the Grandstand stage at the State Fairgrounds. The "We Want Hootie" campaign had paid off after all.
"It took about half a year, but they finally agreed to come," Crawford said. "We worked so long, and so hard, but now we're excited and I hope they are, too."
Knowing what big Gamecock fans the Blowfish are, I'm sure nothing could make them happier than being part of the school's bicentennial homecoming.
So welcome home, Hootie. It's good to have you back in town.