Hootie & The Blowfish – either you love ‘em or you hate ‘em. Some even call them the Nickelback of the 90s. Either way, you cannot dispute the absolute star power of their 1994 release, Cracked Rear View. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Cracked is the 10th most successful album in this country’s recording history. Not bad for a band for which Nine Inch Nails’ frontman Trent Reznor called for their “death” in a 1997 Rolling Stone interview.
So, who are Hootie & The Blowfish? The Columbia, SC band is made up of lead singer Darius Rucker, guitarist Mark Bryan, drummer Jim (Soni) Sonefeld, and bassist Dean Felber. Most people mistake Rucker as “Hootie,” but alas, he is not. The band name is a mixture of the nicknames of two of the band’s college friends at the University of South Carolina at the time. The story goes that Bryan decided to group up with Rucker after he heard the frontman singing in the shower. The duo sang cover songs in their inimitable smooth style, in direct contrast of the grungy, hard rock sounds of bands like Nirvana and Metallica, among others, and then they joined up with Felder – a former high school friend of Bryan’s. That is probably why Hootie stood out from the rest of melodic pack, because their sound was just SO different.
Rucker and the band were not an overnight success. Record labels rejected them. A LOT of them. Festivals turned them down, but they persisted, nevertheless. “If you played Hootie, you were uncool,” Rucker told the New York Times. “You know, we understood.”
I remember going to see Hootie & The Blowfish perform several times in 1995 on the Cracked tour…once at Kilroy’s in Greensboro, NC and then at the Mad Monk in Wilmington, NC. They put on an EPIC live show, one I will put on par with U2’s “Zoo TV” tour and Garth Brooks’ “The Chase” tour. Outstanding.
‘Cause I’ve Got a Hand for You…
Cracked Rear View was released almost 26 years ago in 1994, after Hootie signed with Atlantic Records. No one saw them coming, and I mean no one. The band had been playing most of the songs on the album for eight years at this point, and the recording/mastering of Cracked only took about three to four weeks from start to finish. Then hit after hit after hit came out, and suddenly the band no one wanted to sign or let play saw their second studio album (no one really claims their first album in 1993 – Kootchypop. Listen at your own peril) go platinum 10 times over.
The first single, “Hold My Hand,” was released in July 1994 to major critical success. A great acoustic guitar riff started it off, and then Rucker starts in after about 4 measures with his smooth southern vocals. Then the second guitar comes in underneath, and then the drums some towards the end of the first verse. Such a smoothly layered track, juxtaposed to other top songs of 1995 (Ina Kamoze’s “Here Comes the Hotstepper,” Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” and Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It,” just to name a few).
But Stipe’s Not Far Behind…
Bands like R.E.M. (University of Georgia, Athens) came just a few years before Hootie, and they really paved the way for this four-part band from Columbia, SC. Rucker owed so much to R.E.M. that he even gave Michael Stipe a shout-out in their second single, “Let Her Cry.” Rucker once again starts his smooth vocals over an acoustic guitar, but this time, a synth kicks in during the first verse along with a tambourine and a rolling drum set. The rising action of the song really builds up well into the chorus, and Rucker just nails it. Just a hint of vibrato in his voice marries well with the instrumentation.
It’s almost as if they’re not even trying that hard. With the smooth vocals, the effortless fretwork, and the perfect timing of the drums, it’s almost as if Hootie took a page out of Ric Ocasek and the Cars’ playbook, and they’re letting the good times roll. “Let Her Cry” is the kind of song that turns any concert into a singalong, and it is personally my favorite track on the album.
I Can’t Help It If I’m Lucky…
The song that gets Hootie in trouble with the fans is their third hit, “Only Wanna Be With You.” It saw success on the Billboard charts, but fair-weather fans panned the simplicity and silliness of the song’s lyrics. Hootie was never a philosophically deep band, but this song made even the hardcore purists question the nature of the song. It ended up as the #33 song of the year in 1995, but the video was just as silly and random as the song itself. With lyrics like, “I’m such a baby, yeah, the Dolphins make me cry,” Rucker’s NFL fandom for Miami got a shoutout, along with his love and admiration for Bob Dylan. The release of the single “Time” in October 1995 was a better song than “Only Wanna Be With You.”
The hidden gems on Cracked are many. “Hannah Jane” is a fun listen, and more upbeat than some of their other songs. “Running from an Angel” has a decidedly country twang, maybe a precursor to Rucker’s country solo career? And I love the sweet piano intro and Billy Joel feel of “Goodbye.”
All in all, whether you like the body of work produced by Hootie & The Blowfish or not, Cracked Rear View is certainly one of the best albums ever made. Their follow up ventures, however, did not do them any favors. Their third album, Fairweather Johnson, was awful, and killed any momentum the band had with Cracked. Therefore, put the rest of their discography in your rear view, and act like Cracked was the only album they ever produced. You’ll thank me later.
(P.S. The band reunited last year for the 25th anniversary of Cracked Rear View, and toured the country promoting their 2019 release, Imperfect Circle – their first new release in 14 years. It was meh.)
Recommended If You Like: Big Head Todd & The Monsters, The Wallflowers, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Del Amitri, Better Than Ezra
Recommended Tracks: 3 (Let Her Cry), 2 (Hold My Hand), 8 (Time), 1 (Hannah Jane), 4 (Only Wanna be With You), 11 Goodbye)
Do Not Play: None
Written by John V. Wood on 09/23/2020