Sometimes the best way to cash in on a hot trend is to totally ignore it. Or at least it can be the way to create the best art. Whether or not this album is the “best art” or not has been debated for about 27 years and 364 days by now, but there’s no denying two things: Hootie and the Blowfish definitely ignored the current trends with their debut album, and Cracked Rear View cashed in, in a big way! The album which came out on this day in 1994 has sold over 25 million copies to date, making it one of the ten biggest debuts* of all time.
In early-’94, grunge was dominating the rock radio arena and seemed to be taking over the world. Many of Gen X revered Kurt Cobain as if he were some sort of deity. Not Hootie.
Hootie and the Blowfish hailed from South Carolina and had their beginnings about eight full years earlier. Legend has it they got their start when guitarist Mark Bryan heard singer Darius Rucker singing away in the shower at university! They quickly formed a band and started playing as a cover band around Columbia, SC. By 1991 they put out a self-published EP, then two years later a slightly more polished one, Koothypop. That one contained two early versions of songs that would be all over radio a couple of years later: “Only Wanna Be With You” and “Hold My Hand.” Somehow they managed to sell 50 000 copies of it by themselves, which caught the attention of Atlantic Records who signed them.
They brought in Don Gehman, well known for his extensive work with John Mellencamp and for doing one R.E.M. album, to produce the major label debut for the quarter which also included drummer “Soni” Sonfefeld and bassist Dean Felber. They put together an album of unassuming, country-fied pop tunes that sounded perhaps like outtakes from a ’70s Eagles or Poco record with a stronger voice. The result was staggering in both simplicity and success. It took the continent, if not the world, by storm… but it was a slow-building storm.
While it would hit #1 in the U.S. (and in fact be the top-seller of 1995, not to mention shipping more than 3 million copies through Columbia House’s mail order service) and in Canada and New Zealand, it didn’t exactly take over the airwaves out of the box. They were just finishing up the recording process the day Cobain died; by the time the summer was waning, there was a segment of the population that had decided “enough with the noise and depression already!” and were ready for a change in the mood as much as in the weather. Hootie provided just that.
Three straight singles hit the U.S. top 10 (“Hold My Hand” , “Let Her Cry” “Only Wanna Be With You”) and the more each was accepted, the more other stations decided to buck the trend and give them a spin. Their fortunes were boosted in ’95, when an episode of Friends was built around the idea of Ross going to one of their concerts. Some Hootie music was dubbed in and the band’s cover of Canadian folkies 54-40’s “I Go Blind” was put on the TV show soundtrack, and became a top 20 hit in the Great White North. Soon they seemed unstoppable.
Although some, like Trent Reznor (who famously called for “Death to Hootie and the Blowfish” in an interview) despised their rather vanilla sound and lyrics, most were receptive to the Blowfish, including a lot of critics. Rolling Stone, for instance, gave them a 3.5-star rating noting “Darius Rucker’s voice is a thrilling discovery: big and bluesy” and declaring their “lack of irony” “refreshing.”
The album would go on to sell past 21 million copies at home, making it double-diamond and attain diamond status in Canada. While they seemed unstoppable, they were in fact just very finite in popularity. Their ’96 follow-up, Fairweather Johnson did briefly top U.S. charts and go platinum, but lacked big hit singles and three subsequent albums went almost unnoticed until the band seemed to split up in 2008.
Darius Rucker liked country music a bit more than pop and started a solo career in that genre, doing quite well with his impressive baritone. Of seven solo albums he’s had, four made #1 on country charts, as have four of his solo singles. the most successful of those so far has been “Wagon Wheel” which made it into the overall top 20 in 2013. The others have also worked on their own, but to less acclaim. Although excepting a 2015 appearance on David Letterman they were inactive for a decade, Rucker never said the Blowfish had drowned, and in 2019 they came back with a tour and a new album, Imperfect Circle.
While Cracked Rear View may not have merited the gigantic sales it racked up, neither did it merit the level of distain that seemed to surround it in many circles. Allmusic rate it at 4.5-stars and suggest while they “aren’t innovative” their “sunny, straight forward sound” was refreshing in the mid-’90s and Rucker’s “emotive vocals” elevated rather unextraordinary pop fare. As the guitarist Bryan says, “Your dad wasn’t going to get Soundgarden or Nirvana or Pearl Jam. But he and your mom would get the Hootie album.” And in an era when there’s so much dissention and conflict, there’s something to be said about things which can do that!
* we add the asterisk as, as noted Cracked Rear View wasn’t their true “debut”, it was the first on an international label. Like many other groups with big “debuts”, they’d put out small, indie releases before which most never got to hear.