July 5 – Hootie Cracked Through Grunge Wall Into Stardom

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.

 

13 thoughts on “July 5 – Hootie Cracked Through Grunge Wall Into Stardom

  1. Badfinger (Max)

    They were a surprise hit to say the least. This would have worked on the Out of the Blue topic. I don’t think anyone could have seen this coming in the era of grunge. I wasn’t a huge fan by any means but I was impressed…the hits just kept coming. When I think of the 90s…this band comes into play big time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. yep, same here… I never bought the record but I didn’t mind hearing it on radio. Not great (to me) but there were far worse, less worthy records at the time so I didn’t quite get the hostility towards it. I think it largely established a whole new radio genre by itself – Adult Alternative, I guess it’s usually called… them, C Crows, Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow etc.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I still remember Hootie’s “Hold My Hand”, “Only Wanna Be With You” and “Let Her Cry” being on the radio all the time. I was in my second year as a grad student in the U.S. I had met my future wife the year before. To borrow from a Canadian artist, those were the best days of my life!

    I was studying my ass off – grad school in the U.S. was very different from Germany where you had much more academic freedom. Of course, the flipside to that unless you had lots of self-discipline, is you could easily get sidetracked. Turned out the high school-like study environment in the U.S. was better for me. Anyway, how did I get here? 🙂

    Yes, Hootie & the Blowfish. I liked these guys and I guess I still do. It’s feelgood music. Not every song needs to have profound lyrics. Plus, Darius Rucker has a unique and kind of intriguing voice.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. he does have a good voice, and the Hootie songs were perfectly acceptable enough I think; not all-time classics but quite decent pop tunes.
      I only got a BA (well, i shouldn’t say “only”, it’s something) and did that in Canada; I found it was pretty easy-going – we were treated as adults. You certainly didn’t need to show up if you didn’t want, and teh profs wouldn’t hound you to get work done, but if you didn’t of course, the grades would reflect it. At the time in Ontario, we had a Grade 13 in HS too – now discontinued unfortunately . It was a final year of high school for those university-bound. you could get your diploma after Grade 12, but could get an “honors diploma” by going one more year and the idea was to transition people to post-secondary. You didn’t have to take as many credits , teachers didn’t take attendance and there was more freedom about assignments you chose. But, it was a more challenging curriculum than earlier in HS.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When I went to school in Germany, we had 13 grades as well. In 2012, they reformed the school system and shortened what we call secondary school education to 12 grades.

        Essentially, this meant students had one year less to acquire the same knowledge. Many parents weren’t happy about it. In 2014, some regions (“Bundeslaender”) reverted back to 13 grades.

        I agree 13 grades is better. Cutting corners can easily lead to insufficiently prepared students, especially those who want to move on to get a university education.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. They didn’t ‘wow’ me when this album came out, but then I saw them on one of the nighttime TV shows, maybe Letterman or SNL and they performed Hold My Hand with a boys choir backing them up. It was inspiring and made me a big fan of the song. Hootie/Rucker has a low-impact style that doesn’t make me notice, but I don’t mind having it on in the background.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. likely made 54/40 more money than any of their own singles…and to me, it was one of their weaker ones! I’d read in the past that for some odd reason , Rucker was a huge 54/40 fan and liked doing covers of their music in concert early on. Which is quite cool but surprising… not many Americans have heard of them (54/40).

      Liked by 1 person

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