Hootie and the Blowfish, Mark Bryan, Darius Rucker, Jim Sonefeld, and Dean Felber

Hootie and the Blowfish (L-R): Mark Bryan, Darius Rucker, Jim Sonefeld, and Dean Felber.

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Reminiscing on a breakthrough Letterman performance, competing with grunge and a big assist from Garth Brooks

This weekend (July 5) marks the 20th anniversary of the release of “Cracked Rear View” – the Atlantic debut from Hootie & The Blowfish. The album changed the lives of millions of fans throughout the world and also the lives of the band – Mark Bryan, Dean Felber, Jim “Soni” Sonefeld, and lead singer Darius Rucker.

In an exclusive interview with Billboard to discuss the two-decade milestone, Rucker recalled that the goal of the band when going into the studio to record the album was simply to keep making music – and to not let Atlantic down. “Our mindset was one of just hoping it did well enough that they would let us do another one,” he said. “We had been a band for eight or nine years, and finally got a break with a major record label. It was a whole new experience for us. We thought we made a cool record – one that we were really proud of.”

Hootie & the Blowfish's 'Cracked Rear View' at 20: Classic Track-by-Track Review

Rucker admits that the band – who had been together since 1986 - went against the grain musically. “Garth Brooks was king, and we were anything but grunge, so we didn’t know what was going to happen. We thought with the fan base we had developed on the east coast over the years of playing, we just wanted to sell enough and make enough noise that we could do another one. But, it did a little more than that,” he says proudly.

The first single from the set, “Hold My Hand,” made it to the top-10 on both the Hot 100 and the Adult Contemporary charts. Rucker said that watching the song make the run up the charts was exciting. “I remember making a video for it, and that was the first time we had ever made a video,” he said. “Then, seeing it on MTV and watching it take off was crazy. That was a song that we had been playing for years. Now, it was being played on ever pop / rock radio station in the country.”

Still, the band really had no idea where things were headed – until an appearance on CBS’s The Late Show With David Letterman made things very clear that Hootie & The Blowfish was becoming a force to be reckoned with. “It all started with the Letterman show. When we showed up in New York, we were just another struggling rock band trying to get played among all these grunge bands. We left that day, and by the next Monday, you could tell instantly that things were about to take off. We were getting adds on radio stations, and it just kept going and going. Then, we started thinking that we might have a little success with it.”

A “little success” is a definite understatement. The album also spawned the hits “Let Her Cry,” “Only Wanna Be With You,” “Time,” and “Drowning.” And, when the dust finally settled – the disc had sold over sixteen million copies – becoming the seventh biggest-selling album of the decade (and number sixteen of all time). Rucker said it was a great time, but the band was so busy working at keeping up the pace, there wasn’t a lot of time to soak it in.

“It was great that we were having success, but we were so in the middle of it that we didn’t think much of it,” he admitted. “We were always out on tour. The four of us always had a great way of keeping each other in check, so it was more of an attitude of ‘This is doing great, but what are we going to do next?’

The band won the Best New Artist award at the Grammys, but perhaps the most-remembered award the band is associated with is one they actually didn’t win. In 1996, Garth Brooks was voted as Artist of the Year at the American Music Awards, but refused to accept the award because he thought Hootie and the Blowfish deserved it more. Rucker said that moment still gives him chills. “It had been an amazing two years at that time, and we told the American Music Awards that we had played so many award shows that we weren’t going to play that show. We didn’t know if it was political, but Garth said it best. The retailers told him that we had helped keep the doors open. We were selling records, and bringing people in to buy other records, and that he thought we deserved us. That was an amazing moment for us that someone that big and legendary would see what we were doing as that cool and wouldn’t accept that award because he thought we deserved it. That was one of the biggest moments in our career.”

Hootie and the Blowfish went on “hiatus” in 2008, with Rucker pursuing a successful country career, but the band still performs together periodically at charity events, and Rucker assures the fans that one day there will be more music. “We’ll always be a band. We just did a show together last weekend, and we were talking about doing something really cool when the time was right – a record, a year long tour where we go out and see all the people that supported us all these years. We’ll do it, I’m sure – but when the time is right. We don’t want to do it just to do it, we want to do it when it can be big and when the time is right.”

As of right now, Rucker’s focus is on his fourth release for Capitol Nashville. At the CMA Music Festival last month, he hinted he might be going in more of an organic type direction for the album, but stressed it was still going to be varied. “In Nashville, the songs speak for what the record is going to be, but you don’t want to have twelve or thirteen songs that are all the same, but we’ve got some really cool stuff that is a little more organic. You still want to have hits with everything, but we’re trying to put stuff on the record that is a little different. We’re still going to have some songs on there, like the first single, which is more of a current Nashville tune for radio, but for me it’s about having the best songs, and that’s what I tried to do with this record.”