A quarter century after their 21-times-platinum debut, Hootie & The Blowfish are playing some of their biggest concerts ever -- in a business that has completely changed.
Hootie & The Blowfish would like to make one thing clear: They never really “broke up.” A turn that dramatic would have been fundamentally at odds with the quartet’s image (though they’d likely be loathe to call it that) -- four genial South Carolina guys who stumbled into mega-stardom while playing music purely for the love of it, only quitting touring in 2008 when amphitheater gigs had shrunk into shows at casinos and 4-H Club fairs.
They’re still really, genuinely friends, they insist, 34 years after guitarist Mark Bryan first heard frontman Darius Rucker singing a Billy Joel song in the shared bathroom of their University of South Carolina dormitory -- longevity that’s almost as remarkable as releasing one of the 10 highest-selling albums in RIAA history.
That’s not to say things haven’t changed. “It’s different than the old days,” says drummer Jim “Soni” Sonefeld. “When we went out to do the first record, we just spent six weeks in Los Angeles, basically living at the studio. There wasn’t a worry in the world. Fast-forward to kids and life and everything ... to find even three or four days to set aside was difficult.”
Sitting in the corner of a London hotel bar, Rucker, Bryan, Sonefeld and bassist Dean Felber riff on about how exactly it is that they’ve stayed connected after all this time. It’s a few hours before one of the last shows of their 54-date Group Therapy Tour at the city’s Eventim Apollo theater, better known as the Hammersmith Apollo; half-full glasses of beer, whiskey and water crowd the table.
“The Blowfish Fantasy Football League has single-handedly kept us together,” quips Sonefeld, 55. He’s only sort of kidding: Every August, the band travels to Charleston for its annual Homegrown Concert -- a benefit for South Carolina public schools -- and gets in a little early to make time for an in-person fantasy football draft. The league includes members of the band’s crew and staff, most of whom have been with the group since its ’90s heyday.
“It’s one of those things that really does keep us close,” says Rucker, 53 -- who, in over two decades, has never won the league championship. (Felber, 52, has won two titles; the majority has gone to the crew.) “We’re all going to be there, we’re all going to be talking trash. It might just be one day, but it’s one day we have that’s not music and not anything else -- just us.”
As it happens, these regular guys -- fantasy sports woes and all -- have rarely seen their stock higher than it is in 2019, as they celebrate the 25th anniversary of their double-diamond-certified album, Cracked Rear View, with an international tour and a forthcoming new release, Imperfect Circle, out Nov. 1.
The Group Therapy Tour, which featured the Barenaked Ladies as stateside support, was Hootie’s first in 11 years, and it grossed over $42 million in the United States, more than twice as much as its next-biggest touring year, 1996. Even adjusting for inflation, Group Therapy’s haul still marks a 43% increase from the period when the band had three top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 in one year. That’s thanks to a higher ticket price, yes, but also an average of 3,000 more tickets sold per show. In the United Kingdom, where the group wrapped the tour, its management told the band that demand was strong enough that it could book any venue the group performed at in the ’90s. Hootie wound up doing seven dates, a testament to both its own longevity and the steadily growing market for American roots music in the United Kingdom.
“It has been a good year -- a real good year,” says Bryan, 52, raising his eyebrows in disbelief. “The fact that we’ve gotten such a great reaction is sugar on top because we didn’t have huge expectations.”
“I really don’t remember ’95 and ’96,” says Rucker, who cops to the band’s hard-partying reputation in that period. “But I remember what it was like when we quit. Going back out again, we were scared.”
“This isn’t where we left off in the States -- playing amphitheaters was a distant memory,” adds Sonefeld. “Not like we were sour over it, but it really makes you appreciate your career when you’re selling 22,000 seats in Wisconsin. Like, what the fuck is that?”
The band had discussed a reunion for years. The members considered doing something for the 20th anniversary of their debut, but the timing with their families and Rucker’s solo career just wasn’t quite right. But Rucker would almost always play the Hootie hits in his sets, even as he cultivated an increasingly separate audience in country music. He recalls “one of the greatest things that’s ever happened” to him: a seemingly clueless fan tweeting, bewildered, “I just went to the Darius Rucker show, and all he did was play Hootie covers.”
Most often, though, his fans’ response to the music that first made him famous was encouraging. “I’d be playing my songs, and then I’d go into ‘Time’ and watch people just freak out,” he says. “It always made me think, ‘Yeah, we can do this again.’ ”
Once the band decided to launch a tour in 2018, recording a new album -- its first in 14 years -- seemed like a natural complement. Imperfect Circle was mostly recorded before the tour began, and it features songs co-written by new-school singer-songwriters like Chris Stapleton and Ed Sheeran -- artists who have, in different ways, tapped into Hootie’s legacy with earnest, guitar-driven (and massively successful) songs of their own. Sheryl Crow, whose career has in many ways paralleled that of Hootie, sings backup. The band’s style appears unchanged: bright, feel-good roots-rock.
“Most bands would put the record out, then go on tour,” says Rucker. “But if we had put a record out after not playing for so many years --”
“It would have been weird,” interjects Bryan.
“People would be like, ‘Why is there a new Hootie record?’ ” concludes Rucker. “Now the consciousness of Hootie is out there.”
But even getting back on the road didn’t always seem like a slam-dunk. “They were concerned about doing well, as were we,” says Maverick’s Clarence Spalding, who co-manages the band with Chris Parr and had worked with Rucker on his solo career. (Because the members didn’t have a team in place when they decided on the tour, they linked up with Rucker’s.) “We were tentative about where we were going to play. Some conversations were like, ‘We ought to put three [nights] on hold there.’ I’m like, ‘Maybe we ought to just put one on hold and hope we sell that out.’ ”
Spalding and Creative Artists Agency’s Darin Murphy wondered whether Rucker’s success helped or hindered a potential comeback. Did he keep the band relevant by playing its music during his sets, or sate the fans’ desire to hear the hits live, making them less likely to go to a show? At one point Rucker told Spalding, “If it’s not going to be big, I don’t know that we should do it.”
Yet it was clear the summer tour would be massive almost as soon as tickets went on sale -- strategically, right in the middle of the 2018 holiday season, following a reunion announcement in early December on NBC’s Today. Prices were set so that country fans, who are typically accustomed to less expensive concerts, would show up; the fact that Hootie performances had become rare, though, allowed prices to push slightly higher than they might have otherwise, with the highest tier topping out at $129.50.
“The amount of tickets we sold in that first wave of on-sales, in amphitheaters with shows six or seven months away, was just ... whoa,” says Murphy. “You usually expect to sell through the pavilion if it’s a hot show, but to get as far into the lawn as we did on most shows was pretty badass.”
“When the first ticket sales came out, we got a phone call like, ‘Hey, we want you to do another night at the Garden,’ ” says Rucker. “That’s when you’re like, ‘What?! Two freaking nights at fucking Madison Square Garden, the most famous venue in the world?’ That was awesome.”
Still, the result was more like a long overdue victory lap than a money grab; there were plenty of places, says Spalding, where the band could have added more shows but chose not to. “We just wanted them to do really, really well and have fun,” he says.
Now that the tour is over and album promotion is kicking into gear, the band is confronting what it means to still be the same Hootie in an entirely different music industry. The group -- which early on wanted to be just like R.E.M. and initially came on the scene as a down-home, uplifting alternative to grunge -- is signed to Capitol Records Nashville, a country label. CDs -- once the industry’s bread and butter -- are virtually extinct.
“Now you don’t have to be embarrassed going to a record store and picking it up,” jokes Sonefeld. “You just click it and look over your shoulder.”
“Hope Big Brother’s not seeing that,” adds Rucker. “We’re a guilty pleasure band. Less so now, but at one point we were. And that’s cool.”
Hootie now occupies an anomalous cultural space, residing on both Spotify’s Fresh Country and All Out 90s playlists as once-severe critical backlash has receded into general warm nostalgia. The band is seemingly at home in both realms, though the two-pronged approach is still odd for the members themselves. “People love guitars, and country’s the only place you can hear guitar,” says Rucker. “I really never thought rock’n’roll would be where it is right now, to be honest. Hip-hop’s the new rock’n’roll. If you would have told me this in the Cracked Rear View days, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
“It’s like, we’re doing the same thing we always were,” says Bryan. “We’re just songwriters writing our songs and playing them, and then all of a sudden they’re calling it country? That’s fine. It’s just semantics.”
There’s no question that Rucker’s success in country could make that transition easier, given the distinctiveness of his rich baritone. “Right now they could play a new Hootie song on country radio, and if they didn’t say it was a Hootie song, people would probably just think it was a new Darius song,” says Murphy.
But the album is still a bit of a puzzle for those tasked with promotion because it’s so far outside the current modes of pop and rock. “If you took the hits off Cracked Rear View and put them out today, there’s really no place for them,” says Spalding. “I always look at the Eagles. If those albums came out today, where would they go? They would be country.”
Cracked Rear View certainly stands apart from most current pop-country fodder, though, with its frank critiques of racism on songs like “Hold My Hand” and particularly “Drowning,” which explicitly called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the South Carolina statehouse.
“I mean, this is 2019 and [Mississippi] still has it in their flag,” says Rucker. “Those songs seem more relevant right now, and that’s scary and sad.” Later that night, during the band’s show, he tries to get the crowd to chant “fight the power” after rapping the iconic Public Enemy song.
“If you want to write something timeless, write about racism and political strife and cultural divides,” says Sonefeld. “It doesn’t seem like we’ve fixed any of that shit.”
Felber recalls seeing a man driving around in a Jeep with a Confederate flag hanging off it, blasting “Drowning,” and feeling dismayed. He agrees, though, that things have deteriorated: “Back then, the racists wouldn’t come out and say, ‘Hey, here I am.’ Now it’s like they’re loud and proud.”
“From the other side,” Bryan chimes in, “not every Trump supporter is a racist.”
Rucker looks at him, incredulous. “Really?” he asks, laughing. “You’re really giving our friends a lot of credit.”
Since his country crossover, Rucker has become one of what up until recently was a handful of black country artists to achieve mainstream success, turning him -- unfairly -- into a spokesman on the genre’s lack of diversity. “I do feel less alone now,” he says, pointing to the burgeoning country careers of Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen. “I didn’t think I was going to change the culture, but if one person didn’t get their CD thrown away -- actually got listened to -- because I had some success, then I did something.”
There’s certainly a bigger chance that people, including many of the critics who so relentlessly derided the band when it first rose to fame, can see just what it was that Hootie was pushing for with the benefit of 25 years of hindsight. Good times and easy-to-love music, sure, but also an incrementally more just and inclusive world for everyone -- black, white and otherwise. Though audiences probably flocked to Hootie concerts in droves to relive their youth, or to check out the band they first heard on an episode of This Is Us or an I Heart the ’90s playlist, maybe there’s a chance they’re hearing some of the songs with fresh ears.
In any event, Rucker, Bryan, Felber and Sonefeld say they’re only doing it for the fans -- like the ones who packed the sold-out Apollo in London and stayed on their feet the whole time. The ones who insisted on a several-minute-long standing ovation after the band merged “Only Wanna Be With You” and Kool & The Gang’s “Get Down On It” for a high-spirited encore. The ones who finally get to shed the band’s “guilty pleasure” status.
“There’s nothing like hitting that opening chord to ‘Hold My Hand’ and listening to the crowd,” says Rucker. “You can’t get that from any album track. You get that from a song that’s changed somebody’s life, changed the culture. I, for the life of me, don’t understand people who don’t want to play their hits. All the other stuff is fun for me, but I’m there to play ‘Let Her Cry’ and watch that person with their boyfriend or girlfriend almost in tears because they’re so happy you’re playing that fucking song.”