Everyone remembers Hootie & the Blowfish as a good-time, crack-a-brew, “Dude, where’s my hacky sack?” sort of band, and that’s a testament to the undeniable charm of two songs: “Hold My Hand” and “Only Wanna Be With You.” Both helped the South Carolina foursome move millions of copies of their major-label debut, “Cracked Rear View,” a chart-topping album released 20 years ago on July 5, 1994. What people forget is that the disc’s other three singles — “Let Her Cry,” “Time” and “Drowning” — are fairly dark, and that the album on the whole is way closer to, say, Counting Crows’ “August and Everything After” than it is to Dave Matthews Band’s “Under the Table and Dreaming,” 1994’s other big-league debut by a jammy Southern rock group.
“Cracked Rear View” deals with death, racism, drug abuse, heartbreak, and the Miami Dolphins’ inability to get ‘er done in the playoffs. Luckily, frontman Darius “Don’t Call Me Hootie” Rucker sang about these and other unhappy topics with a big, meaty drawl, copping a kind of Southern gospel Eddie Vedder tone well before Scott Stapp and Rob Thomas arrived on the scene.
While Creed and Matchbox 20 were groups people actively disliked, it was hard to hate on Hootie. Formed at the University of South Carolina and named for a couple of the band’s buddies — one with owl-like specs, the other big puffy cheeks — H&B used country and gospel to smooth out the angst in their music, and for more than a year, “Cracked Rear View” was everywhere. The discs were even more ubiquitous than those AOL installers that used to come in the mail.
Say what you will about the group: Hootie put millions of people’s minds at ease, and Darius and the fellows likely own yachts because of it. Read on to get our track-by-track take on one of the most secretly depressing yet ultimately uplifting albums of the ’90s.
1. “Hannah Jane”: Whether he’s singing to a jilted buddy or steeling himself after a breakup, Rucker is ever-reassuring on this brawny heartland rocker. It’s a Southern college dude’s version of every great Gin Blossoms tune, and it starts “Cracked” on a crackling high note.
2. “Hold My Hand”
Rucker takes us to church on Hootie’s breakout single, a light and fluffy gospel-pop number that makes Billy Joel’s “River of Dreams” sound like Jonathan Edwards’ 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It begins, “With a little love, and some tenderness” — a perfect way for the Blowfish to swim into the mainstream.
3. “Let Her Cry”
Whereas “Hold My Hand” was the perfect summer single, this follow-up was just right for December, when it hit the radio. A year later, Counting Crows dropped “Long December,” and of the two similar-sounding maudlin Americana ballads, Hootie’s might actually be more depressing. How does Rucker out-mope Adam Duritz? By professing his love for a self-destructive alcoholic who might not live through the night.
4. “Only Wanna Be With You”
Hootie’s highest-charting single did for the summer of ’95 what “Hold My Hand” did a year earlier. It’s an everybro’s anthem about digging on Dylan records, being a frustrated Dolphins fan, and loving a girl who’ll tolerate your doofishness. The only person in the world who didn’t at least secretly like this song was Dylan, who reportedly sued the band for swiping some of his lyrics.
5. “Running From an Angel”: Over fiddles and bongos, Rucker begs his wayward brother to stop breaking their mother’s heart. Like “Let Her Cry,” it’s about stepping aside and wringing your hands while someone you love makes terrible life decisions. In true Hootie fashion, though, it has the warm feel of a backyard BBQ.
6. “I’m Goin’ Home”: Rucker once again wrestles hope from the jaws of sadness, this time singing about his mother’s death two years earlier. The band seldom gets worked up, but toward the end, when the organ is whirring and guitarist Mark Bryan is doing some bluesy testifying, Rucker lets loose with some mighty ad-libbing, sharing his catharsis with any and all.
7. “Drowning”: With its Thin Lizzy guitar intro and lyrical reference to Public Enemy, this “can’t we all just get along” jam is the most adventurous song on the album. That’s not saying much, but the public evidently didn’t want to hear Hootie take on social commentary. Of the record’s five singles, this was the only non-starter.
If Top 40 listeners didn’t want to hear H&B take on racism, they were fine with Rucker’s vague struggles to understand the concept of time. There are lines about Bloods fighting Crips and peopled dying in the street, but ultimately, this a tune about one guy feeling alone in the universe. Maybe that’s why “Time” resonated.
9. “Look Away”: As a black man fronting a rock band with a largely, if not predominately, white audience, Rucker undoubtedly got his share of sideways looks and blowback from bigots. This song, all about a girl whose racist father won’t let them be together, is stronger than “Drowning,” and that’s down to the more personal, nuanced lyrics.
10. “Not Even the Trees”: On “I’m Goin’ Home,” Rucker tells himself his mother is joining god in heaven. This one’s about the aftermath here on earth, and despite those church organs, it doesn’t have the redemptive feel of the earlier track. “And my soul begins to bleed,” he sings at the very end. “And no one’s listening to me / not even the trees.”
11. “Goodbye”: Last but not least is the disc’s most straightforward love song. The girl Rucker pines for here is neither dead nor drug-addicted; she’s simply moseying on, holding hands with another dude, and inspiring some power-ballad-worthy piano arpeggios. It’s even sadder than when the Dolphins lost to the Chargers in the ’95 playoffs.