Blowed Up Real Good

Hootie gets big while keeping its eyes on the small stuff

Over the past several months, few bands in America have enjoyed the momentum of Hootie and the Blowfish, whose "Hold My Hand" and "Let Her Cry" have spent weeks at a time in the top five on the singles chart, as their major label debut, Cracked Rear View, steamed its way to sales of more than five million.

But talking to Hootie guitarist Mark Bryan, one would be hard-pressed to know he's in a band that's been leading a revival in rootsy country-tinged rock on today's radio play lists.

"Well I guess we've been so busy that we haven't changed our lifestyle at all really, because on the way to get to this level we stayed busy," Bryan says. "And now we're still busy, doing pretty much a lot of the same stuff. Of course, there's more people involved in the shows now. But you know, because of that we haven't had to change or anything. It's just still been a lot of hard work, and so it hasn't been too much of an adjustment."

To Bryan and his bandmates -- singer Darius Rucker, bassist Dean Felber and drummer Jim "Soni" Sonefeld -- it's all part of a process that began with their first gigs nearly five years ago.

With three self-released records and a steady diet of tours booked by their own management company, the quartet slowly but steadily built a strong word-of-mouth following from Georgia and the Carolinas up the East Coast to Maryland. By the time they landed a deal with Atlantic Records about a year ago, the band had a fully self-sufficient, profitable operation.

Until recently, the Atlantic deal was only paying slow but steady dividends, as sales of Cracked Rear View inched upward. But once the band crossed over to Top 40 with "Hold My Hand" and "Let Her Cry," the major jump in popularity became inevitable.

"I didn't want it [success] to happen too quick where it was like an overnight thing, just because I didn't think we would feel ready for it or whatever," Bryan says of the initial steady build behind Cracked Rear View. "It's just happened at a perfect speed, too, where each week we'd sell a few more copies than the week before, so it was kind of just building, and I think that's so perfect."

The song that triggered the band's rise to prominence, "Hold My Hand," is a representative sample of the kind of heartfelt, meat-and-potatoes rock and roll found throughout Cracked Rear View. Rucker's gritty, soul-influenced vocal is nicely supported by a deceptively simple, highly appealing rhythm guitar line and some fine vocal harmonies. Other songs are equally successful in blending memorable melodies and touching lyrics -- most notably "I'm Going Home," a song Rucker wrote in the wake of his mother's death, and "Let Her Cry," an unvarnished self-examination of one's role in a romantic meltdown.

The Hootie sound at times evokes the sturdy, timeless quality of artists such as Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, R.E.M. and Tom Petty, although the songs on Cracked Rear View have a markedly different tone that betrays the South Carolina-based band's Southern roots and classic rock and '60s soul influences.

"We really do listen to everything, and we have for a long time," Bryan says. "Growing up, Dean and I, we all did, we all listened to a lot of classic rock. But I got really heavy into like the Who and the Police and Zeppelin and those bands, whereas Darius, after his Kiss phase, he was living in the South, a black family, and he was listening to a lot of like Otis Redding and Al Green, that sort of stuff. So each of our focuses, they're all different. Soni listens to a lot of country. And you can't get Miles Davis away from Dean. So it just depends on the individual. We're all listening to a lot of stuff all the time."

"But I think that our sound is unique because one person will bring in a part to a song and we won't tell the other three what to play," Bryan elaborates. "So we just each put our little signature on each song, and I think that is what has kept our sound very unique. You can't really tell who's the songwriter on any particular song, like you can with a lot of bands. I've always felt that was a pretty cool thing about our band."

Hootie and the Blowfish began to settle into this sound about four years ago when the current band members finished school at the University of South Carolina and began to concentrate on writing and playing original music. Soon afterward, the band hired Rusty Harmon to head up Fishco, a management company the band members themselves had formed. It was a move that showed a business acumen rare for a young band. The structure of the company and its success in arranging bookings enabled Hootie to build a reliable network of clubs in which to play, and provide financial perks such as regular paychecks and health insurance benefits.

At the same time Hootie and the Blowfish concentrated on recording its growing catalog of original tunes, releasing a self-titled debut in 1990, followed by Time in 1992 and Kootchypop a year later.

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