Hootie & The Blowfish on ‘Cracked Rear View’ at 30: ‘I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It Since’

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By the time Hootie & The Blowfish released their Atlantic Records debut, Cracked Rear View, on July 5, 1994, the band had already been together for more than eight years. Singer Darius Rucker and guitarist Mark Bryan met while attending the University of South Carolina and began gigging as a cover band called The Wolf Brothers. They were joined by bassist Dean Felber and drummer Brantley Smith, who was eventually replaced by Jim “Soni” Sonefeld. And Hootie & The Blowfish was born.

During the height of the grunge movement, Atlantic Records A&R executive Tim Sommer signed the quartet, which had already built a strong regional following for its jangly, harmony-filled pop rock songs and Rucker’s rich baritone. But the label’s expectations for the album were low.

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“The only people [at Atlantic] championing us at the time were Tim and [Atlantic’s then-president] Danny Goldberg,” Rucker recalls. “One guy actually said that if they put Cracked Rear View out, they’d be the laughingstocks of the music business. Grunge was king, and nobody was looking for this pop/rock band out of South Carolina.”

But Cracked Rear View surpassed all expectations — and then some, to put it mildly. Bolstered by the singalong, uplifting first single, “Hold My Hand,” the album bounced into the top spot on the Billboard 200 five times and has been certified 21 times platinum by the RIAA, signifying sales of more than 21 million units in the United States. The album, which took its name from a lyric in a John Hiatt song, is the highest-certified debut album of all time, according to RIAA data.

Thirty years later, to mark the anniversary of Cracked Rear View, Hootie & The Blowfish are staging the Summer Camp With Trucks Tour on a bill with Collective Soul and Edwin McCain.

Today, Bryan and Rucker fondly remember making the album with producer Don Gehman (R.E.M., John Mellencamp), whom they still work with; their favorite moment at the 1996 Grammy Awards; and where they were when the album first went to No. 1.

Players, Hootie & The Blowfish
A promotional photo used on the band’s flyers in the early ’90s.

You started as a cover band, The Wolf Brothers. When did you start writing your own songs?

Mark Bryan: We were having fun doing the acoustic covers in the meantime, just the two of us. But I think we were always dreaming a little bigger, for sure. Then as Hootie, when we were in school, we started writing, but it was nothing we would want to share with you. (Laughs.)

Darius Rucker: We had decided that we wanted to make a change and [do] mostly originals. So when Brantley [Smith] left and with [Jim “Soni” Sonefeld] coming in, he made it an easy transition. We had written a couple of songs, but when Soni came in, we really started writing.

Soni came in with “Hold My Hand,” right?

Rucker: He played that the day he auditioned for us. He walked out of the room and I told the other guys, “He’s in the band!”

There were certain songwriters and acts you adored, like Radney Foster and R.E.M. How did they influence your sound?

Rucker: There’s always such a country element, and all of that comes from Radney Foster and [Bill] Lloyd. That jangly guitar we use definitely comes from R.E.M. [member] Peter Buck’s guitar with the jingle. It was rock’n’roll but it wasn’t metal. It was something we could do.

Who is an act people would be surprised to know influenced the band?

Rucker: We listened to a lot of rap along with those country songs. Digital Underground and De La Soul and those bands. They influenced us in a big way. We still do [Digital Underground’s] “Freaks of the Industry.”

Why are the songs on the album credited to all four band members?

Bryan: We’ve split our publishing right down the middle from the very beginning. Nobody knew whose songs were going to be the hits. Our attorney was smart, and he was inspired by R.E.M. Not only did they inspire us musically, but they inspired us on the business side as well because they did the same thing. That fit with the way we were writing together anyway because everybody was bringing stuff in.

Despite the low expectations, the album took off. When did you realize you had a hit?

Bryan: Right when “Hold My Hand” hit, we realized our sound was connecting. Then it was “Let Her Cry,” “I Only Want To Be With You” and “Time.” A lot of times, it’s really hard for the artist, manager and label to decide what’s the right song for the [next] single. The funny thing about Cracked Rear View is there was never any question. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

Where were you when the album went to No. 1 for the first of its five times?

Rucker: We were on the road, and it had been moving [up the charts] so much, we were waiting for it to go to No. 1. Then you get that phone call that you’re finally the No. 1 record in the country. It was like, “Great. Let’s go play a show!” When you have so many naysayers and then you have the No. 1 record, it’s a pretty great feeling. You’re not [considered] cool, but you’re selling half a million albums a week.

The melodies are so upbeat and jangly that it was easy to overlook a lot of the darkness or messages in the lyrics. For example, “Drowning” is about racism. Did you feel some people didn’t understand what you were saying?

Rucker: One hundred percent. I still don’t. “Hold My Hand” was a protest song. That’s a song about “Why are we hating each other?” You’ve got “Drowning,” and “Not Even the Trees” is such a dark song. “Let Her Cry” is a dark song. I think some people were caught up in “Hold My Hand” and “I Only Want To Be With You” and they didn’t look any deeper than that.

Bryan: I think Darius was very overt with “Drowning,” but that wasn’t our intention on a lot of our songs. It was more of that subtle approach to that, which is just treating each other right. I think there were other lyrics, here and there, where he was telling you about how he was feeling as a Black man in America at the time. It would have been nice if people caught up more on that. And I think from our end, too, with the fame that we got, we maybe had a responsibility to write into that a little more, and I don’t know if we ever resolved that.

For the 30th anniversary, do you wish people would give it a deeper listen?

Rucker: We wish they would but they won’t, and the thing that really matters to us is 23 million records sold [worldwide]. Success is the best revenge. Say what you want. Don’t put us on the ballot for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We still have one of the top 10-selling records of all time.

Does the lack of recognition from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame bother you?

Rucker: If we didn’t get in, that’s fine. But you really mean to tell us that we don’t even deserve to be on the ballot?

When was the last time you listened to Cracked Rear View from start to finish?

Rucker: 1994. I’m not one to listen to records after I put them out. Ever. I don’t really love to hear me sing, to be honest with you.

Bryan: When we played it in Mexico last April. We played it from start to finish.

Players, Hootie & The Blowfish
A performance in Raleigh, N.C., during the 2019 Group Therapy Tour.

In a shocking twist at the 1996 American Music Awards, Garth Brooks won favorite artist. He left the award on the podium, saying he didn’t deserve it and said backstage that you did.

Rucker: That’s one of the greatest, classiest things I’ve ever seen. When Garth did that, it just said so much to us about what we were doing for music. Every time I tell that story and he’s around, he says, “You know where our award is, Darius? On the mantel!” (Laughs.)

The next month, you won Grammys for best new artist and best pop performance by a duo or group with vocals. What do you remember from that night?

Rucker: We figured they had to give us best new artist because we sold so many records. But the second one, we thought [TLC’s] “Waterfalls” was going to win everything. KISS, in makeup for the first time since 1979, and Tupac [Shakur] walk out to present this category. We had just won best new artist and they rush us back to our seats. We’re drunk. We sit down and then Tupac says, “My boys, Hootie & The Blowfish.” That was unbelievable.

So “my boys” meant as much as the Grammy?

Rucker: Exactly! And KISS meant so much to all of us.

Bryan: I can’t physically remember being on the stage with KISS and Tupac. It was so much bigger than me that I almost blocked it out. Isn’t that crazy? It was so overwhelming that I didn’t embrace the moment maybe the way I would have now.

Thirty years later, what do you think is the album’s legacy?

Bryan: It seems to resonate in people’s lives in a very big way. Those stories like [it’s] their wedding song or they say, “It got me through my father’s death,” always keep coming back up to us, and it never gets old. What a great full-circle way as a songwriter to know that you’ve connected with people. As a songwriter and musician, you can’t ask for more. It’s such a dream come true to have made an album that has connected on such a level with people like that.

This story originally appeared in the June 1, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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