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Hootie & The Blowfish

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The rise of Hootie & The Blowfish is the sort of success story built on the most basic of designs: good songs, well played-nuthin' fancy, as fellow popular southern rock attraction Lynyrd Skynyrd put it once upon a time. Without the benefit of self-destructive behavior or boy band choreography, Hootie & The Blowfish made a huge impact because their direct and heartfelt sound came across like a breath of fresh air amid the heavy postgrungy atmosphere of 1995.

And so it was that smack dab in the middle of the ’90s, Hootie & The Blowfish blew up far bigger than anyone expected—including the band members themselves. The group had formed at the University of South Carolina in the late ’80s, naming themselves after the nicknames of two of their college friends. Lead singer Darius Rucker, guitarist Mark Bryan, bassist Dean Felber,and drummer Jim“Soni”Sonefeld soon began playing an expanding world of frat parties and dive bars, gradually building a significant regional buzz. Signed to Atlantic Records prior to having ever put out an album, Hootie & The Blowfish released their major label debut, Cracked Rear View, in the summer of 1994. By early 1995 its first single, “Hold My Hand” (featuring a vocal assist from no less of a harmony singer than David Crosby), broke into the Top 10. The song stood out as unusual and uplifting—a warmly rousing slab of pop rock powered by a gospeltinged intensity. It was as if a massive chain reaction had been set off. Before long, Cracked Rear View went to #1 as more Hootie singles continued to hit and hit hard: “Let Her Cry,” which was followed by the sweet-natured Bob Dylan-salute, “Only Wanna Be With You,” and “Time.” Also included here is fan favorite “Not Even The Trees,” one of the band’s bleakest and most beautiful songs from their debut. Hootie & The Blowfish’s instantly accessible guitar-based sound—captured with the help of producer Don Gehman, who had earlier been behind the boards for breakthrough works for R.E.M. and John Mellencamp, among others—was an exceptionally pleasing mix of classic rock hooks, acoustic folk-rock grace, and Rucker’s powerfully rich lead vocals. Imagine Bill Withers fronting the Eagles. For all their assorted rock and pop influences, an underlying soulfulness was at the heart of the group’s winning sound. As Jim Sonefeld once told Rolling Stone, “Everyone says we’re one black guy in an all-white band, but that’s not true—we’re actually three white guys in an all black band.”

Cracked Rear View became a full-blown music biz phenomenon—selling 13 million copies just in the time the band got around to following it up. Suddenly Hootie & The Blowfish were fixtures of MTV and VH1, magazine cover boys, and even the subject of some sly fun on Saturday Night Live. In short, the band had arrived in true high style. All this multimedia commotion made Hootie & The Blowfish overnight rock stars. Of course, it also set a ludicrously high standard for subsequent album sales. Predictably, the band’s somewhat harder-edged sophomore effort, Fairweather Johnson, didn’t yield the same results, though it still sold a couple million copies and featured such strong songs as “Be The One,” “Old Man & Me (When I Get To Heaven),” “Tucker’s Town,” and the gorgeous “Sad Caper.” True to form, the band didn’t seem all that fazed by the tidal wave of success that had swept over them. Somehow they simply kept doing what they had always done—entertaining crowds and writing songs together very much as a team. Their next album, 1998’s Musical Chairs, was another confident statement of what the band does best, especially on standout tracks like the feel-good opener “I Will Wait” and the especially lovely “Only Lonely.” From their clubby beginning, Hootie & The Blowfish displayed considerable flair, not only for creating their own material but also for interpreting the music of some of their favorite artists. The band’s choice of covers provided substantial proof that they have great musical taste. So it was only fitting that as a sort of bookmark on the first chapter of their career, the group released Scattered, Smothered & Covered, a collection that brings together in one place many of their best covers from over the years. The band’s version of Led Zeppelin’s rarity “Hey Hey What Can I Do” had already been a highlight of the Zep tribute album Encomium. Their convincing take on Bill Withers’ endlessly funky “Use Me” had first appeared on the Japanese pressing of Cracked Rear View and served as a suitable tribute to a too-often undervalued singer-songwriter. And “I Go Blind”—a cover of a little-known gem by the fine Canadian band 54-40—was originally the flip side of “Hold My Hand” and later featured on the Friends soundtrack album. In 2003 Hootie & The Blowfish released their collaboration with famed producer Don Was, well known for his work with such talents as Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones as well as his own eccentric supergroup Was (Not Was).

The album represents a new beginning of sorts, thus appropriately titled simply Hootie & The Blowfish. It’s a collection that builds on past strengths while adding some new sonic touches. “Innocence” and “Space” are only two of the set’s highpoints. Most recently, the band once again showed their way with a familiar tune, covering “Goodbye Girl,” the theme song to the classic ’70s Neil Simon movie written and originally sung by David Gates, former leader of the band Bread. The group cut the song for a new TNT version of the movie, but in or out of that context, “Goodbye Girl” once again proves that this is a band that’s brought their own brand of soulful pop to the world of rock.

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