Four kids who met at the University of South Carolina and honed their song-writing skills in messy apartments and on cramped bar stages in Columbia created one of the soundtracks of the 1990s and the 13th best-selling studio album in U.S. chart history.
As difficult as it is to explain the success of Hootie & The Blowfish’s “Cracked Rear View,” it’s even harder to believe it’s 20 years old. Those songs created by Darius Rucker, Mark Bryan, Dean Felber and Jim (Soni) Sonefeld have been on a constant loop on the airwaves since July 5, 1994.
Mike Miller, who chronicled Hootie’s rise as a music writer for The State and wrote a book on it, credits the musical mood of the times in the early 1990s, dominated by the angst-ridden, Seattle-based grunge sound. (Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain suicide dominated the music news at about the midpoint of the eight-week recording session for “Cracked Rear View.”)
“Everything was heavier, a little gloomier,” Miller said of that period. “And here this album comes along by these four guys from South Carolina and it actually made you feel good. It made you smile. It made you happy when you were riding down the road. … It cut across genres, it cut across demographics. Young folks liked it, old folks liked it.”
Rolling Stone magazine even liked it.
“Dominating this hugely appealing major-label debut, Darius Rucker’s voice is a thrilling discovery: Big and bluesy, it’s a force of nature,” said the magazine’s album review. “The South Carolina band, together since 1989, lends an unapologetically love and peace worldview (their hit ‘Hold My Hand’ updates the sentiments of the Youngbloods’ ‘Get Together’) to fat, folk-derived, group-written guitar rock; their absolute lack of irony is as refreshing as their sing-along hooks. But it’s from the darker, more introspective numbers (‘Goodbye,’ ‘Not Even the Trees’) that real inspiration shouts out. Rucker comes across as the archetypal soulman, his exuberance completely convincing.”
But as the band’s star ascended, it became cool to knock Hootie and “Cracked Rear View.” Rolling Stone left the band out of its 1995 awards while the album was zipping to sales of 10 million that year. And 20 years later, anybody can go online to rateyourmusic.com and read public vitriol aimed at the album. Miller summed it up recently: “Those guys are just writing pop songs that you can sing along to, and that’s not cool rock and roll.”
Josh Love, writing for Stylus Magazine, recently commented on the “Cracked Rear View” phenomenon. “Scanning the upper echelons of the all-time best-selling albums list, you won’t find a more unassuming, improbable name than Hootie’s, and chances are rather excellent that you never will.”
Times were good. Clinton was in the White House. The economy was purring. People tuned their televisions to “Friends” every week for a self-absorbed laugh. And along came this slightly different group of musical friends.
“Hootie’s stratospheric success,” Love wrote, “stands as perhaps the most extraordinary instance of an artist perfectly stumbling onto its cultural Zeitgeist in all of rock history.”
But the four former University of South Carolina students had no such illusions of grandeur in early 1994. They just hoped to make a living playing music to put off getting real jobs.
“A lot of those songs that ended up on ‘Cracked Rear View’ were written on the front porch of our apartment on Greene Street,” Sonefeld said, “or up on Gregg Street or in any of the various dumpy places we lived at the time.”
And therein lies the real appeal of this monster album to Columbians and South Carolinians.
“The thing that makes this record most special for me,” Miller said, “is that the four guys who wrote it, and recorded it and made it, they came together in my hometown. They went around the world for three or four years in the 1990s playing before huge crowds … and every night they would say, ‘We’re Hootie & The Blowfish, and we’re from Columbia, S.C.’”