“After setting a Columbia Metropolitan Airport record of 28 checked items and 14 carry on bags, we had a smooth departure to the west.”
And thus, according to a journal kept by Jim Sonefeld, began the 1994 trip that transformed four fun-loving and hardworking kids from Columbia into one of the best-selling musical groups of all time.
July 5 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Hootie & The Blowfish’s “Cracked Rear View,” an upbeat major-label debut by drummer Sonefeld, lead singer Darius Rucker, guitarist Mark Bryan and bassist Dean Felber that remarkably still ranks among the top 20 all time in album sales. With more than 16 million in sales, “Cracked Rear View” has sold more than any single album by The Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen. Its success boggles minds, even of those who made it.
“In my head, I’ll never understand what made that happen,” Sonefeld said in a recent talk at Richland Library to mark the anniversary. “I can’t even contemplate, whether it’s 1994, 1998, or 2014. It doesn’t make sense to me; it never will.
“We were writing songs and working hard, but we saw tons of bands writing songs and working hard, and they were good songs and they were good bands. Why did that one rise the way it did? … We just wrote what we felt, and it was the combination of the four of our musical tastes.”
Rucker, in a phone interview during a break from the summer tour behind his most recent smash country album, “True Believers,” agreed that while the band felt it had strong material, it never expected what was to come.
“I thought we had a shot to do something special,” Rucker said, “but not as big as it was. Grunge was dominating the radio, and here we come along. I like to think it was the songs that made it work, the simplicity and the happiness of the songs. Like ‘Hold My Hand,’ people just felt that song.”
Rucker remembers the eight-week recording session for the long, fun days working with Atlantic Records producer Don Gehman, who had helmed albums by John Mellencamp and R.E.M.
“We were this little band from South Carolina, and we were working with the great Don Gehman,” Rucker said. “We had been playing those songs for a long time, and it was a labor of love thing to get them recorded.”
Sonefeld, who still lives in Columbia where he is raising a family and recording Christian contemporary music, can go into more details on the sessions because he recently rediscovered the makeshift journal he kept during Hootie’s trip to California. The oversized red sketchbook was just packed away as Sonefeld went on with life. It began its life as a sketchbook for a friend of the band whose designs were used on early Hootie T-shirts. Those drawings cover the first few pages before Sonefeld’s handwritten thoughts take over.
Sonefeld recognized the importance of the Atlantic Records sessions, which marked the culmination of a four-year effort that included several deals that fell through and a couple of less polished recordings. A five-song tape put together in Raleigh had bounced around the Carolinas since 1990, and the six-song album, “Kootchypop,” recorded at Reflections Studio in Charlotte in 1992, sold about 12,000 copies, an impressive number for a bar band with a strong local following.
After signing with Atlantic, Hootie’s first planned trip to the studio in January was delayed by the massive Northridge earthquake. Finally, in early March the session was re-scheduled, and Sonefeld recalled the band members being nervous and excited as they finally checked their guitars and other equipment at Columbia Metropolitan Airport.
Atlantic set up the band in a condo in the San Fernando Valley, but it wasn’t exactly luxurious. Rucker and Felber shared one bedroom, Sonefeld and Bryan another. They drove each day to the studio in North Hollywood. The early days were spent whittling down.
“We had 35 songs that had been road-tested for anywhere from six months to four years,” Sonefeld said. “In other words, we got to play these songs, interpret audience reaction and see if these were good songs, and the cream rose to the top.”
But 35 was too many, and Gehman thought almost all of the songs were too long.
“Don Gehman taught us how to make a pop song,” Sonefeld said. “We had to squeeze songs down to three minutes. We had to arrange songs for the first time.
“(Gehman told them) a pop song, and one that’s catchy, has to have these moments, and they need to happen over and over again for about three or four minutes. That got us to thinking about our songs. We held them tight. We had been playing them a long time. We loved them. But rather than falling in love with them and thinking they were perfect as they were, we allowed Don to tinker with them.”
Gehman helped them cut 35 songs to the 16 that were recorded and then the 11 that made the album. Sonefeld called the process “pickin’ and ditchin’.”
Though each band member contributed to the song-writing process, most of the songs had an originating writer. The cuts hurt. “There were some crushing blows as a songwriter,” Sonefeld said. “I had some favorites that didn’t make the album, as did some other band members.”
Once the cut was made, then came the real work, playing a song time after time in the recording process. They played each take live, and Gehman would use the first few to set down the bass and drum lines. Guitar and vocal parts came later. It wasn’t as much fun as honing songs in a bar full of happy fans, but it still didn’t feel like work, as Sonefeld’s journal makes clear.
“Day 13: Even with the monotony of recording and television and playing pool, it’s still fresh just being here. After waiting four more years to get to this position, it would be hard to erase the smiles from our faces. Even spending all day and all night together hasn’t dampened our spirits at all. … It helps that we’re all very good friends.”
Some days were easier than others. “Let Her Cry” long had been a crowd favorite at their shows, and they had it locked in.
“Tracking continues today on Day 12, and we worked on ‘Let Her Cry’ mostly, and we finished it. It wasn’t the most thrilling of days, but we got some good work done. Wow!”
At times, the recording sessions rose to a different plane.
“Day 14. Productive and spiritual. Our musical greenskeeper and spiritual leader Don Gehman has created an atmosphere that is loose yet controlled, mystical yet defined. It’s a setting that somehow lifts the pressure and nervousness of recording without blurring the focus or motivation.”
Nine of the 11 songs on the album were road-tested. Two weren’t.
One day, Gehman heard Felber playing a catchy hook and some chords he had been fiddling with but had never put through the full songwriting process. “That’s amazing!” Gehman said.
“We went, ‘What’s amazing? It’s only half done,’” Sonefeld recalled.
“No, that’s got a hook,” Gehman said. “We’ve got to work on that one.”
In his journal, Sonefeld chronicled the birth of “Not Even the Trees.”
“Day 6: We played, arranged, replayed, rearranged and over-arranged, Dean’s new song for about five hours until we got it where we all hated it. Our new interesting, yet effective way of writing songs. At the end, everyone seemed to be happy enough.”
The other song that wasn’t part of their frat party repertoire was “Goodbye,” which Sonefeld refers to as his piano ballad. When he first began writing songs, he would slip away from an internship in the USC Law School building to plunk chords on a piano. “Goodbye” was one of those songs, but “we had never played it live because it was a piano song,” Sonefeld said, “and there was really no room for a piano ballad in a bar setting.”
Amazingly, it made the cut.
“Day 19: I might make my piano debut on the album - cross my clumsy fingers. It’s a song I wrote more than two years ago but had never made it to the Hootie stage. Darius finally has found an inspiration in the song that I wrote about an ex-girlfriend. I think he contributed some of his own personal pain and thoughts to make it special for him. We took it on take No. 2… And then we went to In-and-Out for some burgers.”
The highlight of the entire recording process was the day a walrus-like muse sauntered into the studio to lay down backing vocals on “Hold My Hand.”
“Day 28: If you would have told me that some day David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young would sing on one of our songs, of course we would have doubted it, but today it happened! We were nervous because we didn’t know what to expect from this rock icon – an attitude, almighty wisdom, professional approval, or nothing at all. What we got was a great vocal track and constant laughter at his humorous impersonations.”
At the end of the session, Crosby sat around and imparted wisdom on the boys. His message: The most important thing is to separate the music from the music business. Little did they know how soon they’d have to do that.
Naming their baby was among the most difficult chores of the trip. Atlantic executives had been after them for a name for a while so they could start the publicity effort. Sonefeld wrote down a few of the choices that didn’t make the cut: Involuntary Abstinence, Memoirs From a Disfunctional Life, Digging for Trombone, Monica’s Reluctance. None worked.
They decided to come home each night and listen to the messages on their condo’s answering machine, expecting an odd phrase to jump out as the perfect album title. It never happened, then …
“Day 19: We decided we needed to name the album before going to bed. In the past, we’ve used excerpts from a song or a sentence to put on T-shirts. So we decided we’d try the same for an album title. John Hiatt was in the disc player, and every sentence that he’d say, somebody would shout out, ‘Yeah! That’s it!”
Then the song “Learning How to Love You” came on, and when they heard the line, “There was a life I was living, In some cracked rear view,” they all looked at each other with knowing smiles.
The rest is history. The album came out on July 5, and hundreds of people showed up at release parties at the record stores in Columbia and a midnight show at the Five Points bar Rockafellas’. “Cracked Rear View” zoomed to No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, which ranks sales only of new artists.
Sales on the broader chart slowly built as Hootie toured small venues. Then David Letterman heard “Hold My Hand” on the radio and booked the band for his show on Sept. 2, by chance the same day Hootie was supposed to play a celebratory show for their hometown fans at The Township.
The band drove hard from a New Orleans gig to Columbia to catch a jet to New York for the 4 p.m. Letterman taping, jetted back to Columbia, got a police escort from the airport to The Township, hit the stage by 10 p.m. and played joyfully past midnight.
Album sales kept rising steadily as first VH1, and later MTV, picked up on the band’s videos for each single. The album hit 500,000 in sales in November, topped 1 million in January and soared above 10 million by the end of 1995. It finally made it to No. 1 on the full Billboard chart in May and went back and forth to No. 1 five times over the next four months. It ended up the No. 1 album of 1995.
In early 1996, the band earned Grammys for Best New Artist and Best Pop Vocal by a Group. By that time, they were playing amphitheaters and bringing along their old South Carolina band friends to play as opening acts.
The follow-up albums never reached the stratosphere of “Cracked Rear View,” but then only about a dozen albums ever have. In fact, most bands would be satisfied with Hootie’s post-”Cracked Rear View” career of several million album sales and consistently strong concert attendance. While they stopped touring as Hootie in 2008, they still get together for shows to benefit charities, including their annual “Homegrown Concert” at Daniel Island in Charleston on Aug. 8-9.
The guys in the band still remain humbled, and surprised, by the incredible success of that debut big-studio album.
“I tend to think that one of the things that worked (is) we were in the youth of our songwriting,” Sonefeld said. “And there’s a moment there when someone is new to writing songs … there’s a keen naiveite that works for you.
“It’s called being simple. ‘Hold My Hand’ had three chords. I knew maybe six chords at that time. It was the simplicity that I had, that was in my heart, that allowed me to get those lyrics out. It was Darius’ ability at that point to sing a song simply instead of making it more complex. Complex songs don’t make hit singles. Simple songs do.”