Don’t hate ‘em cuz they’re Hootie

A few calls to Asheville-area music stores revealed something unexpected: No record vendor around here would own up to even knowing a fan of one of the most radio-friendly bands of the last decade.

Instead, Hootie & The Blowfish — former rulers of the pop charts with swollen, feel-good, arena-rock anthems such as “Let Her Cry” and “Hold My Hand” — were the recipient of much active disdain. Something didn’t add up. It seemed impossible that the world was filled only with the group’s detractors — the Hootie-haters.

How does a band go from being media darlings and two-time Grammy-winners (in 1996) to being overwhelmingly dismissed?

Somebody, after all, bought those 16 million copies of Cracked Rear View (Atlantic Records, 1994), the group’s major-label debut.

After a three-year hiatus, Hootie recently released its fifth major-label album, the self-titled follow-up to their covers-and-B-sides collection Scattered, Smothered, and Covered (Atlantic, 2000). And many of the group’s seemingly invisible — or perhaps merely closeted — fans have raved in Web postings about the new CD, hailing it as a return to the band’s musical roots.

But finding a diehard Hootie-head to go on record about it — or finding any local fan at all — proved nearly impossible.

Then, in the midst of the Hootie hunt, one local-music-store employee logically suggested searching for a fan down in the Hootie home base: Columbia, S.C.

The hunt pays off

A few phone calls to music stores in Columbia turned up one diehard Hootie & The Blowfish supporter, a staffer at the local Sounds Familiar store who goes by the dodgy name of David Johnson.

To his credit, Johnson’s been a fan of the group for 10 years — before they were signed to Atlantic, in other words — and he’s well aware of the group’s current lack of rock ‘n’ roll credibility.

In fact, it’s one of the reasons he continues to like Hootie’s music.

“It’s simple barroom rock, and because they’re from around here, I can relate to a lot of their songs,” Johnson says. “They’re a frat-rock band, but their sound is not overproduced. And it’s [lead singer] Darius [Rucker’s] voice that keeps me coming back. I liked Cracked Rear View, and so many of their other recordings have that same kind of feel.

“I’ve always enjoyed it,” he adds.

Johnson finds burnout, not bad songs, at the root of the Hootie-hating movement.

“I think the downfall came because they got so popular so fast,” he speculates. “Almost everyone in America either owned — or at least had heard — songs from Cracked Rear View. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing one of their songs. … They got overplayed. That led to a huge backlash. After that, it wasn’t cool to be a Hootie fan.”

As much as Johnson likes Hootie & The Blowfish — and he really likes them — even he is a bit reluctant to predict a major comeback.

“Can they have another 16 million copies sold [as they did with] Cracked Rear View?” he asks rhetorically. “As much as I wish they would, I don’t think they can. Can they make it back into the mainstream? I think they can, but I don’t think that their sound will ever be as popular as it was back in the mid-’90s.

“You [had] people getting tired of grunge in the mid-’90s,” he explains. “Then Hootie’s barroom rock came along with the right kind of music at the right time. I don’t think they’ll ever be like they were, but they could probably be like Matchbox 20 is right now. Not huge — but big enough to play some big shows.”

Even their fans call them frat-rock

So what it’s like to be on the other side of all this Hootie-hating?

After all, being part of a band whose music once blasted out of seemingly every car stereo in the nation and then finding yourself actively unpopular less than a decade later must be at least a little weird. Xpress ventured into this arena, so to speak, contacting Hootie & The Blowfish guitarist Mark Bryan recently by phone.

“You become overexposed, and thus not cool anymore,” was Bryan’s take. “If we’d sold 400,000 copies of Cracked Rear View, we’d be the Jayhawks. We didn’t. We sold 16 million copies, and we’re Hootie & The Blowfish. I’m not unhappy with the way things have transpired, but this is the backlash of that success. In the fad column, we’re on the ‘out’ side.”

All told, Hootie has been playing together for 18 years. In light of their longevity, Bryan admits that the band’s current lack of mainstream approval bothers him.

“At the same time,” he counters, “we traded that for the amount of success we had. That’s the only way I can look at it. If we hadn’t sold so many records, we’d probably be looked at as a more credible band. But negativity comes with success. The bigger you get, the more detractors you’ll have.”

Consistency should count for something. But in Hootie’s case, staying true to their glossy, pop-anthem formula has meant sounding outdated as rock trends have continued evolving. Many detractors — as well as many of the band’s own fans — continue to tag their sound “frat-rock.”

But is that fair?

“I think that frat-rock is stuff that appeals on a general, middle-American level,” offers Bryan. “I’d say that some of the songs I’ve aspired to write are on a different level than frat-rock, but as a band we do have a more general sound. That probably homogenizes the songs a little bit, enough to make them sound more generic or frat-rock-y, but that’s opposed to our more personal songs that don’t sell a lot of records.

“If you listened to the history of hits by Hootie & The Blowfish, I could see how it’d be called frat-rock. It’s got an energy to it that appeals on a broad basis to middle America.

“But if you listen to each of our albums, you’ll see that there are more sides to the band,” he concludes.


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