Hootie and the Blowfish: Southern Comfort

The band takes its deep-fried jams and sweet love songs to the top of the charts

Portrait of American band Hootie and the Blowfish (clockwise from left, Peter Holsapple, Jim Sonefeld, Dean Felber, Mark Bryan, and Darius Rucker), as they pose at Farm Aid, Louisville, Kentucky, October 1st, 1995. Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty

WHERE THE HELL is Moshiach?" asks Darius Rucker. Along with the other three members of Hootie and the Blowfish, the 29-year-old singer is traveling to a gig on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. As the highway winds through the Allegheny Mountains, the road narrows and traffic backs up, giving Rucker a chance to examine the bumper sticker on the car ahead. He reads: MOSHIACH IS COMING! BE READY FOR MOSHIACH! Then: WELCOME MOSHIACH! "

"MOSIACH IS COMING ," Rucker tells guitarist Mark Bryan, who sits beside the singer in the front of a rented Buick. "Call ahead and put the man on the list. Moshiach and guest."

NO ONE IN HOOTIE AND THE BLOWFISH is sure just who Moshiach is, but they're certain he's important maybe very important. Maybe even God. To them it figures that God would show up at a Hootie concert in the middle of the week in the middle of America. That's just like God. After all, Hootie have sold 5 million copies of Cracked Rear View, their major-label debut. They have a stranglehold on the charts, they pick up followers without half trying, and they are often scorned by the critics, which is something like what happened to God, no matter which one you're talking about. "Tonight's our night," says Rucker as traffic picks up. "Tonight we put on the best damn show Moshiach ever saw."

FOR HOOTIE, fame came as an odd development in the course of a road trip — like a flat tire or a mysterious hitchhiker. When they set out a year ago to promote their album, they were just four guys, two vans and a goofy name. By the time their two new custom coaches, complete with bunks and Sega video games, rolled into Pittsburgh in late June, they were rock stars. In addition to seeing their CD go multiplatinum, they have scored two hit singles ("Hold My Hand" and "Let Her Cry"), become a thread that runs through VH1, met with President Clinton and been anointed David Letterman's favorite band. They have also made more money than any of them had ever previously seen; the band will probably pay more in taxes this year than it earned the year before. "It's pretty amazing, and in some ways I like, feel guilty about it," says Bryan, 28. "There are so many other bands that I listen to and think, "This band is great, and no one knows who it is. This guy can play better guitar than me, and these people can write better songs than us, so why do we get to sell 5 million records?' "

PERHAPS TROUBLED BY SUCH SELF-DOUBT, Hootie and the Blowfish seem slow to acknowledge their success. Like a frugal man who comes into money late in life, the band members (Rucker, Bryan, bassist Dean Felber, drummer Jim "Soni" Sonefeld) haven't figured out how to part with large sums of cash. Their tour of America has been a tour of roadside motels and fast-food joints — the sort of dives that for most bands signal the beginning of the end. And even as Hootie and the Blowfish appear in USA Today and Time, they're lost in the beer-for-breakfast recklessness of a college band far from home. Late one night, Greg Humphreys, who heads Dillon Fence, Hootie's opening act, stumbled up to the check-in counter and slurred, "I'm with Homey and the Goldfish. Can you let me up?"

"I guess we haven't let fame sink in," says Sonefeld, a 30-year-old with a sharp, angular face. Because the band has been on the road for most of the first year, he says, it has experienced success only secondhand: in the thrill of hearing its songs on the radio; in a sea of faces who know every word to every number; in the random, desperate fan who thinks touching Hootie is the same as disturbing the universe. "It's been this phantom thing that just caught up with us, and we're still trying to figure what it means," says Sonefeld. "More than anything, we're afraid of becoming rock stars."

For years, Hootie and the Blowfish survived anonymity. The question now becomes, Can they survive fame?

YOU KNOW WHO ELSE IS HERE?" RUCKER asks as the car glides through a crowded parking lot and into the Miller Lite Riverplex, an outdoor arena where the band is to play. "Emerson Bigguns."

"What are you talking about?" Sonefeld asks from the back seat. "Emerson who?"

"Emerson Bigguns," says Rucker, pointing out a large-chested woman. "Them are some big ones. Hey, Mark. Call ahead and add him to the list along with Moshiach. Emerson Bigguns and guest."

From the car, the band walks through the crowd toward dressing rooms behind the stage. The arena is set on the Monongahela River, and dark, piney hills rise like stage scenery on the near and far banks. A fan stops Rucker for an autograph. When he rejoins the group waiting down the path, Felber shakes his head and says, "Here comes the rock star." An early downside of fame has been the way Rucker — like all successful lead singers — has been singled out and made to speak for the band. For many fans, Rucker has now become Hootie the band is actually named for two friends whom Rucker long ago nicknamed Hootie and the Blowfish — the dynamic singer who stands before the nondescript backup band. "We tried to not let that happen because it can tear a band apart," says Sonefeld. "You grew up as a team all working together, and all of a sudden one guy is singled out. But it's kind of inevitable."

Rucker's transformation may be slowed by the fact that he looks nothing like a rock star. He is potbellied and wide-eyed, with a round head set on a round body like a snowman. His goatee recalls not some '50s beatnik but escape artist Harry Houdini. His head is shaved. When he sings, his arms hang at his sides; his eyes scan the crowd. Hitting a high note, he shudders and twists as if enduring a shower of blows. Between songs, talking to the crowd, he has the earnest look of a teacher reviewing for an exam.

"Darius and the rest of us are breaking ground by being normal," says Sonefeld. "In rock & roll you've got to do something whacked to be different, and now, being ultranormal is the most whacked thing of all."

Another reason Rucker is bound to be set off from the band is his color he's a black singer in an otherwise white group. Hootie are actually a flip image of some midcentury combos in which a white singer stood before black players — a negative photo of Frank Sinatra performing with Count Basie. "In those bands the black guys played bass and drums, and the white guy stood up front singing," says Rucker. "We've just swapped that formula."

"I never did understand this discussion," adds Sonefeld. "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."

HOOTIE AND THE BLOWFISH ARE YET ANOTHER harebrained idea that has come to us from the puked-on floors of the college dorm. When he was a freshman at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, Mark Bryan was hanging in the hall, playing guitar and reminiscing about high school, where he had led a band called Missing in Action. One day he heard a distant, throaty baritone soaring above his strumming. "What's that?" he asked, looking up.

"Oh, that's Rucker," someone told him. "He's singing to the radio again." And bang! Bryan had a tiny, fleeting vision of what the future might look like: stadiums packed with fans. Within the month, calling themselves the Wolf Brothers, Bryan and Rucker appeared at Pappy's, a nearby chicken-wing joint. They opened with the Eagles' "Take It Easy," which foreshadowed the sort of mellow, soft rock that would later make them stars. A few weeks later, the duo coaxed Dean Felber to join the band. Felber, who is 28, has scraggly blond hair that falls down over his face, and his eyes, sleepy and remote, look out as if from behind a tangle of vines. "I lived in the same dorm, one floor above," he says. "In high school I played with Mark in Missing in Action, so it made sense for me to join this new band." They picked up a drummer and were soon playing covers (R.E.M., the Police, Squeeze) at fraternity parties and mixers.

After graduation, rather than hunt for jobs, Bryan, Rucker and Felber added a new drummer — classmate Sonefeld — and began writing songs. They soon set off on a circuit familiar to bands in the Southeast, a route that carried them to bars up and down the Atlantic seaboard. They traveled in a gutted Econoline van, sleeping in back during the day and pulling up before some new club at night: Rockafella's, in Columbia, S.C.; the Music Farm, in Charleston, S.C.; the Windjammer, in Isle of Palms, S.C.; Kilroy's, in Greensboro, N.C.; the Georgia Theater, in Athens, Ga.; the Purple Gator, in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; the Mad Monk, in Wilmington, N.C.; then up to New York and the Wetlands club. "I loved riding in that van," says Rucker. "We'd lie in back with our equipment behind us. If anybody ever hit the brakes hard, we'd have died under all that stuff. We thought we were the shit when we got that van."

Along the way, Hootie crossed paths with other bands in a similar flight from adulthood, bands like Dash Rip Rock, Cowboy Mouth, Johnny Quest, Dillon Fence. And they came to believe in the legend of the bar performer, the singer or drummer or guitarist who is somehow too raw, too rough, too talented to make it anywhere but in the surreal light of a Southern dive, a performer who fashions a life moving from joint to joint, leaving stories of debauchery all down the line. Late at night, bent over drinks in the darkest corners of the darkest bars, they stood with other bands and promised that the first to break free, to land in arenas and theaters, would send for the others. "That's why we took Dillon Fence on tour with us and why Cowboy Mouth will join us later," says Rucker. "We grew up together in the clubs."

Over time, things came together for Hootie. Early on, Felber, a finance major, formed the band into a partnership, a corporation that withheld taxes and supplied health insurance. "Maybe it wasn't a rock & roll thing to do, but it was smart," says Bryan. "You can be organized and still rock. It's not really a prerequisite in this field to be a heroin addict that's a misconception.

"The critics always like the most tragic stories," Bryan continues. "We're breaking ground by being smart as a band. We're sincere about our music and have it together. I don't think it's a bad thing, but I do think it's why we get some bad reviews. Like this guy in Pittsburgh who said we deliver grunge without the teen angst. That's because we're not a grunge band, and we're not angry."

In 1992, Hootie signed with J.R.S. Records, an independent label in California; the deal eventually fell through. At the time, the members of the band, dismayed by this setback, thought their best shot at success had come and gone. Looking back, they now consider this event the one thing that assured their survival. First of all, it delayed by a few years a success many now feel was inevitable. "If at 23 I had become successful, it would have been trouble," says Rucker. "I think most of us would have been wild men. We'd be sitting here snorting coke. You get thrust into this spotlight, and suddenly you can get anything you want you don't have to find it, it comes looking for you."

The failed deal also toughened Hootie and the Blowfish. "We'd been at it for two years when this deal fell in our lap," says Bryan, who sports a hairstyle popularized by Oklahoma bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh. "We were like 'Oh, shit, this is easy.' And, of course, it didn't work. At that point we realized no one was gonna do this for us; we had to do it ourselves."

So Hootie produced their own EP, Kootchypop, which included "Hold My Hand" and "Only Wanna Be With You." Made available at shows and by mail, the record sold about 50,000 copies, a tremendous amount for an independent release. In 1993, largely on the strength of such numbers, Hootie were signed by Atlantic Records. By the time they hit the charts last spring, they had been in the van half a dozen years —long enough to get smart but not so long as to become bitter. "For us, success came at the right time," says Felber. "We were ready for it but not yet convinced it would never come."

A FEW MINUTES BEFORE THEY TAKE THE STAGE, Hootie are lounging behind the set, drinking beer. They stand at the edge of a panorama of hills with the last of the sun full in their faces. The sky is beginning to cloud over; a clean, moist breeze fills the air. Rucker paces about, talking to anyone who will listen. He's a talker. He talks about sports, about bands, about cars, about whiskey, about women. And like everyone else in the band, he talks about beer. Sometimes they call it beer and sometimes something else, but the point is always the same. These are guys who drink beer, who would like to be drinking a beer right now like those kids in high school who saw beer as a passport to all things dark and hidden. During a show, between songs, Rucker walks across the stage and takes a slug from his bottle. And the way he drinks, in big, sloppy swigs, makes you want to drink, too. Just after sundown, Hootie walk onstage with studied nonchalance like a commuter crossing a train platform. There are no explosions, no shows of light, just Rucker setting down his beer and strapping on an acoustic guitar. He makes sure everyone is ready, then launches into "Hannah Jane." During the next two hours, the band runs through every song on its debut album as well as songs slated for its next release. Hootie's songs are comforting because when you hear them for the first time, it sounds as if you've heard them before.

Near the end of the set something seems to come loose in the crowd; a girl jumps onstage, where she's blindsided by a security guard, who dumps her limp frame back over the side. "Thanks for protecting us," says Bryan, looking to the guard. "But dude, she's a chick. You don't have to kill her." And then a kid with a Poindexter haircut beats the odds, running onstage, doing a quick shimmy and diving back into the crowd. "It's funny to watch those people when they get up here," says Rucker. "Because they have no idea what they want to do. They haven't thought that far ahead."

The show winds up with a flurry of covers. And hearing the band tear through classics "Love the One You're With," "Mustang Sally," "Ziggy Stardust" it's clear that Hootie are really just a cover band, perhaps a great cover band, who have written their own cover songs. "Somehow, I do feel like everything's been done before," says Sonefeld. "Maybe it was 29 years ago, maybe six, but it's been done. And that's not just us. There are only so many combinations of notes, and even a band like Green Day, who have their own mystique, is an echo of bands like the Clash."

After a third encore, Rucker retrieves his beer, takes a swig, thanks the crowd and descends again into the darkness offstage. "We won't keep this touring pace up because it's gonna kill us," Bryan says after the show. "You can't be creative when you're on this hectic schedule."

TIME PASSES. THE TANGLE of cars leaving the parking lot untangles. The moon falls low on the river. Shadows grow long and spooky. The band splits and reassembles at the Regent Square Tavern, a bar across town. And here Hootie are, leaning on the narrow bar as fens send over drinks. "This stuff makes me feel all strange inside," says Felber, throwing back a shot of what he calls cowboy whiskey. "I can see why so many people died in the Old West," he says. "It makes me want to kill somebody." Unlike many of those acquainted with fame, the members of Hootie are not yet weary of public attention or fearful of that most influential American figure: the lone gunman. "I get my share of death threats and can see how that could scare a person," says Rucker, setting down an empty glass. "But you can't be afraid. If you're someone who likes to stand at the bar, then stand at the bar. I don't care what people say about me. I'm having a blast."

On the way to fame, Hootie have developed an odd relationship with the press. The more records they sell, the more condescending the critics become. They're dismissed as a sort of computer-generated rock band, a group that has all the commercial elements but none of the blood — something that slipped in while America slept. They're seen by others as something more ominous — a flight to the safety of the past. "There are some people who wave us off and never think about us again," says Rucker. "Industry, media people. Doing things the right way is anti-rock & roll, and that has a lot to do with it. While a lot of people focus on the glamour of rock, on being a star, on being cool, we've focused on our careers. We're selling more records than any of these other groups, but it would still be nice to get respect as a band."

There are other rewards and perks available. Every night, in the afterglow of their show, Hootie see success in so many tangible ways: in growing crowds; in women with that hungry, I'm-gonna-get-me-a-rock-star look; in fans who follow them from the show to the Regent, where they find the band members quietly drinking their way to oblivion. "I think we're finally starting to get something like groupies," says Felber, looking across the room. "And it's fun."

By 2 a.m. the bar is a clutter of faces and arms, hips and smiles; the air is full of apparitions, images of other bands: those that never made it out of the clubs, those that did make it and then disappeared, those that made it and are still making it. "I sometimes wonder if we'll ever wind up back in the bars," says Sonefeld. "The crowds might not always be here. A lot of the hair bands of the late '80s made it big fast, and then grunge came along, and they were back in the bars within two years. What would it be like playing bars after playing a big tour like this? Probably worse than never making it out in the first place."

Word has gotten out that a famous band is in the Regent, and people are combing the crowd, looking for Hootie. Some who have never seen the band have preconceived ideas of what a rock group should look like. "Excuse me," says a woman, laying a hand on Rucker's arm. "Are you the bodyguard for Hootie and the Blowfish?"

"That's right," he says, narrowing his eyes. "I'm a bodyguard but not for Hootie and the Blowfish." "Then who?" she asks. "I'm still trying to figure that out," Rucker says. "If I knew that, I would know a lot of other things, too." And someone hands him a shot, which he downs in a quick, graceful motion.