In a locker room converted into a makeshift dressing room in North Augusta, South Carolina, the members of Hootie and the Blowfish are gathered in front of a TV, watching Tiger Woods tee off. It’s the beginning of Woods’ Masters comeback, and the band is invested — it played his wedding in 2004, and Woods and frontman Darius Rucker remain friends. The bandmates, golfers themselves, whoop and shout whenever Woods rolls in another birdie. Later, Rucker makes a connection between Woods’ career and the band’s. “It’s funny, the parallels in our lives and careers,” he says. “Neither of us was the pioneer that started it, but we did something really special. We haven’t done this in 11 years, and he hasn’t won a major tournament in 11 years.”
That’s all about to change. Tonight, Hootie are headlining a minor-league ballpark across the river from the Masters, a gig that serves as a warm-up for the group’s first full-on tour in more than a decade. It’s the return of a band that was once one of the most ubiquitous on the planet: Hootie’s 1994 debut, Cracked Rear View, sold 10 million copies, with genial, surging Top 10 hits like “Hold My Hand,” “Only Wanna Be With You” and “Let Her Cry.” But then there was what Rucker calls “the backlash.” Their 1996 follow-up, Fairweather Johnson, sold a fraction of the first LP’s total. Saturday Night Live parodied their fratty following with a sketch imagining a million-man march of polo-shirt-wearing Hootie fans. By the time they stopped recording and touring in the late 2000s, Hootie and the Blowfish were a punchline. Rucker pivoted to a lucrative career in country, and the rest of the guys moved on, reuniting for a few charity shows a year.
When the idea of a comeback tour pegged to the 25th anniversary of Cracked Rear View was first floated, Rucker had his doubts. “I was the guy who said, ‘If it’s not big, I don’t want to do it.’ I was there at the end, when we were playing to 6,000 people in a 12,000-seater. I didn’t believe we were going to put tickets on sale and all these people would want to see us.”
Apparently, they do: Hootie’s summer Group Therapy Tour, with fellow Nineties hitmakers Barenaked Ladies opening, is proving to be one of the season’s most unexpectedly hot tickets. Hootie even had to add a second night at New York’s Madison Square Garden after the first sold out. “We were part of so many people’s high school and college experience,” says Rucker. “They don’t care if it’s not cool to like Hootie [anymore]. It’s like, ‘Man, I remember Hootie — I got my first blow job to them!’ ” Rucker lets out one of his big, full-throated laughs. “You know, that’s the kind of stuff that people are remembering when they see the show. Absolutely!”
“Look at this!” Rucker says. Backstage, the band has been presented with a copy of Hootie’s 1995 Rolling Stone cover. A 29-year-old Rucker is in the center, in an oversize yellow shirt and a backward baseball cap, surrounded by the rest of the band, who all have goofy grins. “We’re fucked uppp!” Rucker says. (“They had beer at that shoot,” guitarist Mark Bryan sheepishly recalls.)
Now 52, Rucker looks a lot like he did in ’95, except more fit — he’s trim, with muscular arms, and his goatee is now peppered with gray. The rest of the guys also look grown-up, but also pretty chill. Drummer Jim “Soni” Sonefeld, once known for his surfer-dude locks, is now bald; bassist Dean Felber has horn-rimmed-glasses and looks like an accountant; while Bryan — a big guy in frayed jeans and a T-shirt — looks like a high school gym teacher you might find in a beach bar in South Carolina, where the whole band still lives.
When they’re together, the vibe feels like a college reunion, which isn’t far off; they formed at the University of South Carolina in the mid-Eighties, after Bryan heard Rucker singing Billy Joel in their bathroom dorm one morning. Soon enough, they were playing in bars and frat houses. In a drunken moment, Rucker christened them Hootie and the Blowfish, after one classmate who had bug eyes and another with puffy cheeks. “We didn’t love the name, but we didn’t have anything better,” says Bryan.
“I don’t think anybody loves the name now!” Rucker roars back.
By their senior year, they were so popular that it was too late to change their name. They spent the next five years playing every club and frat party they could east of the Mississippi — breaking out covers ranging from Kiss to Public Enemy, along with their own songs. They built a following so loyal that their self-released 1993 EP Kootchypop (“We haven’t overthought our album titles in the past,” says Sonefeld with a chuckle) sold as well as Pearl Jam and U2 in record stores in the South. Atlantic Records noticed and signed them for a modest $75,000.
Hootie were in the studio recording Cracked Rear View on the day Kurt Cobain’s body was found. Grunge had peaked, and it turned out that listeners were ready for a band that looked at ease, even giddy, onstage. “Grunge was so great and so big, but it was so depressing,” says Rucker. “Kurt and everything that was going on with him was sad. And all of a sudden, this little fucking pop band from South Carolina is singing ‘Hold My Hand.’ And the whole country said, ‘All right!’ ” Adds Bryan, “Your dad wasn’t going to get Soundgarden or Nirvana or Pearl Jam. But he and your mom would get the Hootie album. And so did your grandmother and little brother.”
Hootie dominated radio and MTV, but the pop crossover came with a price: oversaturation. When the TRL era happened, Hootie seemed even stodgier next to rap metal and boy bands. Bryan remembers a moment in 1997 when he was driving behind a truck in Baltimore with a bumper sticker that read “Fuck Hootie.” “I was like, ‘Wow, I never even met this guy and he hates me,’ ” says Bryan. Felber felt that rock radio turned its back on them: “Once you go from rock to pop,” he says, “you’re not allowed back.” By the release of 2003’s Hootie and the Blowfish, their record sales had cratered and Atlantic dropped them; 2005’s Looking for Lucky arrived by way of their own indie label.
Hootie were always a hard-partying band; Rucker admits to regularly downing a bottle of bourbon back in the day. But as their popularity plummeted, that lifestyle became their enemy. “We’re coming down the other side of the mountain of fame and fortune,” says Sonefeld, “and I dealt with it through medicating myself.” The drummer sobered up in 2004, after his young daughter found him passed out in his home studio.
Despite these issues, the rest of the band was surprised when, at a meeting in 2008, Sonefeld announced he no longer wanted to tour. “It wasn’t an easy conversation,” he says. “There were a few chins that dropped.” (“‘That’s how we paid our bills,’” Rucker recalls thinking.) Without any formal announcement, Hootie laid off most of their employees and faded away quietly. Looking back, Rucker says he felt guilty about walking away, mostly because of the fans who relied on them for a fun night out: “There were people who had planned their summer vacations around Hootie shows, and we never said anything,” he says. “I just always felt bad that we just stopped playing.”
While Rucker launched his country career, the three other bandmates had to get used to life outside rock & roll. Felber got into the wine business and had to unexpectedly raise his two youngest daughters after his ex-wife died suddenly. “I became a full-time dad — I was fortunate I was able to do that,” he says. “It was a no-brainer.” Sonefeld became a born-again Christian, released a few religious solo records and now speaks at prayer breakfasts. Bryan took a job teaching a music-industry class at the College of Charleston. “There were those moments of ‘What have I gotten myself into? I’m grading papers instead of being on a bus,’ ” he says. “People think, ‘Man, those guys must be loaded!’ But we’re loaded in a modest way.”
After soundcheck, Rucker retreats to his own tour bus. He rode in from his home in Charleston, and the other guys drove themselves (they’ll get their own buses this summer). Rucker says he’s thinking about his voice: “When we get together, all we do is laugh and talk, and laughing is the worst thing I can do,” he says. “So I stay on my bus and chill.”
Rucker admits he was shocked by the success of his second career in Nashville. His very first single, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” became a Number One hit, and he’s landed eight more. His 2013 cover of “Wagon Wheel” was the biggest, selling more than 3 million copies. “There were zero black people on country radio when I went there — I got lucky,” he says. “When a black person says to me, ‘Why you singing that white-boy music?’ … I just don’t think of the world that way.”
After a couple of hours, Rucker heads back to join his band in the dressing room, accompanied by his bodyguard, Buddy, a longtime Hootie employee who shadows his boss and is dressed in black, with fingerless gloves. Sonefeld sighs after glancing at a posted schedule, which lists the Hootie set starting at 9:30. “That’s a half hour before my bedtime!” he says. Then they gather for a classic Hootie pre-show ritual — throwing back shots with their crew and select VIPs. Rucker passes out paper cups of cinnamon whiskey himself. “Fireball!” he calls out, asking who might want one. Sonefeld opts for a nonalcoholic option.
Rucker is excited about another aspect of their comeback: a brand-new Hootie album, set to arrive in the fall. They recently recorded it in Nashville and are currently whittling it down from 17 possible songs, one of which, “Wildfire,” was co-written by Rucker and Hootie fan Ed Sheeran. “God, I love this record so much,” Rucker says. He also singles out a new song by Sonefeld: “There’s a song Soni wrote called ‘Unafraid’ that just breaks my heart when I sing it.”
But revealingly, the group only signed a one-album deal. Rucker expects to return to country, which he calls his “day job,” next year. “I’d be lying to you if I thought we should do this every year, ever again,” he says. “But now is a good time, and ticket sales proved it right, that it was time for us to just go do it again. I’m moonlighting with Hootie for a year.”
The other guys seem to take Rucker’s commitment in stride. “If Darius continued to do well, it meant a new Hootie album could come and people will still care,” Bryan says, shrugging. “That’s the way I looked at it.” Like the rest of the guys, Bryan concedes that future reunions are Rucker’s decision to make. “It kinda is,” he says. “He knows he can come back anytime, and I’m raring to go.”
Soon, Hootie are onstage. Their 75-minute set (a bit shorter than the shows they’ll be playing this summer) revives all their trademarks: Rucker’s deep howl, Bryan’s guitar windmills and their penchant for covers (tonight they play R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” and Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova,” along with “Alright,” one of Rucker’s country hits).
The full-on Nineties flashback arrives when they get to “Hold My Hand” at the end of the set. Several drunk thirtysomething dudes on the field near the stage start jumping up and down ecstatically while yelling “Hootie!”
At one time in his life, Rucker would have bristled when fans called him that; Sonefeld has said Rucker used to “hate” the name. But these days he laughs about it. “I’m grateful they still know who I am after all these years,” Rucker says after the show. “No, I’m good.”