Long before he rebranded himself as a chart-topping country singer, Darius Rucker built his reputation as "Hootie," the baritone-voiced frontman of Hootie & the Blowfish. The group specialized in pop songs disguised as bar-band tunes — or was it the other way around? — with Rucker at the forefront, singing about love, lust and football in a soulful voice that showed a love for his southern roots. Introduced during a time when grunge music still reigned supreme, Hootie & the Blowfish brought major-key pop/rock back into the mainstream, selling more than 16 million copies of Cracked Rear View in the process.
Cracked Rear View turns 20 years old this week. Looking back, the debut album sounds pretty much the same as we remember it: like Clinton-era music for bongo players and ball cap wearers, with hooks bigger than the Tae Bo phenomenon and arrangements prettier than the cast of Friends. What we didn't hear back in 1994, though, were the ways Cracked Rear View reflected a deep appreciation for country music. In hindsight, it's an album that helped define the mid-Nineties pop/rock culture while also foreshadowing Rucker's eventual move to the country world.
Don't believe us? Hold our hand and take a look at the evidence, all of which points to a country frontman in the making.
1. Willie Nelson jumped aboard the Hootie train in 1995, inviting the band to play his annual Farm Aid festival and joining the guys onstage for a loose performance of "Let Her Cry." One year later, the fest moved to Columbia, South Carolina, the college town where Hootie & the Blowfish got their start. Coincidence?
2. Decades before the bro-country explosion, Rucker prefaced the phenomenon by consoling a bummed-out good ol' boy in "Hannah Jane," crooning lyrics like, "We'd get drunk and go out after dark, searching for someone we could take home," and "I'll be there when you have no one else/I'll be there, be your friend." All that was missing was a pickup truck… a problem that was quickly resolved with the release of the band's 1995 concert video, "Summer Camp With Trucks."
3. While other frontmen sang about the angst, alienation and bewilderment of Generation X, Rucker sang about the Miami Dolphins on tunes like "Only Wanna Be With You," linking football and southern music in a way only rivaled by Hank Williams Jr.
4. Released as the follow-up single to "Hold My Hand," "Let Her Cry" found Rucker pining over a wayward girlfriend who loved alcohol more than she loved him. Every country star has a drinking song; this was Rucker's first.
5. Garth Brooks was a fierce supporter of the band, even refusing to accept the Artist of the Year trophy at the 1996 American Music Awards because he thought Hootie & the Blowfish deserved it more.
6. Rucker covered Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel" in 2013, turning the folk song — which Old Crow had partially lifted from an old Bob Dylan demo — into a triple-platinum country smash. Nineteen years earlier, though, Rucker first paid tribute to Dylan with "Only Wanna Be With You," a song whose lyrics were partially lifted from "You're a Big Girl Now," "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Idiot Wind." The wagon wheel comes full circle…
7. Driven forward by fiddles and bongos, "Running From an Angel" was a country song disguised as a rootsy campfire singalong, with biting lyrics — "Your lying and cheating really tore us apart/Please don't come if you're gonna break my momma's heart" — that owed as much to the Nashville songbook as his South Carolina roots.