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Hootie & the Blowfish: The Last Great Classic College Rock Band

The man who signed the band explains why they were the high water mark of college radio.

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July 5th is always a big day for me. It was on July 5th, 1994 that Atlantic Records released Cracked Rear View by Hootie & the Blowfish.

Very recently, the RIAA – The Recording Industry Association of America, the organization that tracks such things – announced that Cracked Rear View had sold 21 million copies (just) in the U.S. By the way, that’s actual “hard” sales, not streams or downloads. It is one of only ten albums in American history to sell over 20 million copies.

I was an A&R rep for Atlantic in the 1990s, and it was my great good fortune to sign Hootie & the Blowfish to that label.

Listen, I am not going to re-tell the story of how I encountered Hootie & the Blowfish and signed them, or how I fought to have the record released, or how Cracked Rear View beat the odds and became one of the best selling albums of all time. I have told that story elsewhere. I will, however, tell you that none of us expected this. We expected to have a good time, and to keep alive the long and great legacy of alternative rock on the Mid-Atlantic/Mid-South music circuit that Hootie emerged from.

See, I believe that Hootie & the Blowfish were the last great college rock band, the exclamation point on the golden age of college radio.

And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Long before encountering Hootie, I believed in classic college radio. I really did. Before the widespread acceptance of alternative music culture brought about by MTV’s embrace of R.E.M., the Cure, Depeche Mode, the Police, the Smiths, etcetera, college radio served an absolutely vital function: It was an essential factor in recognizing and asserting one’s identity as a supporter of outsider music, and it was a tremendous tool in helping you find your tribe. College radio did not just document a scene (or any number of scenes); it was the scene.

I was there. And I’m not talking about when Hootie & the Blowfish were playing in low-ceilinged saloons and narrow band boxes in the Southeast (though I saw that, too). I mean I was there, as a band member, DJ, listener, and avid observer in the fertile and drunken days of 1980s college rock, when a secret history was exploding, when you would make a friend for life just because you spotted someone who was wearing a Dream Syndicate T-shirt.

When I conjure “Classic College Radio” in my mind, a specific sound pops into my head. True, a different sound may occur to you; but when I think of the Golden Age of College Radio and College Radio Rock, what immediately springs to mind is (what I will call) The Winston-Salem Variety. I still maintain this was the definitive “root” sound of American college radio.

The Winston-Salem Variety was guitar-based, chiming and jangly, sensitive, tuneful, slightly mournful and melancholy, celebratory and even cerebral: It twisted and turned like surf music gone southern gothic, it took the Byrds-thing and inflected it with the happy-darkness of the Beach Boys and the English winter gray of Nick Drake or Fairport Convention. Although rooted in a basic Nuggets-meets-Byrds template, it was always just a little arty.

(The name itself honors Winston-Salem’s role in creating the template for American alternative guitar pop, via bands like the dB’s, and the work of musician/producer Mitch Easter; the name “Winston-Salem” is, arguably, more important to the development of an indigenous American alternative music scene than the word CBGBs, and we should discuss that at another time.)

Mind you, “The Winston-Salem Variety” certainly included artists who never heard a Winston-Salem band (or even predated them), like the Flamin’ Groovies, The Soft Boys, Big Star or The Monkees. Regardless of date or locale, you know the Winston-Salem Variety when you hear it: It jangles. It is a little sad. It moves fleetly, like a leaf in a stream. Arpeggios played on electric guitars are most certainly involved.

I see Hootie & the Blowfish as the last in a fairly continuous line of classic Winston-Salem Variety bands, a line that goes from Big Star to the dB’s to the Bongos to R.E.M. and then on to Hootie, with stops along the way at the Bangles, Love Tractor, Method Actors, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and many more.

In mid-1993 (when I first met Mark Bryan, Dean Felber, Darius Rucker and Jim Sonefeld, the four young-ish men who made up Hootie & the Blowfish), there were plenty of young bands – especially in the mid-South and Atlantic Coast states — — that were sourcing R.E.M. and other artists of the Winston-Salem school. In fact, when I worked for another label in 1990, I had even signed an absolutely fantastic Winston-Salem Variety band from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Ghost of An American Airman. But what made Hootie really effing remarkable, were the other things they brought into the mix.

For instance, it was readily evident that Hootie & the Blowfish had a deep enthusiasm for progressive bluegrass (as typified by Bela Fleck or New Grass Revival), and a great affection for alternative country, which in those days meant artists like Nancy Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Don Dixon and Marti Jones, and Foster & Lloyd.

There’s another important ingredient that absolutely contextualized the aforementioned pieces: By the time I first saw Hootie, they had been playing college town bars and frats on the ACC circuit for 8 years. Not only did this mean that their set included many crowd-pleasing FM standards and oldies (“Use Me,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Love the One You’re With,” “Ziggy Stardust,” and “China Grove,” to name just a few), but more significantly, it caused Darius, Dean, Mark and Soni to understand, on a very deep and intuitive level, how they could take their own college rock roots and tweak them ever so slightly to appeal to drunk young people looking for a good night out. In other words, they had found a way to add a distinctly commercial, even un-arty, veneer to alternative and outsider music.

Now, but this all together – the dB’s plus R.E.M. plus Nancy Griffith plus New Grass Revival plus a little bit of the Replacements plus the ability to convincingly sing a Bill Withers song plus the need to pull out an occasional Zeppelin number to please the crowd – and you have, basically, the sound of Cracked Rear View.

Well, almost, anyway. Without the following vital factors, I would say none of this would have happened:

First: Darius Rucker’s rich, almost historic groan of a baritone, a repository full of grain and grit and roar and rumble and about a century of pop, rock, country and church music, is one of the greatest and most immediately identifiable voices of his era.

Next: MY GOD, the songwriting. When asked “why” I signed Hootie & the Blowfish, I often simplify the whole thing by saying this: In August of 1993, I walked into a crowded Charleston nightclub. It was late, and the set had already started. The manager handed me a Jägermeister shot. The band onstage was playing “Let Her Cry.”

How on earth do you hear a band playing “Let Her Cry” and not sign them?

And here’s the third unique factor that was absolutely essential to the success of Hootie & the Blowfish (and in many ways, it was the most important): They had a strange mixture of loving what they did so much that they didn’t care if they were successful, combined with a willingness to work their asses off to make sure they could keep on doing it one more gig, one more week, one more month.

The band and their organization had a profoundly fierce work ethic, based around maximizing the opportunity at every single performance for fun, emotional impact, and merch sales. Not only did they treat their passion like it was a business (long before they were signed), they also treated every single fan as a friend, and made sure that every one of these new friends would be taken care of and would spread the word.

And to me, that’s the spirit of Classic College Rock Radio: You work your ass off to reach 8 or 80,000; the number doesn’t matter, as long as one person has been moved. Reach that one person, and you have a friend for life.

And if you ask ol’ Tim, those words should be on the wall of every college radio station, every band rehearsal room, and every recording studio.