'Fairweather Friends Success: Their last album sold more than 13 million copies. Will Hootie & the Blowfish do it again?

April 21, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It's funny what sudden success will do to people.

After years on the East Coast club circuit, playing bar after bar to little or no acclaim, Hootie & the Blowfish finally made its major-label debut, releasing "Cracked Rear View" in July 1994. Although the album didn't attract much attention at first, the band's solid songwriting, relentless touring and good-guy attitude eventually resulted in regular airplay and steadily accelerating sales.

By the spring of '96, more than 13 million copies of "Cracked Rear View" had been sold. Now, with two Grammies under its belt and a new album, "Fairweather Johnson," due in stores Tuesday, Hootie & the Blowfish are quite clearly the hottest band in America.

But as the group's star ascended, attitudes changed. Jealousy, bickering, spite and a smug superiority all crept into the equation. Oddly, though, none of this came from the band; instead, all the bitterness and bile came from the Blowfish-bashers, a small but vocal faction of the music industry who believed that 13 million Hootie fans could, in fact, be wrong.

"You don't get much respect. At all," says singer Darius Rucker, from the band's home base in Columbia, S.C. "I mean, if we were a band that had gotten together and six months later gotten signed, then got lucky and all this happened, fine.

"But we've been on the circuit bustin' our butts for 10 years -- not working day jobs, making $9,000 a year, just barely getting by. And the lack of respect that I think we get, it just -- it stinks. Because we didn't try to sell 13 million records. It happened, you know?"

Not according to the nay-sayers. In their view, the broad-based appeal of Hootie & the Blowfish couldn't have just happened -- it had to be the result of calculation, market strategy and hype.

Rucker seems almost flattered by the absurdity of the charge. He laughs at the notion that he and his band mates "sat down and said to ourselves, 'How could we go about selling a lot of records? What kind of music should we do?' There was no such planning session.

"I mean, this is stuff that we've been playing for years," he says. "The years when nobody wanted to sign us, we were playing the same songs that were on 'Cracked Rear View.' These are old [songs]. We were playing 'Let Her Cry' in, like, '89."

"Yeah, we were playing 'Time,' 'Hold My Hand,' 'Only Want to Be With You,' " chimes in guitarist Mark Bryan. "In '90, '91, '92, we were playing those songs in bars. All the time. And we had a good following going, but we weren't selling 12 million records then."

So what happened last year?

"We got lucky," says Rucker, flatly.

"We got damned lucky," agrees Bryan.

Well, maybe. Certainly the band's timing had a lot to do with it. "Cracked Rear View" came out just as Hootie's sort of R.E.M.-influenced guitar rock slipped out of the underground and into the mainstream, meaning that where once there was a potential audience of thousands, suddenly there were sympathetic listeners numbering in the millions.

"Five years ago, that record never would have done what it did," says Rucker. "It would have been just another record."

Modest happiness

And that would have been just fine with Hootie & the Blowfish.

"We would have been happy to sell 100,000 or 200,000 records," says Bryan. "That would have been a major success to us. What happened was a timing thing, and probably it'll never happen again. To us, anyway. I mean, those kind of things only happen to very, very few people."

"And they only happen once," adds Rucker.

Consequently, there are no cases of Michael Jackson Disease -- the fevered belief that each new album must be a bigger success than the last -- in this band. As Rucker says, "We know the second record could never do what 'Cracked Rear View' has done. I mean, it's just not possible. So if you know that going in, that's fine."

Of course, Rucker knows full well that if "Fairweather Johnson" does less than 13 million, the nay-sayers will be hooting up a storm. "If we sell 12 million of the next record, the loud minority will be really excited and say that the record flopped," he says. "It's so funny. If God lets us sell 3 million of the next record, that's still 3 million records. It's still a success in my eyes. So I don't think we ever, ever felt like, 'What do we have to do?'

"But yeah, we hear it. We hear it all the time. 'What's going to happen with the next record? What if it doesn't do as well?' Well, we don't expect it to do as well."

"Plus, in our hearts, we feel this is a better record," says Bryan. "I mean, I really feel strongly that it's a better record than 'Cracked Rear View.' So regardless of how many we sell of it, I'm just as proud."

Bar band

As well he should be. For all its obvious appeal, "Cracked Rear View" was the work of a band that was still getting used to the process of making albums. Sure, the songs were there, but they weren't exactly radio-ready.

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