While they were attending the University of South Carolina back in the '80s, the guys in Hootie & the Blowfish were fans of country punk band Dash Rip Rock. The New Orleans outfit would make the trip up to Columbia for the occasional campus shindig, bar gig or frat party.
Darius Rucker, Mark Bryan, Jim Sonefield and the other Hootie members connected with Fred LeBlanc of Dash Rip Rock around that time and they all started playing shows together, traveling back and forth between Nola and Columbia. That continued after LeBlanc started playing drums and singing for Cowboy Mouth, another high-energy New Orleans project.
"We brought them to Mardi Gras before they hit it big," says LeBlanc, reminiscing. "We were a couple of Southeastern bands raising hell in New Orleans, so you know it was a good time."
Hootie returned the favor after they broke out in the industry.
"I’ve been in situations where you make friends with people and they make it big and you don’t hear from them for 10 years," LeBlanc says.
Hootie was never like that, though.
"When they became the biggest band in the world out of nowhere, they took us on tour with them, when they were on the cover of Rolling Stone, right when their album was No. 1," says LeBlanc. "We went from exclusively playing dance halls in the Southeast to clubs in Hollywood. It gave us a lot of exposure that helped us sign to our first major label. We were grateful."
"I love them as people. I love them as musicians," he says, adding with a laugh, "If it wasn't for them, I'd be working for Burger King."
When the Windjammer became the South Carolina venue of choice, both bands frequented the breezy Isle of Palms hangout.
LeBlanc also has memories of Cowboy Mouth opening up for Widespread Panic at Myskyns and avoiding the "piles of dog crap everywhere" at Club Dog Alley. That was in the mid-to-late-'90s, as Hootie was on the rise and Charleston was becoming a music destination.
The 'Jammer always stuck out, though, among other coastal venues. That's for multiple reasons, including when owner Bobby Ross put on some shows for the members of Cowboy Mouth after Hurricane Katrina hit their hometown in 2005 to put some money in their pockets.
This was years after he had popped the band's cassette tape in his car stereo and decided he simply had to book them. After scheduling a show, the band canceled last-minute, and it took a while for Ross to make another offer. But once he booked them again, it was history from there.
"I really don't know what else to call them but family," says Ross. "We became good friends — you know, the kind of friend that you haven’t seen in a really long time but the minute you see them it takes no time to warm up. You seem to pick up right where you left off. As for the Katrina thing, they needed a place for a little while to take their mind off the mess. I just tried to deliver that. They would have done the same for me."
At the Windjammer, it's the vibe of the place that appeals so much to the members of Cowboy Mouth.
"We always joke about one time when John (Griffith, Cowboy Mouth's lead guitarist) said, 'When I die, I don’t want to go to heaven. I want to go to the Windjammer," recalls LeBlanc with a chuckle. "I think it's one of the best venues to see music anywhere. There's not a bad line of sight and you're never far away from the sound or stage. And if you want to take a little beach break, it's right out the back door."
Cowboy Mouth still plays at the Windjammer, at least once a year. It's got a special two-night stint scheduled for Friday and Saturday, July 13 and 14.
"We make it a vacation for ourselves, and so do our fans that come from around the Southeast," says LeBlanc.
The venue does a good job accommodating bands like Cowboy Mouth.
"We’re a very audience-oriented band," says LeBlanc. "We’re not going to drag anyone through our artistic morass. We try to recreate the vibe of New Orleans Mardi Gras wherever we go. People always ask what’s the best show you’ve ever done, and I always say the next show."
Though you'll see him behind the drums, you might also catch LeBlanc climbing the scaffolding, stage diving or jumping on top of the bar. He feeds off the energy of the crowd.
"The whole thing is a giant community," says LeBlanc. "It’s very interactive. We get the audience to be as much of the show as we are. Trust me, nobody’s gonna look as crazy as I do."
And it's a good opportunity to forget the daily grind.
"These days, people are so self-conscious," he says. "There’s so much conflict and B.S. in the world today, but at a Cowboy Mouth show, you can let go of all your troubles, worries, fears. We don’t pretend to be other than what we are, and that’s a hell of a rock-and-roll band."