It's hard to believe, but it's been 12 years since members of Hootie & the Blowfish started developing and nurturing a special alliance with public schools and South Carolina, the Charleston area in particular, through the annual Homegrown concerts.
What started out as a benefit show for the Hootie & the Blowfish Foundation, a nonprofit organization that regularly donates toward music programs at South Carolina schools, soon blossomed into a weekend-long festival with a family reunion vibe.
The band established the foundation in 2000, and it's been the main focus of the members' musical and philanthropic efforts over the past decade.
This weekend, singer/guitarist Darius Rucker, guitarist/singer Mark Bryan, drummer Jim "Soni" Sonefeld, bassist Dean Felber and a handful of special musical guests will return to the Family Circle Magazine Stadium on Daniel Island for the 12th annual, two-night Homegrown concert series. The entire weekend is designed to raise funds and awareness for underprivileged children in the Charleston County School District.
"We kind of did this because a bunch of promoters told us we couldn't do it," laughs Rucker, who'll be taking a brief break from his rigorous touring schedule as a solo artist to perform this weekend. "We've done this on our own, and we'd love to continue to do it. It's organic and simple. We don't have any sponsors or anything that. We just get out there and do it."
This year's lineup will feature several of the band's longtime pals out of the Southeastern circuit. Georgia-based songwriter Corey Smith will open for Hootie & the Blowfish on opening night, Friday. South Carolina native Edwin McCain and Atlanta-based rock band Drivin' N Cryin' will be on the Homegrown bill during the Saturday night concert.
Saturday afternoon will see the Homegrown Family Day festival, which will offer kids-friendly activities and live music right outside the stadium. Family Day is free and open to the public.
"Between the shows and the big roundup during Homegrown Family Day on Saturday afternoon, this has turned into something big for the kids," Rucker says. "It's cool to see what this has become. We're very glad to be a part of this and give back to the community."
Hootie & the Blowfish started out in the early 1990s as a casual college rock band in Columbia when dorm mates Bryan, Sonefeld and Felber began jamming on cover songs and writing melodic, twangy originals. When Rucker came on board as lead singer and rhythm guitarist, Hootie & the Blowfish quickly grew in local popularity and started touring the Southeastern college circuit before signing with Atlantic Records.
Huge success for the band came in 1994 and '95 after Atlantic released its label debut, "Cracked Rear View." The pop-tinged rock album went on to sell more than 16 million copies and won Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Song of the Year ("Let Her Cry").
The band toured internationally in the late '90s and through the 2000s, recording several Southern-styled, critically acclaimed albums for Atlantic along the way.
Rucker's first solo effort came with the 2002 release of a soul-rock collection titled "Back to Then."
After Hootie & the Blowfish went on a casual hiatus in 2008, Rucker switched musical gears from pop rock and soul toward modern country and Americana, releasing the LP "Learn to Live" for the Capitol Records Nashville label. The song "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" became Rucker's first No. 1 single as a solo artist.
The last six years have been virtually non-stop for Rucker and his seven-piece backing band.
In 2010, Rucker's biographical collection "Charleston, SC 1966" made a huge splash with the radio singles "Come Back Song" and "This."
Capitol Records Nashville released his latest studio collection, "True Believers," a year and a half ago. The album spawned several big hits, including the love song "Miss You," a rendition of "Wagon Wheel" and the catchy title track.
Rucker spent much of 2014 traveling around North America and Europe, pausing only briefly to occasionally come back home to the Lowcountry. He says he sees the Homegrown concert events as a fantastic opportunity to unwind from his solo work and reconnect with old colleagues and friends.
"We've been together for so long, and we're so tight that whenever we can do something like this, it's a good time," Rucker says of his Hootie bandmates. "Any time I can get with those guys, it's great.
"I think not having too much fun or forgetting the words might be the biggest challenges," he laughs. "We've done this so long now, it practically runs itself. It's a fun get-together, and we always have a good time."
With Rucker's True Believers Tour running through the rest of 2014 with concerts in the U.S., Canada, the UK and Europe, it's unlikely that Hootie & the Blowfish will hit the stage or the studio anytime soon.
However, there is a spark behind the idea of eventually making a new Hootie album in the near future.
This summer marked the 20th anniversary of the release of "Cracked Rear View."
The occasion fueled rumors that band might either book a commemorative tour or record a new studio album of some sort.
Last spring, Rucker told Charleston Scene, "I am looking forward to writing the next Hootie record ... I'm looking forward to seeing what we come up with. We'll still have the same elements of who the four of us are, and we'll still have the same voice and sound that we've had. Right now, though, my main goal is to do my best in country music."
This summer, the sentiment seems to be consistent.
"It's still wide open," Rucker says. "We know that we will do, but we don't know when we'll do it. We certainly haven't set a date to record or anything. For us, we'll know when the time is right. It's just not right now."
Bryan verifies that notion. "The official word is that we will record new songs for a new album, but there's no set time frame," he says. "Darius' solo career is going so well, we have to let that run its course before we do try to do anything. It's not the right time, but we're all best friends, and we all want it to happen again. But there's no pressure or anything. When the time is right, that's when we'll do it. It won't be forced."
Organizers have scheduled a cheerful variety of family-friendly events and features for the Homegrown Family Day at the Family Circle Tennis Center on Saturday. Activities include a kid's tennis zone, a Zumba dance party, a rock climbing wall, jump castles, face painting, crafts and more. Local vendors King of Pops, Papa John's and the Cast Iron food truck will be on hand, as well.
A series of shows will be held on the Grand Lawn near the stadium entrance featuring several songwriters and bands who've worked with Bryan on projects via the Chucktown Music Group and Carolina Studios, programs that regularly provide young musicians and up-and-coming songwriters new opportunities to record, perform and move ahead into the music biz.
Singer/guitarist Chris Holly will kick things off with an acoustic set at 11 a.m.
Country songbird McKenna Andrews, a young Charlestonian with an expanding fan base, will perform at 11:45 a.m.
Popular local indie-rock band Susto, led by singer/guitarist Justin Osborne (formerly of pop/rock band Sequoya Prep School) is set for 12:30 p.m.
Kylie Odetta, a young singer/pianist from Greenville, will follow with a country-pop set at 1:30 p.m.
Kentucky-based Americana duo Wayne Graham, comprised of siblings Kenny and Hayden Miles, will hit the stage at 2:15 p.m.
Elise Testone, a longtime Charleston singer/songwriter and bandleader, may be known best by some fans as an "American Idol" Season 11 finalist, but many locals revere her for own exuberant, self-produced soul-rock music.
Testone recently released a 10-song studio album titled "In This Life." She and her band will close the live music on the Grand Lawn shows with a rousing set at 3:15 p.m.
Supporting Hootie & the Blowfish on opening night will be veteran singer/songwriter Corey Smith, a native of the northeastern Georgia town of Jefferson. Smith's strummy, melodic, rustically romantic style is well on display on his latest collection, "Live in Chattanooga." It's a well-pitched blend of country, rock and pop.
Day Two of the Homegrown concert series will feature Drivin' N Cryin', a long-running Southern pop-rock band lead by singer/guitarist Kevn Kinney. Over the last two years, Kinney, bassist and band co-founder Tim Nielsen, drummer Dave Johnson and lead guitarists Sadler Vaden (formerly of Charleston band Leslie) and Aaron Lee Tasjan have written, recorded and independently released a series of conceptual mini albums, the latest of which is titled "Songs for the Turntable."
Greenville-based songwriter Edwin McCain, an old Atlantic Records labelmate of Hootie's, is also on for Saturday's opening slot. McCain and his backing band will return to town behind a self-produced album called "Live Versions," which features both classic and newer material recorded from several big shows.
"We all had a say in who joined us on the bill this year," Rucker says of the weekend's roster.
"We've always been big fans of Drivin' N Cryin', pretty much as long as we've been a band. Kevn Kinney and I have been close friends for years, and I love all of those guys," he says. "They're such a great live band. When they agreed to play this show with us, it was awesome. The whole bill is awesome."
Bryan is equally enthusiastic about the Homegrown concert lineup this weekend.
"Every year, we try to get our friends on the bill," he says. "In the past, we've had bands like Toad the Wet Sprocket, Cluster, Collective Soul and other acts that we've been close friends with for years. Obviously, having Corey Smith, Drivin' N Cryin' and Edwin McCain fits in very well. I just toured with Edwin back in April and May, so I'm really excited to reconnect with him and everyone else on stage this week.
"Playing these big shows with Hootie are among my favorite things in the world right now, as far as music goes," Bryan adds.
"It's so electrifying to be with them on stage. We don't get to tour, so tasting that again is the thing I most look forward to. The camaraderie and reunion feel between all of our crew, close friends and fans is great, too. It's a great weekend."