It’s been 25 years since the most famous band to come out of South Carolina released its famous first LP. Hootie & the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View dropped in July 1994 with catchy, lovestruck pop songs that took a sharp, saccharine turn from the grunge that owned popular radio. 

There was “Hold My Hand,” “Only Wanna Be With You” and “Let Her Cry,” all hit songs that propelled that disc to its rank as not just the No. 1 selling album of that year, but the 10th-best-selling album of all time with its 21 million units landing between Garth Brooks’ Double Live at No. 9 and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours at No. 11, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

But before that summer of instant fame, Hootie established rapport in small South Carolina and Southeast bars, starting out at the University of South Carolina as a frat party band and propelling onto the regional touring circuit, stopping at spots like the Charleston area’s Cumberland’s and The Windjammer.

Then came the band’s deal with Atlantic Records, and nothing was ever quite the same.

The band helped usher in a wave of melodic, jangly guitar-led radio rock populated by the likes of Matchbox 20, Sister Hazel and fellow South Carolina product Edwin McCain.

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Jim "Soni" Sonefeld plays the drums with Hootie & the Blowfish in August 1995. File/Staff

The group continued to play shows here and there since the 2005 release of its most recent LP, Looking for Lucky — and since lead singer Darius Rucker went onto a successful second act as a mainstream country singer. Through 2018, the band played 16 editions of its annual Homegrown benefit concerts in Charleston.

But this year, Hootie is back in a big way. A quarter-century after its initial burst of fame, the band is touring arenas and awaiting the release of a new album, Imperfect Circle, in November.

The tour, named after perennial Columbia college bar Group Therapy, concludes with a three-night stand at Columbia’s Colonial Life Arena starting Sept. 11. To mark the occasion, Free Times and The Post and Courier decided to take a look back.

We caught up with several musicians, industry insiders and members of the South Carolina scene who were there when Cracked Rear View rocketed the band to stardom, asking them to reflect on the moment Hootie went from regional favorite to international force. —Jordan Lawrence and Kalyn Oyer

Jim “Soni” Sonefeld

Jim “Soni” Sonefeld is Hootie & the Blowfish’s drummer. He typically lives in Columbia with his family, but is now out on the road for Hootie’s reunion tour.

“I expected we would at some point decide we would try this again,” Sonefeld says. 

The process for recording a new album has been a little slower than expected, though. 

“We hadn’t really experienced the creative spirit in years,” Sonefeld offers. “But we all sat there and plunged 100 percent into the whole process. I think we came up with an amazing album, and I’m very proud of it. I think we landed somewhere between the Hootie & the Blowfish of 1995 and the Darius Rucker of 2015.” 

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Jim "Soni" Sonefeld snacks on some Wavy Lays while on tour with Hootie & the Blowfish in August 1995. File/Staff

“Tour is just a blast,” he adds. “We’re seeing big crowds and giving and receiving a lot of energy from that. Sometimes, I scratch my head and go, ‘Where are all these people coming from?’” 

But it all started with fans right here in South Carolina. 

“Club Dog Alley, Cumberland’s, Music Farm, The Windjammer — thanks to any club owner who took a chance on us back then,” Sonefeld says, spotlighting one poorly attended early show at that last club on Isle of Palms as a blessing in disguise. “Thank God there were only 75 people in The Windjammer when we first played, because we weren’t that good.” —Kalyn Oyer

Derek Chiarenza

As a co-owner of the legendary Rockafellas music club in Columbia’s Five Points neighborhood, Derek Chiarenza saw Hootie’s rise firsthand, as they moved from college crowds to bigger and bigger audiences. His involvement in the club ended in 1994, but not before Hootie graduated to the next level.

“There was a specific point around that time when we just knew they were too big for us,” Chiarenza recalls. “There was a show where we were pushing people in the front door and it was so packed that they were popping out of the back door onto the deck.”

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Hootie & the Blowfish play while on tour in August 1995. File/Staff

One last show sticks out to Chiarenza, however

“They did one last gig for old time’s sake, and as a thank you to [late Rockafellas co-owner and booking agent] Art Boerke,” he says. “It was right around the time 'Cracked Rear View' came out and we didn’t even advertise it. It was still out of control, a line down the block.

Chiarenza remembers the band members as regular guys who never forgot a friend

“It was just the perfect storm for them, they were the happy antidote to grunge as the polar opposite, good catchy pop songs.” —Kevin Oliver

Dick Hodgin

North Carolina manager and producer Dick Hodgin was working with blues-rock act The Accelerators when they did a show with Hootie early on at the 4808 in Charlotte.

“Mark [Bryan] came up to me at the show and gave me a tape of their music, said he loved what I’d done with The Accelerators and asked about doing a demo with them,” Hodgin says. “I left that tape on my desk at the office, and my intern Rusty Harmon found it going through some other tapes. I told him to take it home and listen; I hated the name so I had put it off until then. The next day he came back and said, ‘I know what you think about singers and bands, you need to listen to this one right now. We put it in and boom — there was Darius’ voice, and those songs."

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Darius Rucker sings while on tour with Hootie & the Blowfish in August 1995. File/Staff

Hodgin did two demo tapes with the band. The original recordings are included on the recently released deluxe edition of Cracked Rear View.

“They had not been in a real studio, or had a producer before, but they already had a handle on where they wanted to go and what they wanted to sound like,” Hodgin remembers.

That intern, Rusty Harmon, soon left Hodgin’s studio and signed on as Hootie’s first manager.

“If you want to say anything about what kept Hootie moving upward, it was the overwhelming optimism they had in everything they did, from the shows to talking with fans, writing songs,” Hodgin says. “When a band is on that just starting out stage there is a balance between how good they are and how you perceive them to be — everyone walked away from a Hootie show with a happy feeling and the impression that they were having the most fun on the planet playing together, because they were.” —Kevin Oliver

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Darius Rucker eats in a South Carolina football T-shirt and Music Farm hat. File/Staff

Tim Sommer

Perhaps no single person is more important in understanding the Hootie success story than Tim Sommer. An A&R rep for Atlantic Records who had himself been a musician in the adventurous band Hugo Largo in the ’80s, Sommer signed the band to a major label deal with Atlantic after a series of serendipitous events.

“Atlantic had a sales research department that tracked independent record store sales nationally to spot anything that was spiking regionally,” Sommer remembers. “One day, on a list out of the Carolinas there was this band, Hootie & the Blowfish.”

Those sales were for the Kootchypop EP, which had also been mailed out to various labels, including Atlantic.

“I happened to be the guy whose desk that CD landed on,” Sommer recalls. “Because I’d long followed the jangle rock scene in the Southeast, bands like Let’s Active or The dB’s, I recognized them immediately as being in that same tradition, and although I didn't know I was going to sign them right away, I knew I was interested."

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Darius Rucker wore a Music Farm hat while on tour in August 1995. File/Staff

The rest, according to Sommer, was a combination of great songs, hard work and good luck.

“It’s like a game of pinball, trying to break a band,” he says. “You only have a certain amount of control and things have to fall the right way. With Hootie, a lot of elements fell the right way.”

Sommer points to the unorthodox release strategy he and Atlantic product manager Kim Kaiman, another early believer in the band, used for Cracked Rear View as key in generating early momentum.

“We knew we wouldn’t get any radio or videos since they were unknown outside of the Southeast, and that if the label looked at national sales they’d be minimal,” Sommer recalls. “Without sales, the album would be a dead priority at Atlantic within a few weeks.”

“Kim and I both knew it would do huge numbers in the Carolinas, so we told the sales department, ‘I don’t care if there isn’t a single copy in Tower Records anywhere, but in the Carolinas, stock it like it’s Pearl Jam.’”

That tactic paid off with even bigger first week sales in North and South Carolina than Sommer had anticipated.

“Sales were strong enough there to sustain them without radio for a while, and it kept the label’s interest until around September when Pittsburgh became the first radio market outside their home base to play the single,” he says. “That was huge, because it showed Atlantic they could have some impact in other markets.”

When asked about how it snowballed from there, Sommer doesn’t mention the Letterman appearance or the bigger venues. He offers up a different story:

“In April of 1994 when they were in Los Angeles making the record, Darius and I went to opening day in Dodger Stadium, got general admission tickets and watched the game. At the World Series the next year, Darius sang the national anthem at a game.” —Kevin Oliver

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Darius Rucker signs autographs for fans while on tour with Hootie & the Blowfish in August 1995. Mic Smith

Bobby Ross

Hurricane Hugo had just wiped out The Windjammer on Isle of Palms when owner Bobby Ross first heard of Hootie & the Blowfish. That was 1989, and he had to wait to book the band until the spring of 1991, when renovations were complete.

“The first time, I think $500 was the guarantee, plus food and beer,” Ross says. “I was there for the show. They had already developed a following around the Southeast, but I think Cumberland’s was the only other place they had played in Charleston. I loved them right off the bat and rebooked them that summer a few times.”

During that time, Ross says Hootie was just playing a handful of covers. They were a party band that hadn’t developed into their original sound yet. He says they were on the same playing field as regional touring bands Cruise-A-Matics, Killer Whales, and The Hollywood Squares.

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Jim "Soni" Sonefeld and Mark Bryan snack and look at sheet music while next to a lava lamp during tour with Hootie & the Blowfish in August 1995. Mic Smith

“I remember for one show, Darius came in and didn’t have a sound guy, so I ran sound,” Ross recalls. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you can’t make me sound bad.’”

Another night, Ross remembers throwing on “Hold My Hand” from Hootie’s debut EP, Kootchypop, as the last song of the night before the bar closed.

“Usually, I would pick a song from the radio that everyone knew, but I picked Hootie that night. I was in the sound booth, I looked down, and the whole room was singing it. I liked the song but had no idea everyone knew them. The next day, I called Woody Bartlett at 96 Wave and told him he had to put the song on the radio. That afternoon, Miles Crosby played it.”

Ross and the band members became friends. They played golf together.

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Darius Rucker sips a beer with his headphones on. File/Staff

“They sucked, they were really bad, but they loved playing golf,” Ross laughs. “I was setting them up at Wild Dunes. I mean, these guys were traveling in the back of a van, they didn’t have any money yet.”

He says, after shows, they would “drink too much” and hang out. They came over to his house for cookouts.

“Darius was a moody son of a bitch,” he adds. “He would walk [into The Windjammer], and back then poker machines were legal, so he would get a couple bags of quarters and play the poker machines and let everyone else do the work of setting up the gear.”

But for the most part, he says the members of Hootie have stayed ego-free and down-to-earth. And they tried to pull other South Carolina and Southeast bands up with them, like Georgia’s Drivin N Cryin, who Hootie is going on tour with in Europe.

Ross still keeps in touch with Hootie, even after all these years.

“There are a lot of stories I can’t tell, because I want to stay friends with them,” Ross chuckles. —Kalyn Oyer

Brent Lundy

A familiar name on the Columbia club scene to this day, songwriter Brent Lundy led God’s Comics, a band that played multiple shows with Hootie on their way up in the ‘90s.

“They were so generous to other local musicians — ask bands like Cravin’ Melon how they went out of their way to help us out,” he says. “We played so many shows with them at places like The Attic in Greenville, Mad Monk in Wilmington, and even as they were building their following, we didn’t really notice the groundswell happening. Those clubs were already packing in the crowds and you really couldn’t fit any more people in, anyway.”

Lundy remembers when MTV came to town and not only filmed an episode of “Unplugged” on the Horseshoe at USC, but also did a mini-documentary on the local music scene.

“My shining moment was being interviewed in the Purple Pit at Rockafellas and they asked me what made Columbia such a mecca for independent music,” Lundy says. “I was bartending there and living the starving musician existence; I blurted out, ‘Cheap rent and cheap beer!’” — Kevin Oliver

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Darius Rucker signs an autograph for a fan in August 1995. File/Staff

Prentiss Findlay

Prentiss Findlay is a former arts and entertainment reporter for The Post and Courier who went on tour with Hootie & the Blowfish for a two-night stint in Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, in August 1995.

“Back in 1995, they had just sort of burst onto the scene. It was like a storm that blew in,” he says. “They were on the cover of Rolling Stone, and they were suddenly a big deal. It was kind of like when Hootie happened, the city of Charleston’s music scene also happened.”

Findlay recalls the backlash from grunge fans at the time, those who turned up the radio for the likes of Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden.

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The crowd of fans are reflected in Jim "Soni" Sonefeld's sunglasses on tour with Hootie & the Blowfish in August 1995. File/Staff

“They thought Hootie was a little too lightweight,” he remembers. “Really, they were something totally different. They made writing about music at that time very interesting, because all of a sudden the apple cart had been upset. Here were these young guys from South Carolina who were totally changing what was popular in the music scene. They were trailblazers really.”

He says their critics were harsh, but their fans embraced the happy-go-lucky pop that was a refreshing shift from the doom and gloom of grunge.

“I’ll always remember in Columbus, they did a promotion at [the] American Bandstand Grill,” he shares. “There was literally a mob outside of the bus when they pulled up. I can remember having to push my way through the crowd to get into the restaurant, and the same thing getting back on the bus. It was a big deal for all the fans.”

Findlay says the band remembered where they came from, even after the fame.

“Darius was always wearing a USC T-shirt or cap, or Music Farm,” he says. “They were proud of where they were from.”

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The members of Hootie & the Blowfish are avid golfers. Mark Bryan is pictured here (center) on a golf course during the band's tour in August 1995. File/Staff

And they loved golf.

“I remember sitting around before the show talking sports, watching ESPN,” Findlay says. “That afternoon they played golf. Back at the amphitheater, Dean Felber was riding an exercise bike before the show.” —Kalyn Oyer

Greg Humphreys

In the early-’90s, Greg Humphreys was the leader of North Carolina indie rock band Dillon Fence, already several albums into their career. He remembers the first time the band’s management arranged for Dillon Fence to open for Hootie in Columbia at Rockafellas.

“I remember thinking that they were such a unique band, and Darius was a great singer,” Humphreys says. “They came and opened for us after that at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill and we ended up playing together a lot for a few years.”

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Hootie & the Blowfish on tour in August 1995. File/Staff

The combination of the two bands was electric during that time, Humphreys recalls.

“We had a pretty rabid following ourselves, and there was such energy in the room when we’d both bring a crowd to a show,” he says. “There was a show in Greenville at Characters where we pulled up and the four guys in Hootie were outside playing volleyball against each other. That night, I remember feeling the energy from the crowd for them and sensing things were changing.”

Hootie returned the favor to Dillon Fence as Cracked Rear View gained steam, bringing them out to open larger and larger venues. Hootie wasn’t the only band that was growing, though for Dillon Fence it was more of an artistic change.

“By the time their album came out we were on our third with [the North Carolina independent label] Mammoth, and our sound had evolved,” Humphreys says, who resides in New York City these days, fronting the Greg Humphreys Trio. “We were a good fit for a long time, but by the time those big tours came along, not so much.

Greg Humphreys resides in New York City these days, fronting the Greg Humphreys Trio. The group released its latest album, Haymaker, in the fall of 2018. —Kevin Oliver

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Jim "Soni" Sonefeld, Darius Rucker and Mark Bryan hang out on tour in August 1995. File/Staff 

Tim Nielsen

Tim Nielsen, the bassist and co-founder of Atlanta rock band Drivin N Cryin, started playing music across the Southeast a little before Hootie came to prominence. Still around and kicking, the group is about to head out on tour with Hootie in Europe as an opening act.

“The memories are kind of foggy, but I seem to recall Darius being on the side of the stage when we were playing in Columbia at Rockafellas, a giddy little fan wanting to sing ‘Straight to Hell’ with us,” says Nielsen.

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Mark Bryan plays on tour with Hootie & the Blowfish in August 1995. File/Staff

Though Drivin N Cryin and Hootie have always had a kinship, Nielsen says he and Mark Bryan, the other group’s lead guitarist, became particularly good friends when he moved to Charleston eight years ago. Bryan invited him to be a part of the ProAm Jam golf tournament on Daniel Island, and they played together. It became tradition.

“One year, Kevn [Kinney of Drivin N Cryin], Mark and I did a Pro-Am Jam and we left right after and went straight to the airport and flew to Amsterdam,” Nielsen says. “Mark was on the road with us in the Netherlands.”

Rucker also decided to cover “Straight to Hell” on his last solo album.

“They’re definitely the most famous band to come out of South Carolina, and with their fame, they’ve given back to the community,” Nielsen says. “They’ve raised so much money for hospitals, music education, they’re statesmen for South Carolina.”

Nielsen adds that he thinks they’ve gotten the short end of the stick from music critics over the years.

“I told Mark they need to get the same kind of appreciation from the Americana community that R.E.M. gets and that we get and Drive-By Truckers get,” he reasons, “because even though they’re kind of commercial and pop, they’re still a rock and roll band. They started off as a garage band, so to me that’s rock and roll.” —Kalyn Oyer

What: Hootie & the Blowfish

Where: Colonial Life Arena, 801 Lincoln St.

When: Sept. 11-13, 7:30 p.m. each night

With: Barenaked Ladies

Price: $29.50 and up

More: 803-576-9200, 

Reach Kalyn Oyer at 843-371-4469. Follow her on Twitter @sound_wavves.

Kalyn Oyer is a Charleston native who covers arts and entertainment for The Post and Courier's Thursday edition, Charleston Scene. She used to write about music for the Charleston City Paper and Scene SC.

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