How Regionalism Hijacked Hootie’s Legacy
Hootie & the Blowfish endured years of regionalist and racist condescension. Now, critics are reconsidering the South Carolina band's place in music history.
Narratives about Southern music and culture are controlled largely by people who live outside the region. This century-old practice persists in the digital age, as local newspapers shutter, alternative weeklies fold, and The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal assume the roles of primary American news sources. In recent years, writers and reporters from the Southeastern United States have launched new regional publications and cultural journals to counter perceived bias against musicians, chefs, and designers. Although national media continues to characterize many Southern artists as derivative of or less skilled than those residing in other parts of the country, few have endured the regionalist and racist media portrayals that plagued South Carolina rock band Hootie & the Blowfish. This summer, with the quartet in the middle of a 25th-anniversary tour of its 21-million-selling album Cracked Rear View, critics have begun to re-evaluate Hootie's musical legacy in a mostly positive light. Below, I provide Southern perspective on the band's journey and why it deserves this critical change of heart.
In the 20th century, the South was known for being the birthplace of Jazz, blues, rock and roll, and country. It also produced Jelly Roll Morton, Robert Johnson, Odetta, Little Richard, Elvis, the Carter Family, and countless others. Yet, in the decades preceding the mid-1990s rise of Hootie & the Blowfish, Southern rock went global when the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd which proffered sometimes blurry messages about Southern pride and the region's segregationist past. The 1970s and 1980s exploded with the more sophisticated stylings of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the B-52s, R.E.M., and The Black Crowes. Atlanta's Collective Soul released its 1994 major-label debut, Hints Allegations and Things Left Unsaid two weeks before Hootie's Cracked Rear View, and at the same time, LaFace Records and Organized Noize put major Southern R&B and hip-hop acts such as TLC and Outkast on the charts. At the time, Hootie's success fit in perfectly with the burgeoning entertainment industry in the New South, yet reporters from other regions couldn't accept the band's achievements at face value. Why?
First, Hootie arrived on the national scene at a pivotal time for the music industry and race relations. Founded at the University of South Carolina in 1986, Hootie & the Blowfish became a household name in 1994 with its hit “Hold My Hand,” a song so ubiquitous among white twenty-somethings that a fictional Hootie concert served as the subject of an entire episode of TV’s Friends. The band was also the butt of public jabs, a disposable cash cow for Atlantic Records, and a media target that drew both corporate line-toeing and merciless ire (one Rolling Stone writer was reportedly fired for a negative Hootie album review). Everyone loved to hate Hootie in the 1990s and beyond, and as late as 2017 the band was famously omitted from the CNN docu-series about the decade titled The Nineties, much to the dismay of Hootie's frontman, Darius Rucker.
In the 1990s, at the dawn of radio station consolidation and chart genre stratifications which seemed defined as much by ethnicity as by musical style, a band like Hootie & the Blowfish was destined to make waves; TV programming was becoming more diverse and audiences more racially divided. (The viewership of Friends, for example, was 91% white in the mid 1990s whereas in the 1970s even ethnically diverse shows such as The Jeffersons had far wider demographic appeal.) Politically, by the time Cracked Rear View (which did not feature a photo of the band members on its cover) struck a musical common denominator across middle-class America, the Fairness Doctrine was eroding, conservative talk radio had begun its long creep across the AM and FM dials and the controversial Crime Bill passed. Musically, on the heels of the white masculinity and rage heard in the grunge rock of the early 1990s, Hootie's detractors felt the band's songs were too light for rock and roll, too "cookie-cutter" to be blues, too country to be pop, and too pop to be anything else.
Racial tensions brewed across America, but the pop music fans who sent Cracked Rear View up the charts either accepted Hootie as some sort of bellwether for positive change (perhaps ignoring race altogether) or made fun of the band, using the group's moniker as a sort of racial epithet; not only was the term "Hootie" incorrectly associated as a nickname for singer Darius Rucker, it also became the word used to describe any black person in mostly-white surroundings. SNL poked fun at Hootie in a skit about the Million Man March in 1995; in 1996, critic Robert Christgau wrote about Rucker: "It's not his fault that in the era of O.J. and gin-and-juice he's come to embody what many whites hope is the 'Regular Black Guy'"—the same guy Ma$e referred to as a "true pimpin' n****" on Notorious B.I.G.'s posthumous 1997 hit, "Mo Money, Mo Problems." According to critic Dave Holmes, Hootie became "patient zero" of today's internet hate culture which originated in the late 1990s, and the New Yorker dissected the lopsided disdain for Hootie in a 2017 essay about Rucker's solo career called "The Perplexing Whiteness of Country Music," an essay which provided an excellent purview of the scrutiny and racist nonsense Rucker has faced, but never demonstrated that the band's Southernness was as much a factor in Hootie-hate as was the color of the singer's skin.
Secondly, few critics grasped that Hootie, at its peak, represented the pinnacle of college rock band success and also served as an ambassador of Southern culture. The T-shirt-and-jeans-wearing members of Hootie & the Blowfish looked and behaved the way most middle-class Southern college kids and post-college young men did at the time. Hootie had Southern manners; they were "nice guys" on the road, looking out for their opening acts like family; they considered themselves cut from the same cloth as other musicians from the region (think R.E.M., Mitch Easter, Don Dixon), yet they were shrugged off by media as less alternative and less authentic than their Southern peers. Was it because Rucker was black or because the band was Southern or both? Racism on college campuses in the South was a factor in Hootie hate, but no more than racism on college campuses in the Northeast was at the time. In fact, Rucker became the face of 1990s mainstream college rock bands in the South because he represented the assimilation of young African-American men into traditionally white state university campuses at a time when black college enrollment rose steadily across a five-year period. African-American enrollment at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where the members of Hootie met in 1986, peaked in the 1990s at the same time Hootie & the Blowfish did; in 1998 black students made up nearly 20% of USC's student population, a number which gradually decreased to 9% by 2016. Hootie appealed to white college-aged kids, perhaps because Hootie represented a more integrated college experience than those students’ predecessors had known. This was true not just at USC but in colleges all over the US. If Hootie had originated at a school such as the University of Michigan or Boston College, would the band have received as much ridicule? I doubt it.
Between 1994 and 2005, Hootie & the Blowfish released five albums, toured the world, parted ways with its record label, and played gigs to smaller audiences. The band went on hiatus in 2008 and Rucker has told reporters this summer that Hootie's 2019 tour, its first long-term outing in more than ten years, may be its last. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote in a June 2019 review that the band—which was returning to 20,000-seat venues without the pressure and expectations of fame—had "found its happy place" at last. New York Times critic Jon Caramanica re-assessed Hootie in a wonderfully expansive June 2019 story, painting the band as poster boys of Real World-era MTV, a low-key "balm" for the Bill Clinton years, and a blanket for the decade's rumbling discontent. Rolling Stone, Esquire and Variety also weighed in on Hootie's comeback/last blast with a nostalgic eye toward excitement and regret, each stating the band's best qualities while questioning the harsh treatment the group received in its heyday.
Finally, re-measuring Hootie's value begins with accepting the American South as a cultural equal to other regions in the country. Looking back, at least from my own perspective as a white woman from the South who, in the mid-1990s, wrote about music in national and regional publications and co-hosted two radio programs featuring South Carolina rock bands, Hootie's greatest accomplishment is its blatant disregard for outsiders' preconceptions about musicians from the South. In other words, neither Hootie nor Southerners cared if the rest of the world thought a white rock band fronted by a black man was too exotic to be alternative. To us, Hootie criticism felt like an excuse to delegitimize Southern music simply because it involved a black man who didn't fit the ascribed stereotype or Northern narrative.
The age-old camaraderie among black and white Southern musicians remains difficult for some people to grasp, because it challenges misleading narratives about Southerners' lives and how we interact. More than half of the states in the U.S. have a tiny African American population [less than 1 in 100 people in Montana identify as black, for example] compared with the Southeastern states in which 1 of every 3 or 4 people identifies as black. People who live in states with low racial diversity might be huge fans of Hootie but just don't get the symbolism. The Swampers backed Aretha Franklin in the 1960s; Lionel Richie wrote some of Kenny Rogers's biggest hits in the 1980s; Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus remixed "Old Town Road" this year — how is that different than Hootie members Darius, Mark, Dean, and Sony slinging their jangling guitars in South Carolina in 1994? Each of these Southern-born artists succeeded because they refused to conform to imposed norms and regionalist biases. In a 2013 NYT editorial, North Carolina music journalist Mark Kemp mentioned a similar situation when Brad Paisley released a highly panned song called "Accidental Racist," featuring L.L. Cool J: "It is hardly the first time a song by a Southerner dealing with white blue-collar issues has produced strong reactions among the Northeastern-based media," Kemp wrote.
It's not surprising that a 1994 Hootie & the Blowfish song about the confederate flag flying at the South Carolina statehouse ("Drowning") didn't get much notoriety until after the band lobbied for decades and then-governor Nikki Haley removed the flag from the statehouse in 2015. In 2019, the sins of the South are ever-present, especially in the wake of recent white supremacy-fueled murders in Charleston and Charlottesville. Yet, hate maps prove that racism is distributed across the US and around the world. It’s easier for some critics to accept a black man as a monolithic figure, i.e. Rucker as a solo country artist, than it is to accept the fact that the formation of Hootie & the Blowfish, a natural combination of black and white SOUTHERN musicians, was a groundbreaking moment in the mainstream, both for its blend of musical styles and the united front band members presented to the world. Regionalist bias against the South is often more than racism, but it's never less than racism.
Footnote: On December 29, 1994, Hootie & the Blowfish performed a sold-out show at Greenville Memorial Auditorium in front of the largest crowd in the South Carolina venue's history. My photographer friend and I came to the show to take photos of opening acts Cravin' Melon and Dillon Fence, but we stuck around for Hootie, whose songs we'd known for years before the rest of America did, and watched the show near the stage curtain with a full view of the audience. "Hold My Hand" was in the middle of its 44-week run on the Billboard Hot 100 (it peaked at #10 in February 1995), and although I had been critical of the band's sound (always in awe of Rucker's voice but also hoping they'd add more passion to their prose and more grit to their guitars), I got a lump in my throat while watching Hootie sing their biggest hit to an arena full of ecstatic young people that night. The rock audience in attendance was mostly white, but in the room it was never a matter of, "We don't see race here." Instead, the crowd reveled in the metaphors of Hootie's profoundly basic harmonies. "I've got a hand for you," we all sang back to Rucker. In Hootie, many Southern fans saw themselves and their communities: black and white, living together. Were the music and the moment idealistic? Yes. Were Hootie's sentiments unrealistic? No. Every time I hear a Hootie song, I wish the rest of the country understood it.
Photos by Oliver Tollison