There is a great Key and Peele sketch about Darius Rucker (a credibly bald-capped Jordan Peele) failing to connect with audiences as a solo act. “Don’t go out with my friends no more, don’t want to hold your hand no more” Peele croons, deliberately negating the carefree lyrics of the hits Rucker wrote for Hootie & the Blowfish, whose 1994 album Cracked Rear View remains one of the best-selling debut records of all time.
The idea of a one-hit wonder struggling to recapture his glory days is low- hanging fruit, satirically speaking, but Rucker’s band was a pop-cultural punchline even when they were selling out arenas. Sure, they were fleetingly hip enough to be name-dropped as a hot—and costly—ticket on a vintage episode of Friends, but for the most part, the Blowfish were the butt of the joke. On Saturday Night Live, Tim Meadows impersonated Rucker leading a contingent of mostly white conservatives in a countermarch against Louis Farrakhan; in Jerry Maguire, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s terse wide receiver Rod Tidwell becomes furious when he’s misidentified by an eager autograph-seeker. “I’m not Hootie,” he snarls at the young fan holding out a pen.
Of course, Rucker was never “Hootie,” either: the name was derived from the frontman’s memories of two buddies—one owlish, one puffy, both wasted—that he saw enter together at a campus party at the University of South Carolina, where his band came together circa 1992. By turns twangy and jangly, with slick production and powered by Rucker’s gravelly baritone, Cracked Rear View nodded to classic-rock by interpolating “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Idiot Wind” into the anthemic “I Only Wanna Be With You” (a better Dylan nod than the one on Counting Crows’ contemporaneous “Mr. Jones”) and coyly high-fived the Beatles on “Hold My Hand.” Song for song, the record actually sounded like the not-so-distant memory of some campus party; released into the grunge-infested zeitgeist of the early ‘90s, it was the dull roar of the frat-house across the street bleeding through the dorm room wall. Not loud enough to drown out Nirvana or Pearl Jam, but pretty nice, as background noise goes.
If there was one thing that Rucker and the recently-deceased Kurt Cobain would have agreed upon in the summer of 1994, it would have been the music of R.E.M., which Nirvana obliquely echoed and the Blowfish emulated to the point of name-checking their hero in song. The teary trainwreck at the center of their Grammy-winning Top 10 single “Let Her Cry”—a moist, mid-tempo exercise in catharsis a la “Everybody Hurts”—tells her lover that while “Dad’s the one she loves the most, Stipe’s not far behind.”
I thought of that line last year when I saw Rucker—looking fit and hearty and happy at 57—performing with members of R.E.M. at a 40th anniversary tribute concert for the band’s Chronic Town EP. He sang “I Believe” off of 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant, a coruscating stream-of-consciousness number that happens to be my very favorite late-I.R.S.-era R.E.M. deep cut, and may have even yielded my high school yearbook quote: when I was nineteen, the song’s characteristically Stipean claim that “perfect is a fault and faultlines change” struck me as profound. It’s also as good a summation of any of what happened to Rucker and his group, whose songs about hanging out with friends and holding hands and letting girlfriends cry were, formally speaking, perfect to a fault. By the end of the ‘90s, the tectonic plates of mainstream taste shifting under their feet left them in no man’s land.
It’s impossible to watch YouTube clips of Rucker’s post-Hootie solo performances without thinking of Peele’s indignant impersonation (“there are no people known as the Blowfish, y’all!”), but in point of fact, he’s spent the last 20 years doing something even more impressive than reinventing himself: he’s continued to succeed on his own terms, faultlines be damned. Always a bit of a sentimental cornball—a persona that simultaneously ingratiated him to a mass audience while alienating listeners and critics looking for more militance (or coolness) from a uniquely visible African-American rock star—he appeared on sports broadcasts, game shows, and comedy skits, trading on his celebrity without ever actually belittling or undermining it (or the fan base that still showed up dutifully for Hootie nostalgia tours). Rucker fully embraced Nashville on 2008’s Learn to Live, a smartly-written, carefully-crafted album whose lead single “I Don’t Think I Think About It” was the first country #1 by a Black artist since Charley Pride in 1983. In 2012, after a string of similarly successful genre efforts, he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry by fellow nicecore guitar-slinger Brad Paisley. In 2013, Rucker’s cover of the vintage Bob Dylan chestnut “Wagon Wheel”—ain’t Bobby so cool?—earned him a Grammy to go with the one he won for “Let Her Cry” a whole career ago.
Writing about Cracked Rear View and its follow-up Fairweather Johnson in 1996, Village Voice music writer Robert Christgau criticized the idea that Rucker had failed some kind of racial-spokesman test. Instead, he offered that the singer was simply being himself, which was to say “one of the countless Southern blacks who love country music and one of the smaller contingent of assimilated blacks who dig the guitar-band gestalt some think equals ‘rock.’” It was not Rucker’s fault, Christgau added, “that by not only accepting but mastering a white-identified cultural style he revalidates it as the Gin Blossoms, say, never could.” This observation is slightly unfair to the Gin Blossoms—who, after all, just played with Rucker this past April at the all-inclusive, resort-style happening called Hootiefest in scenic Cancun—but it gets at why goofing on this particular performer’s success always felt safe, and why sticking up for him in return feels a tiny bit transgressive; the perverse satisfaction of getting wrapped up in what Christgau called “the embrace of the normal.”
A warm hug can also be a trap: to return to the strange phenomenon of Hootiefest and its murderer’s row of ‘90s alt-rock-radio royalty—Lit, Everclear, The Goo Goo Dolls, Barenaked Ladies, somehow not Counting Crows—its very existence validates the thesis of Esquire’s Dave Holmes, who recently wrote a short, funny, devastating piece about the strange alchemy by which bands derided as carpetbaggers are now legacy acts, and how, for people of a certain age, that transformation has become a powerful signifier of mortality. Reality bites: the implicit melancholy of a festival catering to aging Gen-Xers who’ve simply refused to connect to any new rock music recorded post OK Computer is enough to chill our collective souls. And yet somehow in 2023, Rucker and his bandmates don’t seem especially pathetic, or opportunistic, or even past their prime: more like they’ve aged gracefully into the corniness that is their musical birthright. I think I’d even consider attending Hootiefest 2024 (dates and place TBD) to observe Rucker’s amiable defiance of the burn-out/fade away dialectic, and maybe to hear his killer cover of Stone Temple Pilots’ dusty, lonely, “Interstate Love Song” in person. Or maybe even Pearl Jam. Imagine it: an entire resort of washed dads in cargo shorts, lowering their voices, raising their arms to the sky, and affirming en masse that they are, in fact, still alive. Let them cry.
Darius Rucker illustration by Gregory Simmons II.