MINNEAPOLIS -- Hootie is back! And don't forget: The singer's name isn't Hootie.
It's Darius Rucker, and he's been a big country star for the past decade. He never went away.
But his band, '90s hitmakers Hootie and the Blowfish, has returned in full force, with a new album due in November -- its first in 14 years -- and its most ambitious tour in more than a decade.
"There was not a year that went by when we didn't play," said Rucker. "We played four or five charity shows every year."
But the current Group Therapy Tour is a big deal, visiting 44 cities to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the mega-album "Cracked Rear View" -- and to tell everyone: "We're back."
"We talked about it at the 20th anniversary. We talked about it at our charity gigs," said Rucker, 52. "It just seemed like the right time."
Even though "Cracked Rear View" is the 10th biggest-selling album of all time in the United States, the record may be as reviled as beloved.
Just as punk offered an antidote to the tamed-down '70s rock of Rod Stewart and the Eagles, "Cracked" was a response to the angst-ridden grunge rock that dominated the early '90s. Arriving three months after Nirvana's Kurt Cobain died by suicide, Hootie's album was Southern-tinged roots rock, a sound that might be dubbed as Americana today.
A musical omnivore, Rucker knew grunge. Ask him to name his favorite tune in that genre and he gushes over the phone about a Stone Temple Pilots hit: "Oh, my goodness, 'Interstate Love Song.' I still think it's one of the greatest songs I've ever heard."
But goodbye grunge, hello Hootie. The South Carolina quartet dominated radio in 1995-96 with such songs as "Let Her Cry," won the Grammy for best new artist and filled big venues with its amiable frat-party vibe.
The songs were ubiquitous and middlebrow, and Hootie was considered hopelessly unhip. Rock critics cringed, and "Saturday Night Live" made fun of Rucker, spoofing him as the leader of Frat Nation.
"We didn't care about that," Rucker said without sounding defensive. "All we cared about is that we wanted to make it."
Perhaps because of overexposure, the depth of Hootie's songs was often overlooked. Listeners didn't realize "Drowning" was about South Carolina flying the Confederate flag in its statehouse and "Hold My Hand" was about racism.
"?'Hold My Hand' is a protest song," said Rucker, "but the chorus was all people heard."
After "Cracked Rear View," Hootie faded. They were victims of a backlash, Rucker said. "It wasn't cool to like Hootie. That record was so big. It was everywhere. You can't maintain at that level."
Even today, Hootie can't seem to get much respect. It was omitted from a recent CNN series about the '90s. "To mention all those one-hit wonders and not mention us?" Rucker wondered. "There hasn't been a record since ('Cracked Rear View') that has sold more than we did."
The band became eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, but it wasn't even nominated.
"They're not going to put us on the ballot," Rucker opined. "If they did put us on the ballot and we get in, great. But it's not something I think about."
Hootie and the Blowfish has been MIA for more than a decade.
It was drummer Jim (Soni) Sonefeld who put the brakes on touring. In 2008, four years after getting sober, he told his bandmates he didn't want to tour anymore. There was no official announcement.
Sonefeld became a born-again Christian and made religious records. Bassist Dean Felber entered the wine business and became a single parent when his ex-wife died. Guitarist Mark Bryan taught classes about the music biz at the College of Charleston.
Rucker headed to Nashville in 2008 after failing to make much noise with an R&B solo album. Since then, he's had consistent triumphs, scoring eight No. 1 country songs, including his debut single "Don't Think I Don't Think About It."
He was surprised by his country success. "I'm still surprised," the molasses-voiced singer admitted.
His biggest hit is 2013's "Wagon Wheel," which features a Bob Dylan chorus and melody from 1973 and verses that Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show penned 25 years later. Rucker recorded it with Lady Antebellum singing background vocals.
"I haven't heard from Dylan," Rucker said. "We could have coffee or something when I get to Minnesota." He chuckled for a while.
He did hear from Dylan's people a few years earlier because Hootie's 1995 hit "Only Wanna Be With You" quoted a verse from Dylan's 1975 tune "Idiot Wind." They reached an after-the-fact settlement, with Dylan collecting a chunk of change.
Despite the hubbub over Hootie's return, Rucker's priority is Nashville.
"Country is what I'm going to do every day," he said, mentioning he'll record a solo album after the Hootie tour ends in October. "We're not going to do this (Hootie) every year."
Rucker didn't have many details about the new Hootie album except it's called "Imperfect Circle" and due Nov. 1. He co-wrote one song with Ed Sheeran, but it may not make the album.
Even though the band aimed for something a little different, Rucker said, "Everything we do, whether we do reggae or whatever, we end up sounding like Hootie and the Blowfish."
In 2019, where does Hootie's new music fit in?
"I have no idea," he said. "When you hear it, you tell me, man. We're a rock band."
Maybe so, but the group is signed to UMG Nashville, a country label.
That Hootie and the Blowfish is making a big comeback in 2019, the same year another '90s icon, Tiger Woods, rebounded to win the Masters Tournament, is not lost on Rucker, a close friend of Woods.
"It's felt like 1997," Rucker said, referring to the year of Woods' first Masters championship.
Rucker sounds happy -- for himself, his bandmates and their fans.
Who needs this tour more -- the band or the fans?
"Wow! Good question," he said. "I think we needed it for us. Because we've gone through ups and downs. I don't know if needed is the word. We wanted it. The fans who have been coming to see us have been crazy.
"Yeah," he said with a pause, "we needed it."
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