Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 84 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re exploring Hootie & the Blowfish’s “Only Wanna Be With You,” with help from writer Leslie Streeter. Below is an excerpt of this episode’s transcript.
A while back, when we were talking about Counting Crows, I somewhat glibly described Counting Crows as “grunge counterprogramming,” the overbroad idea being that once Nirvana’s Nevermind comes out in September 1991, and especially after it becomes the no. 1 record in America in January ’92, from then on, forevermore, the term “’90s rock” is synonymous with grunge, right, or synonymous in general with distortion, with heaviness, with angst, with self-loathing, with extravagant supermacho grumpusness. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, but also, as the decade rolls on, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Tool, etc.
But when the first Counting Crows record, August and Everything After, comes out in 1993, there’s a sense not of a backlash—it’s not any kind of cynical marketing scheme—but suddenly in ’93 and ’94 there’s this burst of great records by newish bands who are janglier, sunnier, rootsier, jammier, and when they’re grumpuses they’re at least less macho and more approachable in their extravagant grumpusness. Dave Matthews Band, Rusted Root, Spin Doctors, the Wallflowers, Blues Traveler. Everything about this is imprecise, including the Heavy vs. Soft binary. Blues Traveler, right? Outta New Jersey. In 1994, they’re already on their fourth album, which they call Four, and they blow up thanks to their somewhat abrupt hit song “Run-Around,” but let it be known that there is no guitar solo, by any ’90s rock band, no matter how distorted and gnarly and angst-ridden, that is heavier than Blues Traveler frontman John Popper’s fuckin’ harmonica action on this shit.
Dude is shredding. That’s a lotta notes. John Popper, he’s got the fishing vest with all the harmonica pockets, that will one day turn up on an episode of Pawn Stars. But for now he’s shredding. “Run-Around” is the “Stairway to Heaven” of the ’90s, is what I’m saying. Not really. Everything about this is imprecise, including the notion that these bands all knew one another, and liked one another, and sounded like one another, and conspired together to run parallel to grunge. But when Kurt Cobain dies by suicide in April 1994, and grunge recedes as a mainstream-dominating cynical marketing scheme at least, the likes of Dave Matthews Band, Rusted Root, Spin Doctors, the Wallflowers, Blues Traveler, and Counting Crows are well-positioned to fill that vacuum, to offer a brighter and at least superficially cheerier alternative to the alternative to the previous alternative. A sunny new era as befits what in retrospect, anyway, we imagine as an unnaturally sunny and carefree and low-conflict decade.
Sunny and carefree and low-conflict for us, though. For the listener. Because what really unites all those bands is that critics didn’t like ’em, and performative hatred of them ran rampant, and any Worst Bands of the ’90s list now is gonna over-index on ’em, and there is a tendency to reduce, say, Counting Crows, to a LOL-’90s late-night-show-type punch line. In December 2022, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows appeared on the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, talking to journalist Brian Hiatt about “A Long December,” a great conversation about that truly great song’s origin story and enduring status as a grumpus holiday classic. But the conversation ends with Adam sounding truly weary as he laments how his band is still lumped in with the Hooties and Blues Travelers of the world and the Crows have always been easier targets for the Jimmy Kimmels of the world. Heaviness and distortion are cool, and confer prestige and respect. Whereas janglier, rootsier lightness does not.
He tells a story about a Jimmy Kimmel bit where Jimmy read a mean tweet about how nobody knows more than three Counting Crows songs. Adam’s referring to the decade between Counting Crows making the cover of Rolling Stone in 1994 and the magazine, in Adam’s opinion, finally starting to take the band seriously again around 2008, 2010, 2012. Closer to two decades of being a joke. Counting Crows are a ’90s band but not a cool ’90s band, no matter how big they got in 1994, no matter how big their brighter and sweeter sound got in 1994. And nobody in 1994 got brighter and sweeter and bigger than this guy and those other guys.
Hootie & the Blowfish named themselves that on purpose in 1986 after meeting at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia. Yes, the South Carolina Gamecocks. Pride of the SEC. Err, proud member of the SEC. We got Darius Rucker on vocals and guitar, Mark Bryan with a Y on lead guitar, Dean Felber on bass, Jim Sonefeld on drums. As you are probably aware, Darius Rucker is Black, whereas the rest of the dudes are white; this will, to put it mildly, compound the frustration, of all those dudes on the street, many of them wearing COCKS hats, asking Darius Rucker if he’s Hootie. When Hootie & the Blowfish themselves make the cover of Rolling Stone in ’95, drummer Jim Sonefeld, better known as Soni, will quip, “Everyone says we’re one Black guy in an all-white band, but that’s not true. We’re actually three white guys in an all-Black band.” Is that a quip? He might just mean that. Don’t overthink it.
When Darius Rucker and Mark Bryan play live together for the first time, as a duo, performing as the Wolf Brothers at a South Carolina chicken-wing restaurant named Pappy’s, the first song Darius and Mark ever play together is “Take It Easy,” by the Eagles. That makes sense. That’s good advice, also. Darius and Mark add Dean Felber on bass first, they start playing covers at frat parties and what have you: the Police, Squeeze, R.E.M., et cetera. After graduation, they add Soni on drums, the lineup is set, and then Hootie & the Blowfish spend years, plural, as a plucky, hard-touring bar band. My favorite sentence in their Rolling Stone cover story is the giant list of bars they used to play. Rockafella’s, in Columbia; the Music Farm, in Charleston; the Purple Gator, in Myrtle Beach; the Windjammer, in Isle of Palms, all of those in South Carolina; Kilroy’s, in Greensboro, North Carolina; the Mad Monk, in Wilmington, North Carolina; the Georgia Theater, in Athens; and then fine, OK, Wetlands in New York City. That’s cool. That’s cooler.
Hootie & the Blowfish plug away for years, plural. They get bigger. They get big enough that they can’t change their stupid name. They talk to some record labels, they work up some demos, but not much happens until 1993, when they self-release an EP called Kootchypop. Lemme tell you something. I have repeated, out loud, some very stupid band names, and album titles, and song titles, and lyrics, in my time here, but that is the stupidest name for anything I have yet encountered. I will not say it again. Forget it. If you forget the name of the first Hootie & the Blowfish EP, hit the “15 seconds back” button twice in 3, 2, 1, go. That’s it. I’m not saying that again. The first song on The EP That Shall Not Be Named is “The Old Man and Me.”
I’m willing to bet you got a tiny little endorphin rush just now, a mini-thunderbolt of Saturday night exuberance, a warm and slow-blooming two-and-a-half Bud Lights–type sensation, just from hearing 10 seconds of even pre-fame Hootie & the Blowfish. These fellas excel at—they exemplify—good vibes. Hootie & the Blowfish—then, now, and forever—are a bar band. But that’s imprecise. They’re a sports bar band. Any bar in which Hootie & the Blowfish perform de facto becomes a sports bar. It’s a vibe. It’s a great vibe. They are the delightful midair collision of sports and pop culture. Hootie & the Blowfish, whenever and wherever they play live, to this day, should perform in front of an extra-huge Jumbotron airing SportsCenter. On mute, but. Just the Top 10 and Not Top 10 plays of the night, on a loop, behind Hootie & the Blowfish. That’s the vibe. Spectacular vibe. Not an insult. Not even close to an insult. Janglier, sunnier, rootsier.
Lemme ask you something. Did you register that Darius Rucker just sang the words in a voice filled with pain? He totally did. The Old Man in a voice filled with pain asks Darius where he’s going. Here’s where Darius is going.
I figured we’d better immediately complicate the image of Hootie & the Blowfish as a frictionless, angst- and conflict-free proposition. They get sad—they get angry sometimes. They’re just not grumpuses about it. And that, by 1994, makes them revolutionary, or, fine, counterrevolutionary. Hootie & the Blowfish get signed to a major label, to Atlantic. Their debut album, Cracked Rear View, comes out in July 1994. In May 1995, it hits no. 1 on the Billboard album chart, for the first of five times, on its way to become the best-selling album of 1995, on its way to becoming, as of 2021, the 10th-best-selling album in United States history, just behind Garth Brooks’s Double Live, and just ahead of fuckin’ Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Fine. I give up. It’s a great song.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.