A quarter century ago there wasn’t a band more simultaneously adored yet somehow reviled than Hootie & the Blowfish. Led by singer Darius Rucker, the South Carolina frat house rockers found themselves all over MTV, winning Grammy awards, breaking sales records and suffering the pointed barbs and venom of most mainstream music critics across the country.
The years following the gigantic success of the group’s diamond-selling LP Cracked Rear View weren’t quite as kind to the group, though they still sold millions of copies of each of their next two records. As the music marketplace moved into more aggressive rap and nu metal realms, the folksy sing-along anthems of Hootie & the Blowfish seemed to fade into the background.
Since 2008, Rucker has been known perhaps more as a hit-making solo country star than as the lead singer of his old group. Hootie and the Blowfish never broke up, mind you, and have performed a number of reunion shows over the years. In a blast from the past plot twist, Hootie & the Blowfish toured throughout this past summer to packed amphitheaters and have now released their first record of new material in 14 years with the fine Imperfect Circle.
For drummer Jim “Soni” Sonefeld, the time away from the rock ‘n’ roll road found him battling alcohol addiction and going through a divorce before getting sober, remarrying and even recording some Christian albums under his own name.
We recently caught up with “Soni” to talk about the definition of country music, what he’s been up to lately and what it was like to hit the road with his band again after so many years.
The new album is being released on a country record label. Do you think it’s a country record?
I just had a big conversation about this with my wife. It’s pretty complex. Maybe it shouldn’t be since its just music, but the lines have become very blurred. They’re definitely more blurred now than when we started making music in the ‘90s. The ‘80s country I grew up listening to was different than ‘70s country, and of course all that sounds very different from a lot of the current country music.
Is what country has become gotten closer to what Hootie & the Blowfish has always been, or have we moved towards what country music is currently? How does Darius’ success in country music play into all of this? That begs more questions than it answers [laughing]. I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a good answer!
No, no, I think that’s the perfect answer, really. I don’t know if you watched any of the recent Ken Burns Country Music documentary, but it goes to great lengths to detail how country music isn’t one single thing, but many things at once.
Some people want a narrower definition of what country music is, but it’s hard to deny that country music is a very broad thing. That’s certainly not a new idea. It’s been that way for a very long time.
What kind of country music did you listen to growing up in Illinois?
We played Willie Nelson records, Glen Campbell records and Waylon Jennings, but we also played a lot of southern rock, like Charlie Daniels, the Outlaws and Marshall Tucker Band. That was all very influential for me even though I was in Illinois instead of the south.
Do you think people can get tripped up by the regional identities and genre definitions that often comes with country and southern rock?
As artists, we have always tried to stay away from pretty much any walls that limit us or strictly define what we are. I just always thought of us as a rock band, but it’s impossible to say we weren’t influenced by country, southern rock and even bluegrass. For people who wonder if country music has opened its doors too wide for us to come in, I say just listen to our music first.
It’s not like you guys are Bon Jovi trying to sell themselves as a country band.
Yeah, right! The leap isn’t really a big one, especially since Darius is a member of the Grand Ole Opry and has been on country radio for 10 years.
So, you guys didn’t go into the studio and decide to purposely make the songs more country or less rock or anything like that?
Oh, no we didn’t do that at all. The music is authentic to who we are and to our roots as musicians. I think people only connect with songs they feel are sincere. We had plenty of Darius’ country fans tell us they weren’t familiar with the rock band stuff, but they really liked it and felt it was all connected. We’ll let the fans decide what they think of the record.
The band recently completed its first major tour in well over a decade. How was this tour different for you now, compared to 20 years ago?
I’m glad I had the opportunity to do some foundation building in my faith and really believing in something and acting it out by helping more and not taking as much before another big tour. I was hesitant to disrupt the family life I had been building for the last 11 years with a summer of rock ‘n’ roll in front of 20,000 people every night. In order to protect what we had built, we got a bus for our big, blended, mixed bag of a family and went on the road together. It was absolutely fabulous. I just couldn’t imagine saying “bye” to them for the entire summer, and it was beautiful.
What would the long-haired shirtless drumming Soni of 1996 say to the 2019 Soni taking his family on the road with him for so long?
I hope he would say something like “now there’s a guy comfortable in his own skin, that’s happy with his role in the band and in his life outside the band.”
Having an album that was as massive of a success as Cracked Rear View seems like it might be one of those double-edged blessing and a curse types of things in that you probably want people to think you’ve done more than just that one thing in your life.
Darius having his success in recent years makes us appear more relevant than we would’ve been otherwise. He keeps us from looking so ancient [laughing]. That’s what I think at least.