Beaufort News

A tutu for Hootie as SC celebrates homegrown band

COLUMBIA -- Although it's been more than a decade since Hootie and the Blowfish's "Cracked Rear View" album brought them national fame, the band members still turn heads in their home state.

And their latest project is a partnership with the Columbia City Ballet for a performance telling the story of the group's formative years using dance, dialogue and live music.

The concept, and the subject, may seem odd and perhaps passe to an outsider. But here in the city where the band cut its teeth, the tickets are selling.

"This is a true success story," said William Starrett, the ballet's artistic director, who came up with the idea. "I wanted to celebrate a positive."

The way the band and its fans explain it, South Carolina seems to remain touched by the musical nice guys who met at the local university and went on to become what the ballet in its promotion describes as the state's "homegrown musical ambassadors."

"We've always felt like maybe South Carolina's best export and we've always tried to carry that with some pride," said drummer Jim "Soni" Sonefeld.

Starrett broached the subject of a "Hootie and the Blowfish Ballet" with Sonefeld at a Columbia night spot in the early 1990s, when the band was at the height of its celebrity. The timing was wrong.

Starrett has also staged productions such as a ballet about South Carolina artist Jonathan Green, and he never let the idea die. He finally got the band together two years ago to pitch them.

"We all decided, 'He seems enthused. He seems motivated, so let's go for it,"' Sonefeld said.

Sonefeld, singer Darius Rucker, guitarist Mark Bryan and bassist Dean Felber plan to play during the weekend's three performances.

They'll also add some dialogue to the production.

Starrett hopes enough buzz will lead to a statewide tour, and mentions the Billy Joel-Twyla Tharp show "Moving Out" when talking about successful recent music and dance collaborations.

Robert Thompson, Syracuse University's pop culture guru, said a Hootie ballet sounds at first like a Saturday Night Live skit from the mid-1990s.

But "in a culture that can make a real splash with an opera called 'Nixon in China,' in a culture that actually can take a string of ABBA songs, which we used to laugh at, and can make a significant hit musical and movie ... all of a sudden, a ballet about the career of Hootie and the Blowfish is kind of traditional," he said.

There's no better place -- perhaps no other place -- for such a production to fly.

Hootie's story reads like a hokey Hollywood script: Four University of South Carolina musicians playing covers in local dives hit it big with wholesome pop. The identity stuck as they seemed to remain just the guys next door.

Sonefeld was often seen kicking a soccer ball in his front yard a few blocks from campus. At the height of their national fame, the band members led a charge onto the university basketball court after a win over Kentucky.

The four host charity events, including a "Monday After The Masters" tournament attended by celebrities and PGA Tour pros to aid junior golfers. Since 2003, they've asked fans to bring school supplies to tour stops to benefit poor children.

As a solo artist, Rucker is currently topping the Billboard country music charts with his song "It Won't Be Like This For Long."

And fans talk about the lack of any VH1 "Behind The Music"-style expose, or bold headlines about arrests or nasty fights. They actually seem like nice guys.

"None of them are in it for the wrong reason, which isn't something you can say about a lot of artists," said Marty Fort, who heads the Columbia Arts Academy, a music school in the city. "That's part of the draw and part of the story."