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Hootie Who? Hootie & the Blowfish

There's a theme running through the liner notes on Hootie & The Blowfish's debut Atlantic album, Cracked Rear View.

Among the band's acknowledgments, this from lead singer Darius Rucker: "To my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother . . . thank you for making me who I am." Drummer Jim "Soni" Sonefeld: "Thanks also to all my friends for putting up with me in the past and being there when I needed you most."

Guitarist Mark Bryan: To family and friends, "your support for my music kept me going, especially when I sucked." And similarly from bassist Dean Felber: "You all made it possible for me to thank you."

After years of plugging away on the club circuit, the Columbia, S.C.-based rock quartet has plenty to be grateful for. Spurred by the rising single, Hold My Hand, Cracked Rear View has cracked the Top 60 on Billboard

's pop albums chart, and with other singles to mine, it's likely to be a consistent seller for months.

No wonder they feel indebted to those who stood by them in lean times.

"We're so thankful to our family and friends," Felber said in advance of the band's free show at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg, "because they gave us places to stay, fed us, put up with us when we had no money.

"When we all graduated in 1989 (from the University of South Carolina), all our friends went out and got jobs, took off around the world, and we're sitting there in Columbia going, "Well, I guess we should write some songs.'

"In a way, we thought we could do it, that we could make it, but in a lot of ways, you can never be sure because you can never tell what's going to work in this industry."

Not even the four Blowfish could have envisioned becoming a top regional draw and releasing several independent releases, the last of which _ Kootchypop _ sold more than 40,000 copies last year. In came Atlantic and the rest is Hootie history.

"Tim Sommer, who signed us, really liked how we were a lot like a family," Felber said, "and that we were all great friends and worked together to get where we were.

"We didn't depend on anyone in the music and business ends, and he thought that the slow climb made us more solid than other acts out there."

Long before Atlantic entered the picture, Felber _ who majored in journalism and business finance _ helped the band form a legal partnership, eventually allowing the members to quit their day jobs and receive steady paychecks and health insurance.

Now that the Blowfish are going beyond regional status, their appealing brand of guitar-based rock is attracting a diverse audience at shows.

"We played a lot of college towns early on," Felber said, "but in the past year, we're been getting college and some high school students showing up, plus young professionals.

"And now we're getting 14- to 45-year-olds . . . it blows my mind. It's like, "What are you doing here?! How did you hear about us?' "

CONCERT PREVIEW

Hootie & The Blowfish

With opening act Men From Earth, 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg. Free.

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