By Kevin Gray
April 10, 1995 12:00 PM

DAVID LETTERMAN IS MAKING that face again: confused, dyspeptic, feigning dumbfounded innocence. He stares into the camera. Yes, he’s going to say it.

“Hootie and the Blowfish.”

Buttafuoco? Gillooly? Boutros Boutros-Ghali? Yesterday’s laugh lines. Letterman’s latest running gag is the oddball name of a once obscure bar band from Columbia, S.C. Shortly after their debut album, Cracked Rear View, came out last July, Letterman heard their hit single, “Hold My Hand,” and asked the band to play on his show. He was so enchanted by their upbeat, southern-fried sound—and by their name, of course—that he invited them back in February and told the audience that if they didn’t buy a copy of the Cracked CD, there was something wrong with them.

The self-styled dweebs of rock are modest about their new fame. “We’re pretty much dorks,” says lead singer Darius Rucker, 28, who exempts only drummer Jim Sonefeld, 30. “Soni’s long hair,” he says, “is where our coolness ends.” But dorkiness pays. Cracked Rear View has sold 2.4 million copies and was No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart last week.

That’s a long way from the dorm room at the University of South Carolina, where Rucker and guitarist Mark Bryan, now 27, both journalism majors, started jamming 10 years ago. An unlikely pair, Rucker had a soul-shouter’s voice, while Bryan, from Gaithersburg, Md., loved the bluesy licks of the All-man Brothers. They recruited two classmates, bassist Dean Felber, 27 (a hometown childhood pal of Bryan’s) and later Sonefeld (from Chicago), and a band with a big, catchy, uncomplicated sound was born. As a kick, they named the group after two of Rucker’s college friends: Hootie, known for his big, wild-looking eyes, and the jowly Blowfish. “We weren’t thinking it was a name we would have forever,” says Felber. “We thought we could always think of something better.”

Fortunately they never did. The band’s first steady gig was at a campus beer joint called Pappy’s, where they bartered music for brews. Eventually, “Pappy got cool,” says Bryan, “and gave us, like, $30 and free beer.” After graduation in 1989, the foursome took a decidedly unrockerlike turn: they formed a corporation, Fishco Inc., that paid their salaries (about $8,000 a year) and provided health insurance. “It wasn’t that we thought [the band] was going to be big or anything,” says Felber. “We just wanted to keep going. We wanted to be able to do it without having day jobs.”

That meant plenty of late nights on the interstates. For the next two years the band cruised the southern bar circuit in a rattletrap caravan of cars, doing about 250 gigs a year. One by one, their girlfriends lost patience with their rambling lifestyle. “They didn’t understand,” says Sonefeld, adding that a typical complaint was, “Well, how long are you not going to make any money?” Now the four have money—and even permanent digs in Columbia—but they’re still looking for dates. “How am I supposed to find anyone?” says Rucker, pointing to his roommate Felber. “Dean’s always with me.”

Rucker & Co. live in a world unto themselves: Hootie world. They watch Hootie movies (Dumb and Dumber is a favorite), play Hootie sports (golf) and even follow a Hootie code (e.g., no jeans shorts on the bus, because, says Rucker, “they’re not for guys”). “We never really fit in with those artist types who sit around and smoke cigarettes and talk about music and wear leather and stuff,” says Sonefeld. “I guess that’s what set us apart. We weren’t depressed.”

Not that they haven’t had difficult times. In November 1992, Rucker’s 51-year-old single mother, Carolyn, died suddenly of a heart attack. She had been his musical muse when he was growing up in Charleston, S.C., sitting with him for hours listening to Al Green records. After her death, Rucker, who is often mistakenly called Hootie, says the band “turned from something I wanted to do into something I had to do.”

That was a turning point. A year later the group put out an independent six-song EP, Kootchypop, which sold 60,000 copies. That caught the attention of Atlantic, which signed Hootie in 1994.

While bigger crowds and better hotel accommodations help take any sting out of Letterman’s absurdist needling, the Blowfish insist they’re still regular guys. “I mean, we used to eat Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish sticks,” says Sonefeld. “Now we eat these little chilled shrimp. Same thing.” One difference: The money is better. Much better. “We’re not cheap anymore,” says Rucker. “I mean, you can’t get us for $100 and a case of beer anymore.” He stops a moment to consider this. “Two hundred dollars and a keg, you could probably get us.”