Having one trend go up on you is bad enough. Having a couple do so is murder. I submit the sad case of Sister Hazel. You know Sister Hazel, right?
No? They did that song “All For You”?
Still nothing? Maybe you think it is called “Hard To Say” and it is done by Hootie and the Blowfish? Ah, I got your attention. Yes, that song is, in fact, called “All For You” and was released in the ’90s in a vaguely acoustic and vaguely electric version. No, it was not done by Hootie, but was probably done in by Hootie.
Let me back up, all the way to 1994. Hootie and the Blowfish released their album Cracked Rear View. It was, on the surface, a deft melding of southern rock and acoustic-tinged folk rock with occasional bursts not unlike those one would find from Pearl Jam (“Daughter”, “Better Man”, “Elderly Woman…”) or Stone Temple Pilots (“Interstate Love Song”). The album was a massive hit. How massive? It is the sixteenth top-selling album in the United States of all time. Of…all…time. Marinate in that a while.
As you can guess, plenty of people saw those long, flowing coattails and wanted to jump right on them. Many tried and failed. Some succeeded but were rightly judged as Hootie Wannabes (and to think there was such a thing from this point in time is astounding).
Jump back to 1994 and the southern rock/acoustic-tinged folk band Sister Hazel releases their independently released eponymous debut featuring a track called “All For You” and not much happens. As immediate contemporaries of Hootie that might be expected since they were taking all the leftover oxygen out of the room, but labels were keen to get that Hootie sound for themselves. Sister Hazel were plucked from the indies and landed on Universal. In 1997, the song was re-recorded for their second album …Somewhere More Familiar. It became their hit song in a textbook case of one-hit wonderdom.
When their songs were played it was either the electric “All For You” or the acoustic “All For You,” both sounding so indistinct that there really was no point in wasting the mixer’s time and money to do it. If they went on TV, it was “All For You.” If they were associated in a commercial of any kind, the song was “All For You.” Force-feeding is a cruel practice, and it seemed like Sister Hazel’s handlers had no intention other than to milk this one track until the utters fell off.
They suffered a fate I feared would happen to Adele more than a decade later. When she released the album 19, I recall a radio show played the song “Chasing Pavements” not once but twice. That was the song radio glommed on to, and it seemed that this very talented singer was going to go down that same one-hit rabbit hole as so many had…as Sister Hazel did.
But “Chasing Pavements” is a better song than “All For You,” not that “All For You” is terrible. It is, in fact, perfectly amiable. It is like a goldfish tank. You sit there and stare at it for a little while, but it will always be a tank full of goldfish, until they all start floating at the top. “All For You” fills your ears up, doesn’t compel you to change the channel, but at the same time doesn’t compel you to do much of anything. There is no call-to-action in the song, nothing that grabs you and says ‘you have to hear more of this!’ And while it doesn’t commit the major sin of ’90s rock, of having a song title that has zero relationship to the song lyrics, it comes dangerously close. To this day, I know people who like the song much better than I did who still call it “Hard To Say.” I think a lot of people did, and they thought it was Hootie.
That was a crippling handicap. By the time of their next record, 1996’s Fairweather Johnson, America was nearly Hootied out. It went 3x platinum, which was a far cry from Cracked Rear View‘s 16x but still darned successful. Yet the zeitgeist had moved on, and it would be diminishing returns from there on out. That Sister Hazel scored roughly one year later is not shocking if you think about it, as the coattails were not totally threadbare yet, and that they went right out that same door on those perceived coattails is also not shocking. Hip hop/R&B was about to make a huge resurgence into pop culture. The southern rock sound was about to be absorbed wholeheartedly into the Nashville Country ethos, where it makes a lot of money to this day. Once and future Hootie lead singer Darius Rucker made that jump himself and did no harm to himself in the process.
And Sister Hazel? Their last album, Heartland Highway was released in 2010, back as an indie artist. They are still technically a unit. There is something to be said about that which is extremely positive and, in a sense, a little tragic. Had they waited a few more years before swimming in the goldfish tank with Universal, they might have comfortably found themselves in the same boat as the group Lonestar (“Amazed”, “I’m Already There”) where, even if they aren’t riding high on the charts anymore, they’re still deep into the music making machinery (probably writing tunes about bros with trucks, drinkin’ beers with girls in painted-on jeans, making out in the woods by the lake).
Instead, we go into convenience stores in the morning to get our daily coffee, and there on the Muzak comes that song “Hard To Say” by Hootie. Success, it turns out, can go up as fast as a goldfish in a crowded tank.