Beyond the Blowfish: Drummer Jim ‘Soni’ Sonefeld finds a beautiful life in the light of recovery

Courtesy of Katie Cooke


It’s an invocation that opens recovery meetings the world over, but for Jim “Soni” Sonefeld, the Serenity Prayer is so much more.

The Ties That Bind UsIt is, in the grand scheme of his life, the filter through which every decision is made. It, more than anything else, is his North Star these days. His band has been a constant in his life; his bandmates are still considered family; and the debut album they released as Hootie and the Blowfish — 1994’s “Cracked Rear View” — changed his life in incalculable ways.

The Serenity Prayer, however, is the key to the freedom from addiction he’s enjoyed since 2005. Life as a recovering addict and alcoholic isn’t smooth sailing for anyone delivered from the darkness, and Sonefeld is no exception. Suffering, as the first Noble Truth of Buddhism indicates, is unavoidable.

Misery, however, is optional. And the Serenity Prayer, Sonefeld told The Ties That Bind Us recently, allows him to get through life’s travails, travesties and tragedies without having to succumb to the misery that accompanies drinking and using.

“All of my day-to-day decisions, all of my frustrations, all of my victories, all of my weaknesses, all of my daily stuff — I’ve realized they need to go through the Serenity Prayer,” he said. “If I’m going to acknowledge a God and ask for Him to be my guide, then I’ve got to follow the Serenity Prayer and accept the things that are not mine to change, summon the courage to change the things that are mine to change and ask Him to help me sort those two lanes out.

“Because that’s where victory is for me — separating the things that are my job to handle and the things I can’t change and need to let go of. To me, that’s what having a simple program means — having a more functional way of sorting through those two categories and figuring out what’s my responsibility or not my responsibility.”

Lightning in a bottle

Hootie and the Blowfish: Dean Felber (from left), Mark Bryan, Darius Rucker and Jim "Soni" Sonefeld. (Courtesy of Todd and Chris Owyoung)

Sonefeld spent his formative years in Naperville, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, and while he played drums as a kid, his first love was sports. A soccer player in high school, he was determined to play at a Division I college. He landed in Columbia, S.C., at the University of South Carolina, and after six years, he met the other three men that make up Hootie and the Blowfish: singer and rhythm guitarist Darius Rucker, guitarist Mark Bryan and bassist Dean Felber. Bryan, Felber and Rucker met around 1985, brought Sonefeld on board a few years later, and the band — christened for the nicknames of a couple of college friends — began making a name for itself at local fraternity parties and the Columbia bar scene.

“We had some common interests, which is a good thing when you’re trying to form a band and keep a band together,” Sonefeld said. “We all wanted to write music, we all generally liked rock, pop and country, we didn’t see ourselves in regular jobs, and we didn’t have any money, but none of us cared that we didn’t. We were willing to put music-making as the priority above everything else in our lives, and at 23 or 24 years old, that’s all you need to get started.

“We all certainly enjoyed our partying, but there wasn’t much holding us back from doing what the four of us set out to do, which was to really work hard and play hard. We happened to be gifted enough in our songwriting, and gifted with Darius’ voice, so we just charged on, and did it one little bit at a time.”

Sonefeld came into the fold in 1989, and in the early 1990s, they released a couple of cassette demos before their debut EP, “Kootchypop,” caught the attention of Atlantic Records, which signed the band in 1993. The band's blend of pop, folk, blues, soul and rock made them a perfect fit for the modern rock format of post-grunge radio, and the band’s major label debut, “Cracked Rear View,” was released in July 1994. Sales started off slowly, but two months later, Hootie and the Blowfish performed on “Late Night With David Letterman.”

The affable talk show host told the world that “if you don't own a copy of this album, there's something wrong with you,” and within days, sales more than tripled. By 1996, “Cracked Rear View” had sold 10 million copies, and the band had racked up award after award, including two Grammys, an MTV Video Music Award, a Billboard Music Award and two People's Choice Awards. The album remains one of the best-selling records in music business history, and needless to say, things changed drastically for the four guys.

Superstardom and the perils thereof

Courtesy of Chris Rogers

“When Letterman chose to put us in front of his millions of viewers one night, it was a game changer,” Sonefeld said. “There’s not one thing that didn’t change in my life. There was not a single thing that was left somehow unaffected by stardom or fame or notoriety. It’s hard to even narrow it down. Certainly, having money is a nice thing, and that was a big change. The idea of being recognized was different, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. I guess the biggest thing was just the whirlwind schedule — going until somebody tells you to stop. Life got real fast.”

And to slow it down, Sonefeld more and more turned to booze. In some ways, he and his bandmates had painted themselves into a corner: The success of “Cracked Rear View” set an impossibly high bar, so when the band’s sophomore effort, “Fairweather Johnson,” sold “only” 4 million copies, it was viewed as a disappointment, despite the fact that any other musician would sell organs for a fraction of that success. A third record, “Musical Chairs,” followed in 1998, and by the turn of the century, Sonefeld was in a dark place, he said.

“It probably wasn’t until the early 2000s when I would wake up and think, ‘Ha! This sure hurts!’” Sonefeld said. “I felt like I was starting to have to keep up with something that I wasn’t in control of, and it was harder to come up with stories for myself and excuses for others as to why I acted like I did. I always tried to balance it out by having some normalcy; if I could do normal things from time to time, it balanced out the extreme things in my mind, but I felt like I was spending an inordinate amount of time hiding what I was doing.”

In some ways, he added, the grueling tour grind kept him from taking a hard look in the mirror. In recovery circles, a “geographical cure” is the idea that by moving to a different place, all of the problems will be left behind in the old one. It’s fallacious thinking, of course; the problems stem from the addicts or alcoholics themselves, but when life seems overwhelming, the idea of a “fresh start” is particularly appealing.

For Sonefeld, every day was a fresh start, he pointed out.

“Rock ‘n’ roll is going from town to town, from city to city, from country to country, so I always had this quick escape — ‘I’m somewhere new, and whatever happened back there, I left back there in the dust,’” he said. “When you’re always in a new place, it’s rinse and repeat. But the one thing I couldn’t change was at home, and that’s the place where I realized, ‘This doesn’t have a good ending.’ When I kept coming back home, I was faced with something that wasn’t changing, that I couldn’t run away from unless it was to leave and go on tour for a bit.

“By 2000, I started having a family, and that was my litmus test. I kept looking at it and saying, ‘I’m failing at this. I need to do better at this. I may be ruining this.’”

Arrival at the end of the road

Courtesy of Katie Cooke

His bandmates, he said, were beginning to notice that things were amiss as well.

“Any family that is around an alcoholic or a drug addict, they worry,” he said. “They fret, they hope, they get disappointed, they probably get angry at times, and they pray. The guys did all those things just like a family does, because we were together as much as any family.”

By the time the band released a self-titled record in 2003, Sonefeld was circling the drain. Alcohol was a crutch for the dark times and a jet pack for the good ones. In the end, he faced the simple truth of all addicts and alcoholics: He was unable to face life on life’s terms.

“Sometimes, the (stuff) hits the fan, and sometimes life is all glowy and glittery and great,” he said. “I never wanted to accept that before. If life was great, I would think, ‘Let’s celebrate with some bourbon!’ If life was difficult and I couldn’t handle it, I would think, ‘Let’s nurse it with some bourbon!’”

He reached a turning point in his studio behind his family’s home, where he had passed out the night before. His daughter, Cameron, who was 4 at the time, found him one Sunday morning. Climbing on his chest, she began to shake him playfully.

“She basically said, ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ And that landed so heavy on me,” he said. “‘What are you doing?’ — just four simple words, but I was somehow silenced. That was when some power greater than me shut me down and shut me up, and I couldn’t even muster an excuse as to why I was still in my clothes from the night before … why I hadn’t gone to sleep with my family in the house … why I wasn’t watching cartoons and having pancakes and giggling.

“I didn’t have an answer for something I previously had, and that was the moment. I sat up, rubbed the sand out of my eyes and said, ‘I’m done. I need help.’ That was my surrender moment.”

He remembered that an old friend with whom he used to party had given him a phone number and an invitation to talk — not in the “hey, let’s grab a beer” manner of speaking, but in the, “I see you’re hurting like I once did, and I want to help if you’ll let me” kind of way. Sonefeld rang him up, and that night, the two went to a 12 Step meeting. That was mid-November, 2004.

A discovery of willingness

He doesn’t remember much about it; probably because he quaffed a half-dozen drinks before going, just in case it was the end, but what he might have heard doesn’t matter nearly as much as what he remembers seeing, he said:

“Evidence. I went there, and I saw evidence that there were people that drank like me and drugged like me, who through 12 Steps and the fellowship, were transformed into something much better,” he recalled. “That’s all I needed to see in that first meeting. It wasn’t anybody pointing their fingers or pushing guilt; what I did feel was people willing to share their truths, where they had been, the mistakes they had made, the things they had put in their bodies. And I saw them sitting there in front of me, and in a very light way, they were freed from that, and they all told me how they did it: They took these 12 Steps, they kept going to meetings, and that was really all I needed to see.

“I didn’t know anything in the (literature), I didn’t know anything about the spiritual angle, but what I saw was something so good that I wanted to go back to that second meeting. I was faced with the decision of whether I would be willing to become more honest and willing to take responsibility for trying to change my bad thinking or even recognize it, and I thought, ‘OK — I’m in the right place. These people are like me, and they’re telling me there’s more to it than just stopping drinking. Am I willing to do that work?’”

Like it usually does to most addicts and alcoholics new to recovery, the idea of changing everything terrified him at first. In the beginning, he said, he thought the rooms might help him learn how to drink more efficiently, and when he realized that wasn’t their purpose, he was faced with the same crippling fear.

“I thought, ‘What am I gonna do without alcohol? What am I gonna do without drugs? They’re all I’ve known,’” he said. “When it gets to the point where you’re a daily, or every night, user, it’s scary to imagine your life without this thing you’ve been relying on. I just wanted to know how to do it better, but what they told me was, ‘We can only tell you how to live better, and that requires putting down the drink.’ I saw that spiritual growth doesn’t come for free, and that’s not easy to look at.”

He finally surrendered completely in early 2005, but even then, the idea of taking a moral inventory, of making amends, of cataloging character defects seemed almost overwhelming. Although he didn’t drink or use, he couldn’t grasp the spiritual nature of recovery in those early years, until that optional misery became unbearable.

“The more I would just hold onto those character defects because something felt good about them, the more I suffered,” he said. “It took me several years to really start fully letting go and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it is better when you let go all the way.’ The little perverse character defects of self-pity, the need for approval, false pride, the desire to win arguments or even win in life … these were my things, the things that were keeping me tangled up. Even with three years behind me of no drugs or alcohol, I still found myself fighting the world.”

Rebuilt in the light

The catalyst for that change came some time after a divorce from the mother of his two children and getting remarried in late 2008. Sonefeld began to see how fruitless his character defects were.

“Blending our two families helped expose some of my flawed thinking, and I realized I needed to continue giving turning more things over to God,” he said.

As a newly married man and a fully surrendered recovering addict, Sonefeld found that his muse began to tap rather insistently on his shoulder. As the first decade of the 2000s came to a close, Rucker was enjoying a solo career as a mainstream country artist, and the other guys were involved in their own projects. Sonefeld found himself overwhelmed with gifts of the spirit and began releasing a series of contemporary Christian EPs in 2012.

“I didn’t want to write about breakups and heartache in life, which is what I wrote about in my drinking and secular thinking life; I wanted to write about the journey and the glory of being liberated, and that was the big change,” he said. “When you’re transformed, it means you see life differently, and I wanted to celebrate. I wanted to write about things that were positive in my life, and I had a lot of things that were.

“It was like I suddenly became perfect, but I discovered you don’t have to be dominated by your character defects, dominated by sin, or held down and enslaved by bad thinking. I experienced what it was like to be transformed, and I wanted to do more than just live it; I wanted to sing about it.”

His new wife encouraged him to pursue that narrative, and along the way, Sonefeld found himself as a spokesperson for both faith and recovery. That’s a big role to take on, but as someone who’s life was transformed by the 12 Steps, he feels that his spiritual awakening demands that the message be carried by any means necessary.

“I had what I felt was a musical gift, songwriting and performing, and I thought, ‘Well maybe we can use the music and the hope in the music as part of my 12th Step charge,’” he said. “‘Maybe this is my way of carrying the message out there.’ It was a good way for me to voice something that was happening in my heart.”

Back together with the Blowfish brotherhood

This year, there’s more recording going on — the first new Hootie and the Blowfish album since 2005’s “Looking for Lucky.” The guys recently got back together to woodshed and determine the songs that will be included, and in May, they’ll hit the road. The appropriately named “Group Therapy Tour” will keep them out until mid-September, and given how long it’s been since the guys recorded an album or played more than a one-off show, long-time fans will find things both familiar and new when they come see Hootie and the Blowfish, circa 2019.

“That’s probably the most difficult task — discovering who we are supposed to be,” Sonefeld said. “We’re not a new band, and we’re not over the hill — we always have the Rolling Stones to look at to see that you’re never too old to rock! But who do we want to be, and who do we want to be for our fans? There’s a million ways to write a song, a million different ways you can sound — almost too many choices, so right now, we’re trying to discover who we want to be.

“We’ve needed to take into account that we’ve all grown — separately in some ways, together in some ways with family lives and our maturity and how we see the world. Most of this year so far has been taken up with educating ourselves about ourselves.”

When it comes to self-realization, one thing’s for certain: Sonefeld has the Serenity Prayer, and when that tool is the final arbiter for who he is and what he does, everything else will work out in the end.

“Life wasn’t like that before, and I couldn’t accept that things might not work out the way I wanted,” he said. “Today, I can accept that things might not work out, and I just didn’t think that way before. Recovery shows me and allows me to accept that I’m human.”

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