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Sister Hazel’s creative train just keeps rolling. Last year’s well-received “Release” reached the band’s highest ever spot (#37) on the Billboard Album Charts, topping even their platinum disc “Somewhere More Familiar,” and they are keeping the momentum going with “Heartland Highway” (Oct. 12, 2010, Rock Ridge Music), marking the band’s quickest album-to-album turnaround in their 15-plus-year career.
According to bassist Jett Beres, “Release” “sparked a creativity” in the Gainesville, FL-bred band (vocalist Ken Block, guitarist/vocalist Drew Copeland, lead guitarist Ryan Newell, drummer Mark Trojanowski and Beres) that led to “Heartland Highway,” a collection that they all agree is their most diverse-sounding disc. “All of us like a lot of different music,” says Trojanowski, “but we have a vibe together,” – one that helps to create the Sister Hazel signature mix of Southern pop hooks and country rock harmonies. “There are a lot of moments that have never been in Sister Hazel songs before,” notes Newell, adding, “We strive to give our audience something different each time.”
The group’s 8th full-length, “Heartland Highway” reflects a rootsy journey for both the band and the listeners. Beres describes the album as “American road trip music” while Copeland suggests, “It’s one of those discs you can put on and listen to front to back.” The disc ebbs and flows between rockin’ tracks (Block’s “Great Escape” and Copeland’s “She’s Got A Hold On Me” and “Where You’re Going”) and more poignant numbers (Newell’s “Far Away” and Block’s “Saddest Song [Not Coming Home]”).
Beres’ “Lessons in Love, Hope, and Faith” song trilogy, which closes the disc, is both ambitious and down-to-earth. Each song is about a woman in his life who taught him important lessons: his wife (“The Road”), his daughter (“Snow-Globe World”) and his mother (“Behind the Sun”). Each one has a slightly different sound (country, roots rock and arena rock) but they flow together musically – a fitting encapsulation of the record’s varied but organic sound.
“Heartland Highway” maintained, and refined, “Release”’s recording process. For this 12-track disc, Block, Copeland, Newell and Beres all contributed a trio of tunes, for which they each served as producers. “Everyone’s really involved in the arrangement process,” states Newell. “But the songwriter is the person who decides what road we’re going to go down.”
Trojanowski reveals that “Far Away” really fell into place after he come up with the chorus drum part, while Newell notes that Copeland’s tune “She’s Got A Hold On Me” had a more country vibe initially but wound up with a heavier guitar groove to it. Copeland, meanwhile, handed over the reins for his tune “Let The Fire Burn” to Block after he asked to sing it. “I felt honored,” Copeland admits, “that it was one of those songs that Ken connected with enough to want to sing.” Block feels the band’s experience factors into this sense of camaraderie. “We know that this isn’t the last album Sister Hazel is going to make so we don’t hold on so tightly to things. It’s really liberating to know that we are all in this together.”
The guys again gathered for pre-production at a Gainesville rehearsal studio that they have used for years and then headed up to record in Nashville. Additional recording took place at Newell’s home studio while Copeland and Block did their vocals in Gainesville, at both their favorite Best Western (also used on “Release”) and at a condo by nearby Crescent Beach. The band continued their collaboration with Nashville-based engineer Chip Matthews, whom they consider something of a sixth member of the band. “His dedication to our project,” states Block, “was incredible.” The band’s collaborative nature also saw them utilizing the expertise of Nashville guitar aces Pat Buchanan and Tom Bukovac while welcoming back old pal harmonica player Rob Peck, who played on their first album.
Family, both blood and band, figures prominently in the Sister Hazel world. Newell, the one bandmember who isn’t a family man, asserts that, “Family has always been first in this band and we finally have found the balance to make it all work.” One of Block and Copeland’s favorite parts during this recording experience was when they went were able to record vocals at Crescent Beach (where they went as kids) and were able to surf and sing while having their families there too.
The band still hits the road regularly, doing around 100 dates annually, but they also find other avenues to maintain close ties to their fans. “The only way we can keep doing what we are doing is having our fans continue to connect and support us,” proclaims Copeland. The band’s Rock Boat excursion, the world’s largest floating music festival, celebrated its 10th anniversary this past January and next year’s outing will be a “Uncharted Waters cruise,” according to Trojanowski. “We missed a lot of ports due to weather so we won’t pick a destination until we leave a port.” Just as popular is their annual Hazelnut Hang (“Hazelnuts” being the name for the group’s ardent fans) at The Windjammer on South Carolina’s Isle of Palms. Among this year’s highlights was the group’s “Triple Crow” set where they covered tunes by Sheryl Crow, the Counting Crows and the Black Crowes.
The band has embraced the Internet and social networking too. Their Twitter followers are fast approaching the 1 million mark and last year they did several unique fan-centric events (one where fans could call a special cell phone number to talk to one of the guys; another being a set of podcasts hosted by each of the band members). It’s also not surprising that the group, named after the Gainesville nun Sister Hazel Williams, is deeply committed to charitable work. Among their many involvements is Lyrics For Life, a charity they started to raise money for pediatric cancer (Block lost his brother to cancer when they were both teens).
After all their years together, the band is feeling like they’re reaching new milestones with “Heartland Highway.” “We are all in groove. We have all things rolling along,” asserts Block, with Newell seconding that emotion: “I feel like we are stepping into our heyday.”