A Band With A Mission
by Sonny Edwards
Sister Hazel rocks! They Rock Boats, they Rock Slopes, and they are always keeping an eye out for almost anything else that needs rocking. It is all just a part of their musical mission. In fact, even their name is part of a mission. It was taken from a lady in Gainesville, Florida who had a passion for feeding the hungry, finding shelter for the homeless, improving the conditions and quality of life for as many as she came in contact with. Her name was, that’s right, Sister Hazel.
The band that shares her name does much the same thing, albeit in a different way, and through a different vehicle. Sure, they play loud, high energy, fast paced rock and roll, but it is anything but mindless head banging monotonous droning. The songs are meaningful, textured, insightful commentaries on the world we live in and the hearts that beat inside each of us. They encourage us to look inside ourselves, and then to go a little deeper. They offer you an accurate reflection of what the state of affairs in this world are, and the passion and emotion that flows from the stage is honest, and powerful. It runs the gamut from heartache and heartbreak to joy and pandemonium. They reveal to us a myriad of possibilities of just how great this world can be, if we are ready to go for it. And they remind us that if we want the world to be all that it can be, we can’t just sit and wait for it, we have to get up and get involved. In our community. In our world. And in our dreams. More importantly it heralds hope and the promise that dreams can come true. Sister Hazel, in my opinion, is far more than just a band. It’s more like a movement. A true interaction between the artist and their fan base, which they consider to be their community. Last, but certainly not least, they invite us to get up and dance. If you love great music, you don’t really need the invitation. It is extremely difficult to just stand still at a SH concert. The music is going to move your spirit, and make you move your body as well.
I recently sat down with Ken Block, Sister Hazel’s front man, singer, acoustic guitar player, (and songwriter for the bulk of their material), at the Big Springs Jam in Huntsville, Alabama. The Jam has become one of the biggest most important community sponsored, three day urban festivals in the southeast. This year it was plagued by thunderstorms for all of Saturday night. Luckily, it didn’t dampen the spirits of the Sister Hazel faithful, known as “Hazel-Nuts” to the uninitiated, waiting politely for their “favorite band in the whole world”, as one young lady put it, to take the stage and close out the festival with a grand finale Sunday night.
Almost everyone has something about them that really stands out prominently. I recall thinking that up close, Willie Nelson has the kindest, most penetrating eyes . They seem to look right into the depths of your soul as he smiles a weathered, knowing, Texas prairie smile at you. With Ken Block it’s also about the smile, but his is different from Willie’s. I think Ken must have one of the quickest, most spontaneous, enthusiastic, grinning all the way from the bottom of his heart, smiles I have ever seen. It is ABSOLUTELY infectious. He is genuinely excited about what he does, the band he is in, the family he has at home, the new CD, the songs he has written and the songs he knows he is going to write. He conveys a sense of many purposes, all comfortably prioritized without relegating any of them to a minor position in his life. And it is all sincere. No attitude. Nothing at all seems pretentious or contrived about Block. Quite refreshing. I think the original Sister Hazel would be proud of her namesakes.
Hi ya Ken. How you been brother, it’s great to see you. Welcome to Mud Valley. How do you like it so far?
Aw. it’s great Sonny. Nice to see you, man. I sure am relieved the rain slowed down. I heard this whole festival shut down last night.
It sure did. It came a flood, rained hard for hours with no let up. I could have made a fortune selling ponchos. I’m surprised the stages didn’t just float off somewhere.
You know I was talking to the promoters today, and one thing I know from running events of our own is you can dot all the Is and cross all the Ts, but that weather is out of your hands man.
Just like being a farmer.
Absolutely man, you’re at the mercy of all of that, but we’re really glad it cleared up. We always have a great time here.
(A nearby fan was listening and made a comment) My thirteen year old daughter loves you, and I love you, and I’m forty-four.
Well you know what, let me tell you something, that’s awesome. We’ve always kinda been a college band, I mean we started there and it’s still kind of the heartbeat of the band, we still play a lot of colleges, but it’s awesome that you and your children are digging it, and that’s so important. I mean, music plays such a central part of peoples lives, It’s like the soundtrack to our lives. But what we’ve found a lot is, teenagers and parents have a hard enough time finding anything that’s common ground sometimes, and if our music can be that for somebody then that’s really pretty rewarding in itself.
You’ve been really busy. I know our readers would love to know where you guys have been lately and what’s been going on with Sister Hazel, so give us the scoop.
Well we just finished recording a new CD, called “Absolutely”, and we wrote seventy something songs for that. Actually all the guys came down to Gainesville, and we went back in this little rehearsal space right by Mirror Image Studios where we cut our first record- I mean literally blocks from where we all first played, and it really kinda brought us back to our roots a little bit. We just got back to having fun and going in there and not over thinking things. Everybody sort of embracing their own gift, and we went in and we’d bang out these, you know, two or three songs a day, just kinda having fun with ‘em. We came up with some really great demos, which made the process exciting, but challenging from the perspective of trying to choose which songs were going to be on the record. We are really happy with what ended up being on the record. We wound up with thirteen songs on the record, and for all the people pre-ordering there are bonus tracks on those.
Where can people get the new album if they want to pre-order it?
If they want to pre-order it they can always go to SisterHazel.com or myspace/sisterhazel. There are links and there’s bonus tracks and there are packages where if you buy it ahead of time you can get a free T-shirt. And there’s DVD combos, and some of the bonus tracks are really great. They’re a lot of fun. Like I said there was so much music this time, and there usually is, but this particular time we were all really groovin’ and having such a good time. There’s a two song EP called “Just the Tip” on iTunes , it’s already up, it’s got a couple of songs off the record early ahead of time, if people wanna go on there and get it. There are a lot of different colors, a lot of different textures. You know, I think with Sister Hazel our thumbprint is always gonna be the intimacy, and the lyricism, and the harmonies of the singer/songwriter thing, with a really powerful, energetic musical band and energy around it. Like I said, a lot of different colors and textures, we’re just an American Rock ‘N Roll band.
I don’t want to assume anything, but I think you are the guy who writes most of the songs, or how does that work?
Yeah, I still write most of the songs, although it’s gotten more balanced with every record. Everyone has become a little bit more of a writer, but I think it still turns out that most of the songs on the record are either mine or a co-write. I’ve written a couple of songs with Ryan and Jett on the last couple of records, that’s the guitar player and the bass player, that have made records. In fact the single right now, Mandolin Moon, actually Jett and Ryan brought in the idea, and I came in and we finished it up together, and it was a really nice process. I personally prefer writing by myself the most, but I’ve been able to write with a lot of great people. Up in Nashville lately people have been calling for me to come up and write, and do some different projects like that, but all the guys in the band are getting better and better at writing and in bringing in different colors.
The thing that you have to do in this band is you have to be able to bring your song in and check your ego at the door, and let everybody put his fingerprints on it. That way there is ownership of the song and people can really get behind it. If you go in and try to control every little element and every little aspect of the process, it’s not a Sister Hazel song, it’s a “whoever brought in the song” song. We’ve gotten better and better at everybody kind of embracing their gift, and not having to have a say so with every single element that’s involved in the song. Like ”are we gonna have percussion over the pre-chorus and the chorus, or just the chorus” you know what I mean. Those battles we kind of leave to individuals and if it’s lyrical or if it comes right down to we’re not sure, or we have two different camps on something we always defer to the songwriter, but I think letting everybody feel like they have ownership and a part of the song they’re able to put their fingerprints on it really helps out. And actually it’s a lot more fun and it’s a lot faster that way too.
You go in there and you just let it happen and everybody just feels it, and it’s not over thought. People can see right thru that man, you go into the studio and you try to over think shit, and they see right through it. You try to fake it and it shows. If you are fortunate enough to be in this business for many, many years, you can’t fake it, because you can’t fake it for that long. But we’ve been consistent with who we are as people and how we treat people and how we treat our shows and the respect we show for the music, and the respect we show for the industry, it’s consistent from day one. And I think another really key piece to our organization and our family is this. It’s always been about camaraderie and not about competition with other bands. There are so many bands that get in this attitude of it’s a battle of the bands, and it’s not about that man, it’s about respecting each other regardless of your genre, regardless of where you’re from and having a great time because we can all get a lot further when we’re all back there pushing, as opposed to everybody pulling in a different direction. And we’re probably more excited about this particular record collectively than any record we’ve made in our existence. It’s exciting to be this deep into our career and we’re still making new fans and still having radio success, but not having to rely on it. That’s a big thing, you know, the fact that we’re still able to get on the radio but it’s not…you know so many bands live or die by that. Ours is about the community and about doing what we can control, and that’s about writing songs we can believe in, putting on passionate shows, and creating this environment that is fertile ground for this community to grow.
When Sister Hazel walked away from Universal Records, one of the major labels, it wasn’t just about artistic control, although that was one of the elements that had to be considered, but it was about the ebb and flow of material, and the timing and not having someone else control how much stuff you could or couldn’t release at any given time. I guess you are all still happy with that decision.
Oh man, Sonny, that’s so true. And you know Andrew made a record on his own a little over a year ago, and I’m probably gonna make a Ken record coming up sometime this year too. It’s just kinda time to do that. But Sister Hazel always comes first, always comes first. And Ryan’s doing some recording, and Mark is doing some producing. I think it allows each of us to stretch out, and the fact that we support each other in that, gives everybody their own creative outlet, and I think that’s gonna be kinda fun. But when we got off Universal, a great example is within eighteen months we put out two studio CDs, a double live CD, and a DVD, in eighteen months. And it had been two and a half years since we put out anything with them because of the red tape bull. And we were like” Geeeez!”
Don’t worry about the mule being blind, boys, just load the wagon.
Exactly! Load it up! I mean what’s the point of writing music and making music if your not going to put it out there. And I personally, just speaking for myself now, cause I don’t think everyone in the band feels this way, but I don’t think it all has to be perfect and polished. I think there’s a lot of life in the breath and the timing of it all and the way things don’t always fall exactly perfect, but they fell perfectly for that moment, you know. So I love these live recordings and I love just little recordings people are doing on home studio stuff now, you can really hear some great stuff.
Ken, I know how much your family means to you and I know you had made a conscious decision to spend less time out on the road touring and more time at home with the kids. By the way I think that is such a sane decision, but how is it all working out?
It’s great and you know if I could I’d have those kids around all the time. It’s really the biggest challenge of what we do. We all have families now, three of us have kids and in fact Andrew’s got a baby due in a week. You know I’ve got three now and Andrew has a stepson and this one next week will make three total for him, and Jett’s got two, so it’s been a little easier. I was always the first one. First one to get married, then the first one to have kids, so now they all understand a little bit more. All the guys are getting’ on the same page and trying to find that balance. I think as a band we’re trying to find a nice balance between touring and writing and getting in the studio and recording. And then there’s our events like the Rock Boat and the Rock Slope, our charity stuff, and it’s not just about one of those things, it’s about all of those things.
Well it certainly all seems to be working.
Thanks, man. We appreciate it. We still have fun making music, I still enjoy being in the studio, and I still enjoy playing live.
Does Sister Hazel have any type of a database or clearinghouse that gives you any real numbers to accurately gauge just how wide spread your fan base is at this point?
Well really I don’t, but I can tell you that when we had our first big record, our first big platinum recording, well, we are doing every bit as much touring numbers as we ever did if not more. It’s really more I think. And we are doing fewer shows. And the street team is huge and it’s like they are everywhere. The events that we started like the Rock Boat. Sonny, that thing sold out in 24-hours this time. Most importantly we are seeing lots of new people every year, they’re coming out, and as song writers kind of putting themselves out there and we continue to connect with great people and we are making new fans and brother, that is just really, really gratifying.
You mentioned the Rock Boat. What an awesome way to take a cruise. Because this one sold out so fast, I mean I heard it was way less than 24 hours, and the market certainly seems to be there, are you considering expanding that theme and maybe doing more, or is that just too much to even look at right now?
Both! It’s too much to look at, and we are thinking about it. It’s a lot to do and our partners at Sixth Man are - Andy Levine was our manager for ten years, and really the reason we ended up getting another manager was because those events got so big that they said, “ Look. We can’t do both of these things”, so we’re real happy with Chris Stacy who is managing the band now, And Sixth Man is able to really nurture these events. We are very excited about it, and the possibility of a second cruise is definitely something we are talking about. It takes a lot of time and a lot of organization. The devil’s in the details, man! There’s a lot happening on those cruises, but this one selling out like lightening, man that’s a good sign.
Well, I for one hope you do it. Hey, we need to give equal time. We can’t leave the Rock Slope out of this.
Well no, we can’t. This year I think we’re going to explore some other ideas and venues. We have actually had some conversations about it. We’ve been doing it at Steamboat Springs, but additionally we may think about some other places to do out west as well.
It’s just great, you know we take that same concept of taking these passionate, music loving fans like the ones we have on the boat, only it’s a different environment altogether. On the boat it’s just intense because it’s a 24/7 floating party but it’s all really close. Out in the mountains people are spread out a lot, either snow boarding or skiing, or cocktailing and hot tubbing’ all day long and getting together.
Yeah man, but that’s kinda how we’ve always looked at it, like “ Hey man, what would be fun for us, because odds are if it’s gonna be fun for us it’s gonna be fun for everybody else. So let’s see if we can’t figure it out, and the we’ll bring everybody along with us.” And it’s worked really well. People see us, and we’ll be playing in L.A. or Seattle or New York or Chicago, and I’m like, man, this is the same thing we were doing in Gainesville. We are the same guys we always were.
I guess somebody’s got to do it.
Exactly! We’ll carry the flag if we have to.
A lot of people don’t realize how many great bands or members of great bands came out of Gainesville .
Oh yeah, a lot of guys.
To me it’s great to see you guy’s out there carrying the banner for everybody and claiming Gainesville as home...
Well thanks, brother. It’s funny man, Tom Petty just had a concert this week back there and Gainesville’s going nuts, and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in the paper was “Ken Block, from Sister Hazel, The Second biggest band to come out of Gainesville, and Wow! You know, just to be mentioned in a Tom Petty thing like that was like Yeah!
Well there were a few others that made good too. Like Don Felder And Bernie Leadon…
Yeah sure Don and Bernie and Stephen Stills, he spent a lot of time down in Gainesville…they are all great but they are more like individual people, players that went other places and got into really great bands.
I think you would have to call the Eagles and Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young great bands.
For sure. I knew that crowd a little. In fact Stephen lived with a friend of mine, and he just bought another house down in Gainesville too. You know there have been a lot of folks who have come through there over the years, great players and singers and songwriters.
You know I was born in Gainesville…
Yeah, I knew that...
So it might be fair to say I have a predisposition and a bit of a bias toward seeing a homegrown Gainesville band go national and take it all the way.
Ah, I hear ya man. It’s fun isn’t it?
Teach ‘em how we growl and howl down in Hogtown...
Waaaaa hoooooo! (Lot’s of laughter)
But seriously, you know I’m a little older than you, and I remember when I first heard you guys.
It must have been a dozen years ago, but the feel of the music…
And that’s what it’s really about, it’s the feeeel of, man I’ve told you this before…
Yeah, yep, you have...
It’s just that good old rock and roll. Ass rockin', feel good music. And you said something about it earlier, but it transcends age groups, it just grabs everybody and even as it morphs and evolves, that consistent Sister Hazel vibe is always there. And that’s why we’re all here.
Sonny, I really appreciate that, we all do.
One of the great things about the way Sister Hazel functions as opposed to a lot of bands that are out there touring around, and touring can be really hard after a while…
But you are still accessible; You’re reaching out and touching people.
Definitely. We try to be as accessible as we can and it’s the same...we’re the same jackasses we’ve always been. (Laughing hard). You know just having a good time out there and people are connecting with us.
But when I say you are accessible I’m not talking about just from the stage, but you’re staying really involved with your grass roots folks, and not only when you are home in Gainesville, but all over the place. That sense of family is always apparent.
Absolutely. I would say if anything, We’ve been really lucky. We have had so many people that kinda scratched beneath the surface and saw what we have going on, and they connected the dots between Sister Hazel as writers and performers, and then the events we do and the charities and stuff and that’s been nice.
Well , there certainly seems to be a kinship between you and your audiences. They know your stuff and they know what they want, and you guys sure do give it to them.
Absolutely. We try to do that. And keeping it fresh is important. I mean we are not at all satisfied to just sit back and say “Well, we’ll do the same show every night.” We’re trying to do a completely different show every single night. We mix it up. In fact we rotate every night, a different guy in the band writes a set list, and now with the new music…and we understand that balance between people trying to hear all the stuff they know from the radio, or all the stuff they know from the “B” side classics that people like from shows. We try to find that balance and make it fresh with some of the new songs. And we like to do some jamming and weavin’ in between songs just a little bit, so we really try to keep it fresh for us and for the fans. We are always trying to think of another way to do something a little bit differently than everybody else.
I’ve been asking a lot of questions, but what I really want to do is give you an opportunity to get the Sister Hazel message out to the people. Anything you want to share?
I always encourage people who think about “All for You” or “Happy” or some of that stuff that was really big radio stuff to kinda stick their toe into the water of the community and see that it’s really a lot more than just the things that you may hear on the radio. Now people come to shows and they go “man yeah, I know that song and I know that song and that song. Then the picture gets really clear. I mean we invite people with a vengeance to come out and see what we’ve got going on in this world because we feel like it’s unique and it’s a lot of fun. Also to let people know that there’s really a lot of great music out there, and with the digital space it’s just unlimited. Go out there on your own and find some bands to really embrace and carry along because that’s how we got started. I mean there wasn’t that digital music scene, but there was us going into these little towns and there would be eight people in a room, and we were hoping to take that eight people and turn it into sixteen. And we would go out there every night and meet ‘em, and sleep on people’s couches and call ‘em the next time we came back in town, and the same thing now can happen in such bigger ways with all the digital space out there. And there is a lot of great music out there, and people should spend the time to be moved by it.
Ken, Lyrics for Life is rapidly becoming better known among members of the songwriting community. More and more people are coming forward and really want to get involved and help out, because what your doing with that just gives back so much to so many, and it is steadily growing. You know I know all about the background of why, but a lot of our readers may not be familiar with that part of Ken Block and some of the things you are doing that are maybe less heralded than say, a festival gig. I know it’s deeply personal, but if you don’t mind I’d like you to talk about it.
Well, I can tell the story a little bit. Well you already know Sonny, from the first day I put the band together, and began gathering these guys to create Sister Hazel, we have tried to use our vehicle to call attention to worthy causes whenever we could. We’ve always gotten a lot of satisfaction out of that, and we’ve done it for everybody. At some point there is just so much coming at you that you can’t do it all, but we have always tried to do as much as we can.
Surely no one can deny that.
Yeah, well, when I was twenty my younger brother was 18, and he passed away from cancer, after about a four and a half year battle. You don’t walk away from that unchanged or unscathed, and I got a lot of insight out of that situation. Not just what the patients go through, but also what the families go through, what the siblings go through, and even what the medical staff and what those people go through day in and day out. I mean those people are heroes, it’s just incredible… So I said “Let’s put together something of our own, something that can really tie in what we do with music and some celebrity- C level celebrities, and see if we can’t make an impact. I didn’t just want to raise money for research; I wanted to raise some money for research, of course, but also for enriching the lives of those kids and those families going through that experience. So no matter where we do a show, we send some money back for research, to the University of Florida Research Center, because that is ultimately going to help everybody, but no matter where we do that show, in that particular community, we find a place that it’s helping out the kids in a more hands on basis. It could be a camp for those kids, or sending kids out to shows to meet some of their favorite artist or bands or sports celebrities.
We get bands to hand write lyrics on all kinds of crazy stuff. Edwin McCain is a pilot, and he wrote "I’ll Be" on an airplane propeller. John Maher went to a pawnshop and bought a guitar right off the wall and wrote a bunch of lyrics and music on that. I grew up surfing, so I write lyrics on surfboards. And just through auctioning these items we’ve raised almost Six hundred thousand dollars ($600,00.00) in the last two years alone.
Ken, man, that is just so tremendous, and (as mentioned in previous interviews with SH by Scott Greene) GRITZ wants to do all we can to help promote Lyrics for Life. It’s just such a way cool thing you’ve started, and my hat’s definitely off to you for doing what your doing.
Thanks Sonny, that’s great man, and what I’ve found is there are just a lot of people that really want to help, and we try to make it as easy as possible, especially for artist. Artists get asked so much to do so many different things, so when I started, the idea for lyrics for life was if a songwriter can take just a few minutes and write the lyrics for something on a barf bag in an airplane (laughing) you know what I mean, we can turn it into something special. Then if we’re gonna do the show, they are always really unique, like the last one we did in Orlando we had Jason Ross from Seven Mary Three, and Emerson Hart from Tonic and Haslin, and Joss Kelly was coming down and we staggered the set where we’d play a few songs and we’d bring an artist out and we’d play their song, we’d back them on their tune, and then we’d bring other people out and we’d do it all the way through the night where people were rotating through the stage, and it was so much fun for us and for them.
So it’s not just another show for them, it’s a lot of fun for an artist. And if you can’t participate by playing a show, then it’s easy enough to just write lyrics on something. We really are making an impact and particularly proud of that piece of the Sister Hazel world.
I wish we had more time, but It looks like it’s about time. You got about ten thousand people out there expecting you on stage in a few minutes.
Well, they are why we were on that bus all night to get here.
Ken, I know you well enough to know you would never think of yourself in these terms, and I don’t want to embarrass you. but you should know that a whole lot of people do, and for what you do in your community at large, and especially what you are doing with “Lyrics for Life”, you are truly a hero.
(A big hug from Ken, and a bigger smile)
Ken and Sonny.
Photos by Sonny Edwards.