Sister Hazels creative train just keeps rolling. Last years well-received Release reached the bands 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 bands 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 groups 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, Its one of those discs you can put on and listen to front to back. The disc ebbs and flows between rockin tracks (Blocks Great Escape and Copelands Shes Got A Hold On Me and Where Youre Going) and more poignant numbers (Newells Far Away and Blocks Saddest Song ).
Beres Lessons in Love, Hope, and Faith song trilogy, which closes the disc, is both ambitious and down-toearth. 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 records varied but organic sound.
Heartland Highway maintained, and refined, Releases 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. Everyones really involved in the arrangement process, states Newell. But the songwriter is the person who decides what road were 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 Copelands tune Shes 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 bands experience factors into this sense of camaraderie. We know that this isnt the last album Sister Hazel is going to make so we dont hold on so tightly to things. Its 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 Newells 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 bands 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 isnt 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 Copelands 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 bands Rock Boat excursion, the worlds largest floating music festival, celebrated its 10th anniversary this past January and next years outing will be a Uncharted Waters cruise, according to Trojanowski. We missed a lot of ports due to weather so we wont pick a destination until we leave a port. Just as popular is their annual Hazelnut Hang (Hazelnuts being the name for the groups ardent fans) at The Windjammer on South Carolinas Isle of Palms. Among this years highlights was the groups 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). Its 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 theyre 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.
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