When Pastor Hazel Williams, also known as “Sister Hazel,” returned from a church mission from Belize in 1993, she was greeted with “Sister Hazel” stickers all over her hometown of Gainesville, Fla. Puzzled, she eventually figured out they were for a hot new band in town.
Not knowing anything about them, she sought a meeting. Sister Hazel learned that lead singer Ken Block had named the band in her honor after seeing her preach on TV. She liked the uplifting message of their music, so she approved.
The two Sister Hazels have been friends and partners for annual charitable events ever since.
Sister Hazel, the band, went on to achieve widespread success, nearly breaking the commercial top-10 with their ‘94 hit “All For You,” and picking up a rabid fan base, the self-dubbed “Hazelnuts.” Today the five-member band is approaching 20 years of rock success, rarified air in the rough and tumble music biz.
“We don’t take it for granted, we’re very blessed,” says Ryan Newell, Sister Hazel’s lead guitarist. “We’ve always had an amazingly supportive fan base.”
Newell grew up in nearby Burke and graduated from Lake Braddock high school. He then bopped around a bit, attending Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music as well as the University of North Texas. Frustrated with music, he landed at the University of Florida, where he obtained a very un-rock and roll-like degree in accounting.
“Yeah, my musical career didn’t take off until I got my accounting degree from the University of Florida,” says Newell laughing. “It’s where we all met and came together as a band.”
Newell lived in Gainesville for six years as Sister Hazel gathered momentum, then Atlanta for 15. He returned to Virginia a year-and-a-half ago and now resides in Alexandria.
Sister Hazel emerged from the post-Seattle, heavily Nirvana-influenced ‘90s. They have a similar sound, and toured the same southeastern college-town circuit as Hootie & the Blowfish, Collective Soul, the Indigo Girls, Matchbox 20, Edwin McCain and Better than Ezra – bands they still count as friends.
Sister Hazel’s heavy touring schedule and devoted effort to cultivate fans led to strong regional radio demand throughout the southeast for their song, “All For You,” which Newell says resonated everywhere they played it.
“To get a song on the radio without support from a major record label is almost impossible,” says Newell. “So that was a good sign.”
When the song became the most-requested tune in Tallahassee, Fla., yet another college town and the state’s capitol, the big record labels came a-calling.
“It kind of set-off a bidding war,” laughs Ryan.
With a record deal, “All For You” became the band’s signature hit, receiving regular rotation on the nation’s airwaves. But the big record label experience wasn’t a good fit for the band. After a year, they were back to doing it their way: touring heavily, expanding and stoking their existing fan base and writing and recording music true to themselves.
They were also helped by the emergence of a new-fangled thing called the Internet.
The band recognized its potential early on. They’d return to their hotel after a show and use prehistoric dial-up services to update their website. The band was so convinced of the technology’s importance that during their brief record label period they asked for an Internet budget. The record company rejected it, saying the Internet was but a fad.
Today the band has over 63,000 Facebook followers and is fast approaching a million subscribers on Twitter.
The band also established popular fan-centric gatherings, including a week-long cruise called “The Rock Boat” – which has sold out since 2001 – and a Memorial Day weekend festival at a South Carolina beach resort.
“We love these events because they give our fans ownership in our music,” says Newell, who adds that the band is fully accessible during the outings, creating a sense of connection rare in the music business.
While establishing their reputation in the ‘90s the band aggressively toured, playing up to 300 shows a year. Today they tackle a far more humane 100 dates annually.
“We don’t kill ourselves anymore, which helps us stay fresh and keeps us together as a band,” says Newell. “We all agree family comes first. Of course, it helps that we actually like each other too.”
The band is working on a new album with legendary former Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ drummer, Stan Lynch. Nearly half complete, Newell says the band’s focused hard on capturing the energy and spontaneity of their live shows. He says they continually battle the sterility of the studio to capture the spark they achieve onstage.
“I think it’s the best we’ve ever sounded,” he says.
Sister Hazel performs at the Tally Ho Theater, Leesburg, on Friday, May 23, at 8 p.m. Visit http://www.tallyholeesburg.com