Sister Hazel, Kyle Cox Trio
Friday, Sept. 2, with doors at 7:30 p.m.
Soul Kitchen, 219 Dauphin St., www.soulkitchenmobile.com
Tickets: $20 advance/$25 day of show/$35 riser seat; available at Soul Kitchen,its website, Mellow Mushroom (both locations) or by calling 1-866-468-7630
Sister Hazel exploded out of the mid-’90s scene and found a worldwide audience with its 1997 album “… Somewhere More Familiar” and the timeless single “All for You.” Seven studio albums later, the Gainesville, Florida, band is rekindling its career with “Lighter in the Dark” and stepping into the world of modern country.
In a recent conversation with Lagniappe, Ken Block explained how the band’s rock ‘n’ roll highway shifted into a country road.
Stephen Centanni: The title of your latest album is “Lighter in the Dark,” and it seems so symbolic to me. That’s something any band who has performed in front of a large crowd has seen. What does “lighter in the dark” symbolize to you?
Ken Block: Well, I think for this record it was twofold. One, there’s a song on our record called “Something to Believe In” that Drew Copeland wrote with a buddy of ours over in Nashville.
There’s a line in it that says, “Just a kid from Gainesville watching Petty with my lighter in the dark.”
That was us. We were those kids who grew up in this town right behind Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. We were those kids with their lighters in the dark, dreaming about being on that stage, just like those guys.
Lo and behold, after years and years in a van and a trailer and bouncing from club to club, we got to experience that on both sides. So, it’s really just a metaphor for our journey.
Centanni: This album has shown the public a seldom-seen face of Sister Hazel. How did you guys get to your country roots?
Block: I don’t think we ever made a decision to do it. It’s funny. We’ve never fit neatly into any box. We weren’t quite in the rock format. We weren’t quite Southern rock. We weren’t quite alternative, but we had elements of folk and elements of country and elements of rock and blues and Southern rock and all those different things.
It’s funny, because I think if “All for You” came out today, it might very well be a country record. What’s happened, I think as much as anything, [is] we tried to lean into that part of our songwriting a little bit more and embrace some of those [elements] that are signature to us — which are big harmonies, slide guitars and thematically writing about growing up in North Central Florida — and are the foundation of who we are. It’s been a thread that has weaved its way through all our records at different times in different songs.
We got finished making this record, and a lot of people were saying, “This sounds like it could fit in the country format as well as anything else.” We said, “Great! We’d love to see how that does!” Honestly, if you look at genres of music like a highway, I think the country world has gotten wider and broader and encompasses a lot more ground.
It seems like rock and alternative have gotten a bit more narrow. We just make records and try to be honest with our songwriting or performances. We leave it up to people smarter than us to decide what they want to call it.
Centanni: Fans are really weird when it comes to things like this.
Centanni: Sister Hazel has some really dedicated fans. What kind of reaction did you get before the album dropped when you were like, “Hey, we’re doing a country record”?
Block: Most of it was great. They trusted us to give them a record that they would love. That’s one of the beautiful things about our fan base. They’ve been in it with us for an awful long time. When we lean one way or another, they’ve been along for the ride and enjoyed it.
I think a couple of headlines said, “Gone country.” I think that was a little off-putting, because it wasn’t really true. I think once the record came out, we received nothing but positive feedback. People didn’t know what to expect, but it sounded like a Sister Hazel album.
You have to have a relationship with your fans where they trust you like that. We’re not going to go out and try to be somebody we’re not, but we can lean into different facets and elements, which has been part of who we are.
Centanni: The songwriting process was pretty elaborate and interesting. First, you had quite a few Nashville collaborators. What was it like writing with someone outside the band?
Block: We loved it. We’ve been a band for 23 years. The first couple of records, I wrote almost everything. Then Drew started writing a little bit more. With every record, all the guys started writing more.
We’ve been in Nashville with our management and writing deals for the last decade and made the last four or five records there. We’ve been writing with people a lot over the years. It’s just that a couple of those cuts will make the record. We had some more of those make it this time.
What I love about it is that first of all, we can evolve as a band. It’s nice to have people to come in with a different perspective on an idea or a different approach to a story. It helped us grow. What I will say about the Nashville songwriters, when you get in with guys you click with, it’s like the Ivy League of songwriters.
Guys like us who have been writing for a long time and playing music for a long time, it’s refreshing to get in there with people that you trust and respect and admire. You don’t always hit a home run, but you get in there and swing for the fences. Sometimes you hit a grand slam.
Centanni: Watching this album shoot up the charts has to be redeeming.
Block: I tell you what, this has been an extremely gratifying year for us as a band and [as] songwriters. People have asked us our whole career, “What are you guys? What kind of music do you play?” This time, when the album came out, we had a number four country record, a number six indie record and a number 12 rock record. That’s what we’re here for. We’re all of those things.
It felt really good to have other people listen to the record and see what we’re saying. It fits in a lot different places. We have so much gratitude for the fact that we can still go out and play live shows and make a living doing what we love, and make music and continue to make new fans and keep the old.
Centanni: You’ve done so well with this country vibe. Will Sister Hazel stay in this country phase?
Block: You know, it depends on what songs we write. We’re already writing for the next record. We had 90-plus songs for this last record. The idea that we landed in the country world until we started fleshing them out and recording them and demo’ing them and seeing which ones we are drawn to — I think that process will happen again this time.
We try to pick the best songs that speak to where we are right now. I think a lot of those elements will remain the same, because it’s a lot of our fingerprint and who we are. You have to write songs that are honest and record them in a way that you’re proud of. I really hope that we continue to grow our audience.