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Sweetly Smiling Sister

"If you see a band that you like, you don't want to wait six to eight weeks before you're gonna see 'em again. You go home and you tell your friends, and if you could, you'd go see 'em the next night, the next weekend. So we tried to work it that way, getting back to those markets as soon as we could."

Andrew Copeland, vocalist and guitarist for the Gainesville band Sister Hazel, is explaining how the group built the following that has made it a major draw throughout the Southeast and which bought 10,000 copies of its self-released second album ... Somewhere More Familiar. A remixed, remodeled version of the disc was issued last month by the MCA imprint Universal Records; the first single, "All for You," is picking up support at radio stations around the country. All this means that the quintet may well end up playing more than the 200 gigs they did in 1996. They're already starting to pull their road-worn van up to bigger clubs than ever before.

Certainly the timing is right for Sister Hazel, whose sound owes a lot to the poppier end of the pseudohippie jam-band spectrum. It's a congenial sound, to be sure -- less threatening than the roaring guitars of the post-Nirvana pack but also less irritating than the flaccid AOR fodder of the Dave Matthews Band and Counting Crows. Copeland and co-frontman Ken Block began formulating the Sister Hazel style about six years ago, when the pair started gigging around Gainesville as an acoustic duo.

They came together casually, as so many other collegiate folkies have done over the years. "We're both from Gainesville," Copeland says. "We both had mutual friends in town, but never really met. We were sitting down with acoustic guitars at a tailgate party one day and just started singing together, and things kind of came together after that. My sister was actually getting married a couple of months down the road and she asked us to sing at her wedding, so that was the first place that Ken and I actually performed together. After that, we had offers from different little pubs in town to come in and play acoustically. We did that while I was finishing school for two and a half years, before Ken decided that he really wanted to expand and do the full band thing." With a lineup that also includes lead guitarist Ryan Newell, bassist Jeff Beres, and drummer Mark Tronjanowski, Sister Hazel recorded its self-titled, self-released album. Heavy touring soon followed.

Copeland says the band functions as a unit in the songwriting process, thanks to each member's diverse influences. Newell adds wailing slide parts to the mix, which provide one of Sister Hazel's most distinctive aural trademarks as well as an important element in keeping some of the more ethereal songs from floating away into the ozone. Copeland also credits him with broadening the outfit's song structures. Eclecticism, he says, is the word.

"We've all been in different projects," he explains, "but we're really influenced by vocal harmony groups like the Eagles, the Indigo Girls. One of my influences is James Taylor, and of course you hear Ryan with the slide -- there's a lot of Allman Brothers in his playing, and he's got many blues influences that really give him a lot of feel. We don't try to steer it any one way. We let it come in and just happen."

What comes out is a familiar amalgam of bouncy rhythms, innocent vocals, and guitars that probably aren't strummed much differently from the days when Copeland and Block were working the bars for beer money. Lyrically, the guys seem more bemused than anything at the world around them, even when they attempt to express feelings about something not so nice. (From the opening verse of "Think About Me": "I've seen a lot of sad people/I've seen a lot of bad people do a lot of bad things." At least they watch the news.)

The group's work ethic and grassroots approach to developing a fan base recalls the early years of groups like R.E.M., and paved the way for Sister Hazel's major-label deal with Universal. "We had a strategy of getting people interested and it all started happening at once," says Copeland. "What Universal brought to the table, besides anything monetary, was the belief in what we were doing and how we were doing it, and let us know that our ideas were going to be listened to, and that we weren't just going to get thrown on a label and put in a machine and not given any say.

"Also, Universal had a real family-type atmosphere," he continues. "We've been fortunate that we've surrounded ourselves with good people from day one. Our management team has been irreplaceable. Everybody has put faith in us and said, 'We're in this for the long haul.' We believe it's going to work, and so we're willing to sacrifice now and maybe we'll get fortunate and things will work out later." Like Dave Matthews, Sister Hazel has cobbled together an impressive DIY marketing arm for T-shirts and other merchandise; also like Matthews, Sister Hazel intends to hold on to the rights to their first album, a potential gold mine.

Sister Hazel's faith in eventual success reflects that of the band's namesake, a Gainesville religious leader whom a young Block used to see on television. Copeland: "Sister Hazel was a nun here in town who ran a mission, and she's still around. In fact, two weekends ago we went to a service that she was giving at Williams Temple and sat there with her. She's a super lady. She's always stood for unconditional regard for others and trying to help people who are down, and that's something that we all have in common and we all believe in. Giving everybody a fair shot and treating everybody equally. And it shows in some of our songwriting.

"If we're fortunate enough in this crazy business to actually make it, then we have to be able to take advantage of the position that we're put in and further other things besides just our music career -- help out different charities and programs that we believe in." (A list of such groups, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the American Foundation for AIDS Research, is included in Somewhere's CD booklet, with the chirpy exclamation "Everyone Can Make a Difference!!")

That charitable spirit, however, doesn't mean Sister Hazel is looking for a spot on the Christian-alternative train currently peopled by the likes of Jars of Clay. "I think that we all have a spiritual side to us," Copeland admits. "We're not all the same religion, and none of us is extremely religious, but it is a general feeling of goodness. It almost sounds cheesy when I talk about it, but it's true. Race, color, religious belief and all that aside, we're all human beings, and we can help each other out if that's what we decide to do."

Copeland says the listeners packing Sister Hazel's gigs these days have picked up on the positivity that infuses the group's music and attitude. "There are people from all kinds of backgrounds you see out in the crowd, and they're all there enjoying one thing. They're there in unity supporting one thing, and it kind of draws people together. Some of the biggest compliments we get from people, through our e-mail or wherever, is that they may have been having a bad day, and they leave work and they get in their car and they pop in our CD, and by the time they get home they're in a great mood. That's what we're about. We want to be bigger than just the songs. We want to send a bigger message."

Sister Hazel performs tonight, March 27, at Stella Blue, 1661 Meridian Ave, Miami Beach; 532-4788. Showtime is midnight. Cover charge is $3.

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