Sister HazelEXPAND
Sister Hazel
Photo by Dave Schlenker

Sister Hazel Never Got to Play With Tom Petty, but the Band Is Following in His Footsteps

The corporate arm of the music industry has always been primarily concerned with units sold, chart positions, and platinum plaques. But for fans, it's longevity that truly defines artistic success.

Florida band Sister Hazel has seen both sides of the coin. In 1997, its album Somewhere More Familiar went platinum, driven largely by the runaway radio hit "All for You." It was no easy feat for a band from the small North Florida town of Gainesville, but keeping the original lineup intact for two decades, with a rabid fan base to boot? That's damn near miraculous.

"It's something we're really proud of," bassist Jett Beres tells New Times. "Just being with the same person, partner, husband, wife — whatever — for that long is a feat; let alone the same five guys that have been together in a pretty up-and-down business. We rely on each other creatively and economically and emotionally, and we're locked in a tour bus together for a hundred days out of the year. It's taught us a lot of lessons."

Sister Hazel became a band in 1993, as the grunge scene brewed on the opposite corner of the country. Rock music was on the cusp of its '90s peak, and "All for You" hit right before the bubblegum pop explosion closed out the decade. It was a time when CD sales regularly reached the hundreds of thousands during an album's opening sales week; bands could still make money off their music then.

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Beres says Sister Hazel's grassroots approach to building its fan base unknowingly helped it prepare for the coming music industry bubble bust. "When we first started off, we had a plan for what we wanted to do. We had a touring plan, and how we were going to get our music out there. All our friends were trying to get label deals, and we said we were just going to do what we can control, which is write good music... We got lucky with a song that hit and got the major labels' attention, and that album opened up a lot of doors for us and gave us the opportunity to earn fans, but that's not why we're here."

The band began cultivating a strong fan community long before the social media age, when connecting with fans online became as much a part of the job for musicians as touring or recording. While the nostalgia-industrial complex that churns out tours and cruises featuring '90s bands is a fairly recent novelty, Sister Hazel's Rock Boat, a music festival curated by the band onboard a cruise liner, is now entering its 18th year. In 2016 the group's latest LP, Lighter in the Dark, hit number four on the U.S. country charts. It's a new format for an undefinable band that's been called everything from alternative to college rock to Americana and now, country.

Beres says the new genre descriptor says less about the band than it does about another changing tide in the music industry. "Our sound, I don't know if it's changed a whole lot. They're still Sister Hazel records. What has changed is the industry. I think country music has broadened its scope when certain genres have shrunk. We were number one with "All for You" and top ten with four or five other songs over the years, which was [then] adult contemporary radio — that's gone."

But the changing labels don't bother Beres. "If they want to put our record out in another format and it opens doors to new people who have never heard us — which it has been — then that's just great."

The band will play Tortuga Music Festival this year, sharing a lineup with pop country heavyweights like Keith Urban and Eric Church. But while Sister Hazel has only recently been rubber-stamped into the country genre, this won't be its first time at the festival. The band played the inaugural Tortuga in 2013, though it's moving up to the main stage this year on the heels of Lighter in the Dark's success.

The album takes its title from the track "Something to Believe In," which pays tribute to the best-known artist to have ever come out of their hometown, Tom Petty. "Just a kid from Gainesville/Watching Petty with my/Lighter in the dark," writes guitarist Andrew Copeland. The song was released well over a year before Petty's untimely death. Sister Hazel worked extensively with the Heartbreakers' former drummer, Stan Lynch, and keyboardist Benmont Tench over the years, and Beres says Petty's passing was tough on the band, partly because missed opportunities for collaboration weighed on them.

"We had talked to their people for years, and one of our bucket list [items] was to, not even necessarily tour with Tom Petty, but to play a show, especially like a hometown show. We almost made it happen a couple of times, so the first thing I thought of when he passed away was, Well, that opportunity will never happen, and that was a sad day, selfishly. And then obviously, probably more like everyone else, that his gift won't be able to continue in the world. It's a loss."

He sighs heavily before speaking about the titan songwriter's influence on the band. "What Tom Petty showed Gainesville bands in general... was that you can make it out of a small town. Clearly he was iconic to a lot of people for a lot of reasons, but being from Gainesville and having roots in the community, that was a huge inspiration for us. And then to see his career and how he kept his integrity despite genre shifts... I think that's where integrity comes from, and as long as it's honest in the songwriting and pure, I think whether people enjoy it, or maybe it's not their thing, that you respect it."

Tortuga Music Festival. Friday, April 6, to Sunday, April 8, at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, 1100 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-828-7275. Tickets cost $125 to $1,150 via tortugamusicfestival.com.

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