It starts with a lighter in the dark, held high by a true believer whose favorite band is telling his story onstage.
Multiply that by thousands of other fans in that venue and thousands more that same night in venues across America. Each one of those lights testifies to the power of music to touch a listener’s soul.
Sister Hazel has been there. For more than 20 years, these five friends have built the kind of musical communication that comes only with time, talent and commitment. From bars and clubs back home in Gainesville, Florida, to theaters, arenas, college campuses and open air festivals, they’ve seen audiences light up the night like seas of stars.
But they’ve been on the other side too. Bassist Jett Beres remembers the first time he heard guitarist/singer/songwriter Andrew Copeland’s lyric, “I’m just a kid from Gainesville watching Petty with my lighter in the dark,” for his song “Something To Believe In.”
“It gave me chills,” Beres says. “It’s who we were. It’s who we still are. It’s the beauty of music.”
His bandmates agreed and thus their new album harks back to the roots of their story through its title, Lighter In The Dark. Recorded in Nashville’s Tin Ear Studio and produced by their longtime engineer and Nashville studio fixture Chip Matthews, the album affirms the band’s longstanding ties to Music City, which date back to 2005 and include collaborations with all star songwriters Lee Brice, Luke Laird and Hillary Lindsey, sessions with production heavyweights Garth Fundis and Scott Parker, guest appearances by Pat Buchanan, Tom Bukovac, Steve Hinson, and other local session aces.
As their lucky 13th release, it also ties together the many threads that make up the band’s tapestry: the restless, road hungry rush of “Fall Off The Map” and “Run Highway Run,” the deep country dive of “Prettiest Girl At The Dance,” the sentiment and swagger of “Take It With Me,” the exhilaration of romance on a shoestring with the album’s debut single, “We Got It All Tonight,” written by Music Row stalwarts Chris Destefano, Ashley Gorley and 2015 BMI Songwriter of the Year Rodney Clawson.
It adds up to 14 tracks, most of them cowritten by members of the band, some of them with outside writers all of them branded by their balance of harmony blends with distinctive lead vocals, instrumental polish with raw soul and above all, their fusion of multiple influences into that unique Sister Hazel sound.
They draw from the talents of guest artists too. You can’t miss Darius Rucker’s voice on “Karaoke Song.” Sister Hazel has been playing the song live for a while, ever since Rucker, Copeland, and Nashville songwriter Barry Dean put it together. And on the stark heartbreak ballad “Almost Broken,” fast rising artist Jillian Jacqueline adds a haunting complement to Copeland’s lead vocal.
“I originally sang it alone,” Copeland says. “But then Chip Matthews, our producer, said, ‘Let me put a female vocal on it. Trust me on this.’ He got Jillian into the studio and she just crushed it. It took the song to a whole other level.”
Most members of the band also contributed a solo composition to Lighter In The Dark. “Sister Hazel has a reputation for writing fun and sometimes uplifting songs,” says lead singer/guitarist Ken Block. “Usually it’s a little easier for me to write when I’m a little more introspective. But one day, while I was just messing around on my guitar, a line kind of fell out: ‘Kiss Me Without Whiskey.’ So I built a story around it, where someone might be a little more affectionate when they’ve had a couple of cocktails or they’ve got money in their pocket. When I took it to the band, we just had fun with it and at the end went off into this rockin’ jam. It’s so much fun to play live.”
Ryan Newell came up with “Thoroughbred Heart.” “We usually have an acoustic moment on our albums and I thought this could fill that space,” says Sister Hazel’s lead guitarist. “As far as lyrical content, it’s about the struggles of being in a relationship and opening yourself up, though maybe not as much as you should.”
In terms of Sister Hazel history, the most significant solo write on Lighter In The Dark is probably “Ten Candle Days.” From their very first album, Beres has almost always written the closing track. But never has he sung lead on it, or on any other song in their catalog, until now, in this story of a miner’s life deep underground.
“We went into the studio to record this and Ken said, ‘Why don’t you go into the room and sing it so I can sit with it, listen to it and get a feel for it?’,” Beres relates. “We’d finished the music bed, so I went in and did two quick takes. I came back into the control room and the guys were looking at me funny. Then they said, ‘I think you just sang your first lead on a Sister Hazel record!’”
Another first for Lighter In The Dark is Chip Matthews’ debut as the band’s producer after a long run as engineer on several of their recent albums. “We trusted Chip to lead this project,” Block explains. “He’s got a great ear and a great sensibility for songs and textures. That doesn’t mean we didn’t add our input, but at the end of the day we agreed that he should captain this ship.”
“He really helped us shape our arrangements and guitar parts,” adds drummer Mark Trojanowski. “On songs like ‘Karaoke,’ ‘Prettiest Girl,’ ‘Take It With Me’ and ‘Fall Off The Map,’ he reeled us in so we didn’t just rehash them the way we’d been playing them live. That was great because it kept us on our toes and made everything work better in the studio.”
But that’s not all that makes Lighter In The Dark a milestone in Sister Hazel’s history. Through decades of exhaustive touring as well as developing their Lyrics For Life Charity, The Rock Boat cruise, Hazelnut Hang and other annual fan gatherings, they’ve drawn from, processed and reflected back their synthesis of American music. As Trojanowski notes, “I come from a jazz background. Ryan comes from the blues, Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Allman Brothers, Ken and Drew have a lot of Indigo Girls and James Taylor in their hearts. And we’re all huge Eagles fans.”
“Through it all, we’ve just kept getting better as a band,” Newell adds. “We’ve matured as songwriters. Each time we record, I feel more proud of our new album than the last one because I can hear us still growing.”
“And we’ve always been unclassifiable,” Beres concludes. “We’ll put out a record and go, ‘What is it? Is it country music? Is it Southern rock? Is it pop? is it college acoustic, alternative?’ It doesn’t matter! It’s just us doing what we’ve always done. We’re writing about who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. And we’ve never done it as well as we have on Lighter In The Dark.”