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 musicÂ to touch a listenerâ€™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, theyâ€™ve seen audiences light up the night like seas of stars.
But theyâ€™ve been on the other side too. Bassist Jett Beres remembers the first time heÂ heard guitarist/singer/songwriter Andrew Copelandâ€™s lyric, â€œIâ€™m just a kid from Gainesville watching Petty with my lighter in the dark,â€ for his song â€œSomething To Believe In.â€
â€œIt gave me chills,â€ Beres says. â€œItâ€™s who we were. Itâ€™s who we still are. Itâ€™s the beauty ofÂ music.â€
His bandmates agreedÂ â€”Â and thus their new album harks back to the roots of their story through its title,Â Lighter In The Dark. Recorded in Nashvilleâ€™s Tin Ear Studio andÂ produced by their longtime engineer and Nashville studio fixture Chip Matthews, theÂ album affirms the bandâ€™s longstanding ties to Music City, which date back to 2005 andÂ 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 theÂ bandâ€™s tapestry: the restless, road-hungry rush of â€œFall Off The Mapâ€ and â€œRunÂ HighwayÂ Run,â€ the deep-country dive of â€œPrettiest Girl At The Dance,â€ the sentiment and swagger of â€œTake It With Me,â€ the exhilaration of romance on a shoestring with the albumâ€™s debut
single, â€œWe Got It All Tonight,â€ 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 co-written 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 soulÂ â€”Â and above all, their fusion of multiple influences into that unique Sister Hazel sound.
They draw from the talents of guest artists too. You canâ€™t miss Darius Ruckerâ€™s voice on â€œKaraoke Song.â€ Sister HazelÂ has been playing the song live for a while, ever since Rucker, Copeland, and Nashville songwriter Barry Dean put it together. And on theÂ stark heartbreak ballad â€œAlmost Broken,â€ fast-rising artist Jillian Jacqueline adds aÂ haunting complement to Copelandâ€™sÂ lead vocal.
â€œI originally sang it alone,â€ Copeland says. â€œBut then Chip Matthews, our producer, said, â€˜Let me put a female vocal on it. Trust me on this.â€™ He got Jillian into the studio and she just crushed it. It took the song to a whole other level.â€
Most members of the band also contributed a solo composition toÂ Lighter In The Dark.Â â€œSister Hazel has a reputation for writing fun and sometimes uplifting songs,â€ says lead singer/guitarist Ken Block. â€œUsually itâ€™s a little easier for me to write when Iâ€™mÂ a little more introspective. But one day, while I was just messing around on my guitar, a lineÂ kind of fell out: â€˜Kiss Me Without Whiskey.â€™ So I built a story around it, where someone might be a little more affectionate when theyâ€™ve had a couple of cocktails or theyâ€™ve gotmoney in their pocket. When I took it to the band, we just had fun with it and at the endÂ went off into this rockinâ€™ jam. Itâ€™s so much fun to play live.â€
Ryan Newell came up with â€œThoroughbred Heart.â€ â€œWe usually have an acousticÂ moment on our albums and I thought this could fill that space,â€ says Sister Hazelâ€™s lead guitarist. â€œAs far as lyrical content, itâ€™s about the struggles of being in a relationship and opening yourself up, though maybe not as much as you should.â€
In terms of Sister Hazel history, the most significant solo write onÂ Lighter In The DarkÂ isÂ probably â€œTen Candle Days.â€ From their very first album, Beres has almost alwaysÂ 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 minerâ€™s life deep underground.
â€œWe went into the studio to record this and Ken said, â€˜Why donâ€™t you go into the room and sing it so I can sit with it, listen to it and get a feel for it?â€™,â€Â BeresÂ relates. â€œWeâ€™dÂ finished the music bed, so I went in and did two quick takes. I came back into theÂ control room and the guys were looking at me funny. Then they said, â€˜I think you just sang your first lead on a Sister Hazel record!â€™â€
Another first forÂ Lighter In The DarkÂ is Chip Matthewsâ€™ debut as the bandâ€™s producer after a long run as engineer on several of their recent albums. â€œWe trusted Chip to lead this project,â€ Block explains. â€œHeâ€™s got a great ear and a great sensibility for songs and textures. That doesnâ€™t mean we didnâ€™t add our input, but at the end of the day weÂ agreed that he should captain this ship.â€
â€œHe really helped us shape our arrangements and guitar parts,â€ adds drummer Mark Trojanowski. â€œOn songs like â€˜Karaoke,â€™ â€˜Prettiest Girl,â€™ â€˜Take It With Meâ€™ and â€˜Fall OffÂ TheÂ Map,â€™ he reeled us in so we didnâ€™t just rehash them the way weâ€™d been playing themÂ live. That was great because it kept us on our toes and made everything work better inÂ the studio.â€
But thatâ€™s not all that makesÂ Lighter In The DarkÂ a milestone in Sister Hazelâ€™s history.Â Through decades of exhaustive touring as well as developing their Lyrics For Life Charity,Â the Rock Boat cruise, Hazelnut Hang and other annual fan gatherings, theyâ€™veÂ drawn from, processed and reflected back their synthesis of American music. AsÂ Trojanowski notes, â€œI come from a jazz background. Ryan comes from the blues, StevieÂ Ray Vaughan and the Allman Brothers, Ken and Drew have a lot of Indigo Girls andÂ James Taylor in their hearts. And weâ€™re all huge Eagles fans.â€
â€œThrough it all, weâ€™ve just kept getting better as a band,â€ Newell adds. â€œWeâ€™ve maturedÂ as songwriters. Each time we record, I feel more proud of our new album than the lastÂ one because I can hear us still growing.â€
â€œAnd weâ€™ve always been unclassifiable,â€ Beres concludes. â€œWeâ€™ll put out a record and go, â€˜What is it? Is it country music? Is it Southern rock? Is it pop? is it college acoustic, alternative?â€™ It doesnâ€™t matter! Itâ€™s just us doing what weâ€™ve always done. Weâ€™re writing about who we are, where weâ€™ve been and where weâ€™re going. And weâ€™ve never done itÂ as well as we have onÂ Lighter In The Dark.â€