I met Ken Block in the late 1980s. We were both living in Gainesville, Fla., which is the state to the south's version of Athens - a college town with an enormous transient population, and a fertile core group of artists, musicians and other creative types who love their community and do their utmost to keep it vibrant.
Ken was born in Gainesville; I was the music writer for the local paper. He played guitar in a cheesy, post-teenage band called Redline, and then formed an acoustic guitar and harmony duo with his pal Andrew Copeland. Even at such a young age, he was quite a songwriter.
We used to trade off sets during Open Mic nights at an Italian restaurant on the west end of town.
Sometime in the ‘90s, Ken and Andrew started a full band, with three not-from-Gainesville guys, which they called Sister Hazel (in honor of a local woman who ran a shelter for the homeless and hungry).
In 1997, the band's Universal Records debut Somewhere More Familiar ... caught fire and sold a million units, buoyed by the Top 20 single "All For You," a song I remember Ken and Andrew singing back in the old days at Napolatano's.
Sister Hazel performs "All For You":
Although there's never been another massive hit, Sister Hazel - now an independent act - has released a steady stream of albums that have sold to a rabid, worldwide fan base (called "Hazelnuts"), people who appreciate not only the quintet's stellar musicianship and finely-crafted harmonies, but their unerringly uplifting songs and positive message.
They are on tour for about 150 dates every year.
Sister Hazel is on the bill with the North Mississippi Allstars (and Athens' Heavy Pets) at Sunday's Craft Brew Fest concert.
In February, Sister Hazel will launch its 13th annual Rock Boat, a Caribbean cruise with non-stop music. The event will include, among others, Ponderosa (see a story about the band in this issue) and Needtobreathe, who'll visit Savannah come November.
For Ken Block, the secret to longevity goes all the way back to those long-ago nights in Gainesville: Be yourself and people will appreciate it.
"Even now when we're playing a big crowd it's our job to try to make it feel like we're sitting at those Open Mic nights, or in somebody's back yard or living room, having a little jam session," he tells me. "We've carried that mentality with us, no matter what kind of stage we're on."
You still live in Gainesville. What does it mean to you?
Ken Block: I've got three kids now, 12, 9 and 7. There's a few reasons why Drew and I, particularly, decided to stay here. We grew up here, we went all the way through school and college here. Then we got to take off, and we were gone 250, 300 days a year. Coming back here really kept us grounded. We realized, as we travelled around, that Gainesville's really a great place. It's a unique city in the sort of diversity that it has. Florida is very diverse - you go to South Florida it's one thing, Central Florida's another, the panhandle's another ... Gainesville pulls from all over the place. This city put its fingerprints all over us, and so it shaped who we are not only as musicians but as businessmen, as parents, as husbands. And we have always kind of felt like the ambassadors for the city.
Was there ever, at some point, any thought in your mind that you would leave?
Ken Block: When we first got started, our management moved to Atlanta. We were doing a lot of recording there, there was a great music scene ... I felt a little detached, and my wife Tracy and I actually started talking about going up there. She was pregnant with our first son. She said "Listen, you're not going to knock me up and then go on the road, and leave us in a new city." Around that time, cell phones started poppin' in a little more, the Internet, e-mail, quick flights from Gainesville to Atlanta to Nashville to whatever it is. I realized that I could be wherever I needed to be really quickly.
Has it all turned out the way you imagined?
Ken Block: There have been a lot of left turns and right turns. I think the thing that I'm most proud of is that it's the same five guys. When you're a band that starts out playing every little club, pub or pizza parlor, you get in a van a trailer for years. Then you get your first platinum record, and you're bouncing around ... there are some growing pains. We had to really learn to check our egos at the door. We had to learn how to communicate about things. You're living in hotel rooms and on buses together. The times when most bands implode or explode, we made it through that. All of us have been back on our heels individually. Me, I got clean and sober 10 years ago. I think it gave all of us an opportunity to step up and be a big brother to each other. None of us are very good at being vulnerable, but we've had to be at different times. Sister Hazel is the mothership, and no matter what else is going on, we're gonna be there.
Tell me about the Rock Boat.
Ken Block: After we'd finished touring Somewhere More Familiar ..., that's when the term Hazelnuts started getting some legs. We wanted to thank the people that took us from a van and trailer to our first platinum record, something more than just passing through town and shaking hands and taking pictures. The first cruise went really well; it was a kind of a gamble, as you can imagine, trying to charter an entire cruise ship with 2,500 people, but we did and it sold out. And we said "We're on to something here." We've really tried to make it a blend of veteran bands and new artists. We pride ourselves on the fact that you're going to leave that boat with your next favorite band.
Did "All For You" build your house?
Ken Block: We're a band. The songwriting money, the publishing stuff gets split five ways. I think that's one of the reasons we've remained a band. We're all in this together. You start cutting that piece of pizza up, it gets divided. Had it been me getting the lump sum yeah, it would've been a pretty substantial thing, but it was divided and we did very well off of that.
Did it build a house for me? Yes. But since then, we've got to work. We're a working band. Are we on the cover of Rolling Stone? Nope. But we can go out and earn a living for five guys and about six crew members.
Rhythm ‘n' Brews Concert
North Mississippi Allstars, Sister Hazel, The Heavy Pets and others
Where: Westin Harbor Resort, 1 Resort Drive
When: 3-10 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 2
Tickets: $25 adults, $10 ages 11-16 (under 10 free)