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Cruise to Niswonger to catch Sister Hazel show

’90s alternative rockers have been inventive to expand their fan base

Sister Hazel will be at Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Van Wert on Saturday, April 1.
Wheat Williams

Wheat Williams

Whatzup Features Writer

Published March 22, 2023

How do you turn one hit record into a career? Sister Hazel practically wrote the book. 

Among an elite group of alternative rockers from the ’90s, the band out of Gainesville, Florida, have cultivated and maintained a relationship with their fans. They have managed to stay on the industry charts by recording 10 studio albums, touring constantly, and traveling thousands of nautical miles with thousands of fans around the Caribbean. 

What? Let us explain.

You remember their one big hit, 1997’s “All for You,” from their second album, Somewhere More Familiar, which over the years has steadily amassed more than a million sales. Since then, there has always been something straightforward and honest about their ballads and love songs, and their fans have never let go.

Back on land, the band is in the midst of a tour that will stop by Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Van Wert on Saturday, April 1. 

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The members who formed Sister Hazel in 1994 are still together: Ken Block on lead vocals and guitar, Drew Copeland on vocals and guitar, Jett Beres on bass and vocals, Ryan Newell on guitar and vocals, and Mark Trojanowzki on drums. Since 2012, their sixth member has been Dave LaGrande on keyboards.

 “Ken and I were an acoustic duo,” Copeland said in a phone interview when asked about the origins of the band. 

“Ken was in a bunch of heavier rock bands around Gainesville. He was like, ‘Well, man, I want to start a band around what we’re doing.’ And at that time, I was about to graduate from Florida, and I was like, ‘Well, man, I’ll stick with it for a little while, but I’m going to probably get a job and move on with my life.’ And he was like, ‘All right, cool. Just stay with me until I find somebody to replace you.’”

They auditioned the best local musicians, and somehow, just kept writing and playing. Fortunately for the band, Copeland’s replacement never appeared. Six years later, a major label record deal and a big hit convinced Copeland that this was his career. 

“And then we had the blessing of ‘All for You,’ and everything just took off from there,” he said.

Picking up country fans

Recently, Sister Hazel’s profile has been raised by a clever move. From 2018-2019, they released a series of EPs that got a little attention from country radio. In 2020 they released all four EPs as one album, Elements.

“I think we have gained some new fans,” Copeland said. “The truth is, if you go back and you listen to our catalog of music way back when, we didn’t vary a whole lot from what we’ve been doing all along.

“The country music genre got wider and it just happened to take us in.”

All Aboard the Rock Boat

Bands that last this long have one thing in common: They find innovative ways to keep their fans.

Sister Hazel take credit for inventing the concept of the music festival cruise. Since 2001, they have hosted the annual Rock Boat, sailing out of Miami with ports of call around the Caribbean. 

In 2001, they booked a block of staterooms for 400 of their fans on a huge cruise ship, brought a couple of other bands with them, and held a weeklong string of concerts at sea. Year over year it grew. Soon they were chartering the entire ship and featuring 20 or more bands and rubbing elbows with around 2,500 fans.

The Rock Boat was so successful that Sister Hazel’s manager, Andy Levine, stepped aside to launch a business called Sixthman which puts on as many as 20 different music cruises a year, each featuring a different theme. 

There have been years of the Kiss cruise, the Outlaw Country cruise, the professional wrestling cruise, Broadway and standup-comedy-themed cruises, the Rock the Bells all-star rap and hip-hop cruise, the Headbanger’s Boat metal cruise, the Keeping the Blues Alive cruise, and more. 

Along the way, other companies have copied Sixthman’s idea, not only in the Caribbean but in the Mediterranean and around Europe.

Sister Hazel’s involvement remains with one Rock Boat cruise a year, in equal financial partnership with Sixthman. The list of bands and artists that have gone along with them is a who’s who of stars from the ’80s to today. Every cruise sells out a year in advance. 

The next one will be in January 2024. Hosted by Sister Hazel, it will feature Young the Giant, The Struts, Bowling for Soup, KT Tunstall, Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, Red Wanting Blue, Gaelic Storm, Drivin’ N Cryin’, and more. You can put your name on the waiting list to see if you can get a cabin.

Cruising on fan support

What all this amounts to is that this little band from Florida with their one solid radio hit in 1997 invented an entirely new segment of the entertainment industry.

“Yeah, it was our idea,” Copeland said. “We started the whole thing. We’re very proud of that. It’s as much of a part of our legacy as all of our studio records and everything else. 

“It’s all about reaching your fan base and to create moments with your fan base. And I have to tell you, man, if you had asked me 30 years ago, I would’ve never in a million years guessed that we’d have affected the lives of so many people.

“(Our fans) dubbed themselves the Hazelnuts, and they are a community of people that support each other,” he said. “It’s amazing, the goodwill in our fan base. That’s part of why the Rock Boat is such a special event. You get on that boat, and you can feel that they’re a bunch of like-minded people. They may have different opinions on religion or politics or whatever else, but they all come together for one common cause, and that is the love of music. We’ve been really blessed with that.”

Fortunately, if you can’t afford to wait a year to get a berth on a cruise ship, you and yours can be Hazelnuts for one night just by cruising on over to Van Wert on April 1.

Meanwhile, I’m working on convincing Whatzup to station me in Miami to cover music cruises year-round and file my stories from ports of call. Don’t get me wrong, Fort Wayne’s nice and all, but there’s some serious music journalism to be done at sea, and somebody needs to do it. 

“Well, tell your editor that I’m backing you on that for sure,” Copeland said. “And the first one needs to be the Rock Boat.”


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