Arts & Features
From a young age, lead vocalist Ken Block of the platinum-selling band Sister Hazel was fascinated by the generosity of strangers.
Now as an adult and no stranger to Asheville, Block and the musicians of Sister Hazel came to the U.S. Cellular Center on Friday as part of their “Firefighter Concert Event” series, in which proceeds from the show support local Firefighters’ Associations across the Southeast.
Growing up an observant boy in Gainesville, Florida, Ken Block recalls seeing public service announcements for the rescue missions of a woman named Sister Hazel Williams, a determined advocate for the poor and homeless in the Gainesville community and abroad.
“It was my first sort of notion of what service work was all about,” Block said. “Those were her people, regardless of education, race, orientation or age she was giving people a safe, warm place to dust off and regroup.”
Block said he remembers asking his mother about the nature of Williams’ service and was mystified when he learned Williams helped people she had never met before.
“When we were looking for a name for the band,” Block said. “That’s what that name represented to me — and the whole community — was unconditional regard for everybody.”
When the band began using her name, Williams was away doing mission work in Haiti and Belize. Upon her return, Block said he received a 7 a.m. phone call from none other than Sister Hazel herself.
“My roommate was like, ‘Hey, you want to take this call. This is Sister Hazel,’” Block said. “I jumped on and she said she came back to Gainesville and her name was on every club, pub and coffee shop in town and she wanted to know what we were all about.”
This began many years worth of donations toward her various humanitarian efforts, including aiding the homeless and children of the incarcerated. When she passed away last year at age 91, Block spoke at her funeral and expressed what a remarkable lady she was.
“I was struck as a kid that people would take whatever platform they had to help other people and get out of themselves,” Block said. “The most profound event of my life was when I was 16 and my best friend and little brother was diagnosed with cancer at age 14.”
From there, the band has been involved with numerous charities, many of which support the fight against cancer. In 2002 the band founded “Lyrics for Life,” a nonprofit organization supporting childhood cancer research and helping children and families navigate cancer diagnoses.
“My mom used to say, ‘Now you’ve got your soapbox, what do you want to do with it?’” Block said. “It was really clear to me that I wanted part of what we do to shine a light on worthy causes. Being able to use our platform for positivity really is part of the fabric of who we are.”
Not only does the band help the less fortunate, they also give back to their fans as much as possible, Block said. It became clear to them that they wanted things to be about experiences and relationships as much the songs and shows they put on.
“We started the Rockboat 18 years ago,” Block said. “It was really to thank the people who took us from a southern college band in a van to our first platinum record. We take over a venue and spend three days on the beach with a bunch of fans.”
The Rockboat takes the fans of Sister Hazel, affectionately referred to by themselves and others as “Hazelnuts,” on a five-day aquatic music festival featuring Sister Hazel and their hand-picked cohort of other musicians ranging in genre, style and popularity.
“Our goal is that maybe you come to see Collective Soul, Barenaked Ladies or Sister Hazel, but that you’re going to leave with your next favorite band,” Block said. “We had Zac Brown Band on there six years before anyone knew who he was ‘cause we liked him and thought, ‘You need to hear these guys.’”
Sister Hazel has been rocking together for 23 years without stopping, leaning into other genres like country, rock, acoustic and Americana. The evolution of their sound is merely a satisfying by-product of what Block calls writing in the way that best serves the song.
“When this group of guys gets behind their instruments and plays, we make a sound,” Block said. “And it sounds like Sister Hazel.”
As the second biggest band out of Gainesville, Block praises their upbringing in the creative, supportive music scene of the Southeast.
“We find inspiration in the fact that we’ve been creating music together for 23 years and challenge each other to see if we can’t come up with something fresh,” Block said. “We just want to say how appreciative we are that we are still connecting with new audiences. When you see us standing up on stage, that’s what gratitude looks like.”