Mumford & Sons could open for Shovels & Rope, Jay-Z could rhyme a verse on the new Righchus — er, Matt Monday — track, and Ben Bridwell could dethrone Joe Riley as the mayor of Charleston. But none of that would do a dang thing to change the minds of Sister Hazel's army of Hazelnuts. In the World According to Hazelnuts, pop music peaked in 1997 back when alt-rock softies Sister Hazel released their career-defining ...Somewhere More Familiar.
Surprisingly, there are a lot more Hazelnuts around these parts than you might think. A lot more. Otherwise, the Gainesville, Fla. band wouldn't make an annual trip to the Windjammer each summer, when Hazelnuts from around the country converge on the Isle of Palms for the Hazelnut Hang, a three-day celebration of the band's two-decade-long career.
For those of you who are wondering what all the hubbub is about, there's more to Sister Hazel than their 1997 hit song "All for You." Since then, they've been hitting the road and recording new albums — six in fact. However, none of that compares to what is arguably Sister Hazel's biggest new-millennium triumph: They're responsible for the band-cruise phenomenon. This year marks the 13th time that Sister Hazel has hit the high seas with their fans. Impressive.
As for the Hazelnut Hang at the Windjammer, it's been going on for eight years. This year's theme is "Double Wide, Southern Fried," and the band is asking its Hazelnuts to don fake mullets and cut-off jeans. The $230 "Nut Case" package, which includes four concerts and lots of chances to hang with the band, sold out by April, although cheaper tickets to the shows are still available. And Sister Hazel is far from the only late-'90s act to make repeated returns to the Windjammer. Both Cracker and Cowboy Mouth seem to come back every summer.
"Charleston finds a band they love and they'll throw their support behind them for years and years," says Magdalyn Duffie, a fan who first saw Sister Hazel as a high school student 15 years ago. "Just like Hootie, I think Sister Hazel personifies that Southern spirit our town has."
Although Duffie doesn't call herself a "hardcore" Hazelnut, she credits the band's humility and personable attitude toward their fans for the loyalty they receive in return. "Most of the girls that come to their shows are in their 40s now, and they know every word to every song and have that one band member that they love the most," Duffie says. "They were like Charleston's version of Hanson back in the day, and their fans still carry the dream."
Even though the band is from Gainesville, the Lowcountry has always been something of a second home for them. Windjammer owner Bobby Ross recalls the first time they played in the mid-'90s after another band with the same manager canceled a gig at the last minute. "He told me he had this other band that could fill the spot, and I told him I'd give them $200," Ross says.
Playing for cheap worked out for Sister Hazel, who quickly made a fan and a friend out of Ross. "Sister Hazel's music is very upbeat and uplifting," Ross says. "Maybe I'm showing my age, but I'm not a big jam-band person, so bands like Sister Hazel and Big Head Todd are still relevant to me."
Surprisingly, the Hang attracts younger fans too. Take Rebekah Manci for instance. Manci, the director of finance at the Sustainability Institute in Charleston, is 28 years old, and she's been a Hazelnut since her high school days in Lexington, Ky.
"Their song 'Change Your Mind,' (from 2000's Fortress) was the first one I really liked," says Manci, who estimates she's been to 20 Sister Hazel shows, including this year's cruise. "You can tell that they actually care about their fans and are really down-to-earth."
Back in Kentucky, Manci was often met with blank stares when she told people that Sister Hazel was her favorite band. She even traveled to Nashville and Indianapolis to see them perform before making the jump to the Hazelnut Hang's HQ.
"Honestly, it might be kind of sad, but it was part of the reason I moved to Charleston," Manci says. "It's more than just their music. They actually care about the impact they're making, and I like their general outlook on life."
To keep the Hazelnut Hang going another decade, the group will need to keep fostering newer fans like Manci, who says she's having trouble finding a friend willing to shell out the cash to attend the full weekend of shows this year. Sadly, her new boyfriend isn't quite on the Sister Hazel bandwagon. Of course, that doesn't really matter. As Sister Hazel lead singer Ken Block sings on "Lessons in Love, Hope, and Faith" off of 2010's Heartland Highway, "It's OK, babe, I don't expect you to understand."