Sister Hazel’s Ryan Newell Talks Longevity, & Bringing Joy on a Nightly Basis

A lot of music fans have nostalgia for the ‘90s, which is one of the reasons why Sister Hazel still packs venues over 25 years after their hit, “All For You,” burst onto radio, and MTV.

“It is nice to be recognized for being the dinosaurs that survived the asteroid,” guitarist Ryan Newell (photo: right) says with a laugh.

Nostalgia, however, is an interesting concept for the band, as Newell notes, “Because we never broke up and had a reunion, we don’t mentally live in the ‘90s. We’re making a new record right now, and we constantly try to keep our eyes looking forward, and moving forward, and writing new songs, and trying to connect with people with new material.”

Some of that new material includes the band’s recently released single, “Coconut Trees.”

Before “Coconut Trees,” “All For You,” Sister Hazel, or even adolescence, Newell was obsessed with music. His mother played the ukulele, which initially sparked his interest, and then when an older neighborhood kid started a band, and began practicing, Newell discovered the electric guitar. He immediately fell in love with the instrument, and became a sponge for all things rock n roll.

“I would say Angus Young was one of my first guitar heroes,” he remembers, “of course Eddie Van Halen was (also) one of my first guitar heroes. I love Brian May. Then later on I discovered Stevie Ray Vaughan. I loved him. I got into blues, I got into jazz, I just loved music, I loved the instrument, and pretty much anyone I heard of I explored, and learned a little bit from everybody.” This included becoming enamored with slide guitar at a later point in time, and adding that to his repertoire.

Newell’s impressive, all-encompassing background is what he brings to every Sister Hazel performance – recorded, or live.

He describes the band – which has kept its original lineup since its inception nearly 30 years ago – as a brotherhood, and they’ve shared bills with everyone from The Allman Brothers Band, to Britney Spears.

I recently caught up with Newell over Zoom, and he discussed the band’s keys to staying together for nearly three decades, what it’s like being forever associated with a song that brings joy, and why if you want to collaborate with him you may have to take to the high seas.

Before we get to the band, what was the learning curve like when you began to play slide guitar? 

Slide guitar I didn’t even start until really … I maybe started dabbling a little bit senior year of high school. It was just experimenting at that point, but I saw The Allman Brothers play my freshman year at college, and I had listened to Allman Brothers forever, it just never dawned on me to try to do what those guys were doing with the slide.

I just tried a little bit here and there, but when I got into a band in college I started playing slide live, and that was when the learning curve took off, because slide, it’s so easy to sound horrible. You have to constantly be thinking of muting all the rest of the strings, and the intonation, and the pitch has to be right, and it’s so easy to be off.

If you’re a bad slide player, the only other instrument I think sounds worse is a bad violin.

So if you’re doing that live, it only takes a couple times to sound sour like that to learn you don’t want to do that, and you focus on it a lot, and try to become better.

Moving to Sister Hazel, and your mega-hit, how prepared was the band for the level of fame that came from “All For You”? 

We were striving to be as big of a band as we could, so it’s not like we had any apprehension to it. Quite frankly, I don’t think we really felt it that much because we were on the road so much. We felt it at our shows. Our shows started getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger, but as far as everyday life, we weren’t home that much.

There was a period of time where we’d get recognized just being at shopping malls, and that kind of stuff. That was a lot of fun. It never got to the point where we couldn’t go anywhere, or it was annoying, or anything like that. It was just enough to like it.

That’s the perfect amount! 

Yeah, we always appreciated it, and we still do. If someone comes up, and wants to talk to us, or take a picture, or something like that, we feel like if it didn’t happen that would be a lot worse than if it did, so we always appreciate it.

Do you have a favorite memory, or piece of memorabilia from the “All For You” era? 

Once we got some success under our belt we got offered a tour, two tours actually, to play with The Allman Brothers.

The first two shows we played with them were two nights at Red Rocks in Colorado. As far as an event goes, that was memorable, and special, because I was such a huge Allman Brothers fan. Like I said, I started playing slide guitar because of them.

“All For You” came out in 1997, and then in 1998 MTV debuted TRL. Were you like, “Oh crap, now we’re competing with Britney Spears, and Backstreet Boys,” or did you almost not care because you had your own lane at that point? 

We had our own lane, and there was pop music that was out at the same time that our song was big, and our song went well into ’98, and even ’99. It just wouldn’t go away. We were also more of a VH1 band. We were on the VH1 countdown, and they had shows that we were on, so we kinda felt like we had our own little area.

We actually did a couple of shows with Britney Spears right when she was hitting


Yes, but that was the only time we ever really crossed … well, I take that back, we did a radio festival in Boston, and Backstreet Boys were on the bill, so we crossed over a little bit in that area, but I didn’t feel like there was competition, or anything. They were on such a bigger level as far as album sales. I think NSYNC was selling a million records in their first week. It was absolutely insane. We worked over a year to do that.

I just want to say that in the Venn diagram of bands who’ve performed on the same bill as The Allman Brothers, and bands who’ve performed on the same bill as Britney Spears, you’re the only one in the area where the circles overlap. 

You know, I have never thought about that, but you’re absolutely right. {laughs} 

How does it feel knowing that the first thought people have when they hear the name Sister Hazel is of a song that’s overtly positive, and brings joy? 

People ask us, “Do you ever get sick of playing ‘All For You’?” and the answer’s no, just because, like you said, it brings joy to so many people. When we play it live it still has the energy, it still has the crowd reaction, it still makes people happy, it still makes people jump out of their chairs, and scream, and yell, and we’re there to try to get people to do that. If that song is the vehicle that does it, we’re happy to be up there playing it.

We get the same energy, and the same feeling today that we did back when it was on the radio just because so many people have grown up with it. They’ve gotten married to it, they’ve broken up to it, they’ve had kids to it, now it’s even stronger for them than it was when it was on the radio just because of how long it’s been around.

So yeah, if that’s what’s bringing people to shows, we’re grateful, because I feel like we’re the type of band that once you are at the show you realize you’re not gonna be sitting there bored the whole set until we play that one song, that the reason we’ve been a band for almost 30 years is because we take pride in our live set. We try to keep you interested from the beginning to the end.

You mentioned you’ve been together for nearly 30 years, and I think one of the most impressive aspects of Sister Hazel is that you’ve had the same members since your inception. I don’t think very many bands can say that, so the big question is – how have you managed to pull that off? 

We’ve asked the same question.

We have some theories, and I think one of them is we got lucky to begin with that we genuinely like each other, and we’re genuine friends.

I know a lot of bands out there, they don’t really care for each other that much, they just make great music together, and that’s what kept them together.

Even without the music we would choose to hang out with each other, we would choose to be around each other, and I think that’s hugely important.

(Also), along the way we decided to stop fighting about everything, and that every decision you make isn’t this precious thing that’s gonna make, or break, everything in your life … to just kind of trust the process, and learn when to be a team player, when to take the ball, and when to sit back, and watch someone else have passion for it, and let it be their thing.

And I think, not lastly, but certainly to include in there, is we all share the same sense of humor. We make each other laugh. If we had conflicting senses of humor I don’t think we’d be here, because I think laughter is the biggest therapy of all. As down as you get on the road sometimes, and as homesick as you get, as soon as someone makes you laugh you feel like – it’s OK, this is where I should be, I feel better now.

During your show last month at The Warehouse at FTC in Fairfield, CT, you performed covers of three radically different artists. Those artists were Prince, The Allman Brothers Band, and The Killers. Did each one of those represent a different member of the band? 

Well, yes, actually.

We do a lot of events for our fans outside of just playing regular shows, and one of them is called Hazelnut Hang, which we do in Isle of Palms (South Carolina) every year, and we try to do a special set each year. Sometimes it’s a theme, sometimes it’s an album of a band we really like, one year we did a “crows” set, it was all Sheryl Crow, Black Crowes, and Counting Crows. We try to keep things interesting, and a couple years we had each band member pick out three cover songs they enjoy playing. Jett Beres, our bass player, picked “Mr. Brightside.” I picked The Allman Brothers, and I think the Prince song was a leftover from when we did a Prince set back in the day.

The guys in the band always encourage the guys that aren’t the lead singers to sing, and that’s why I sing The Allman Brothers song, and Jett sings “Mr. Brightside,” but it does work out now that we each kind of have that moment.

With your skills on the slide guitar, how often have other bands tried to poach you from Sister Hazel? 

Not that many times. It’s happened a couple times, but it wasn’t like, “Hey, leave your band and join mine,” or anything like that. It was, “I’d love to get together and jam sometime,” or, “I’d love to get together and write some songs,” or, “We should maybe do a side project,” or something like that.

Have any of those invitations have turned into side projects we should know about? 

We’re always on tour, so it’s hard to get something off the ground, but that being said I’ve produced a handful of records, and I do collaborations with other artists on some of our events.

We do an event called The Rock Boat, which is our cruise. We take out a full on cruise ship every year, we’ve been doing it since 2001. That’s another thing where we get the opportunity to branch out. I’ve done some special sets with artists that I admire. We get together, and put something together for the boat.

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