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Sister Hazel to swing by Strand

Making another trip to the Grand Strand, this time for a St. Patrick's Day street concert, Sister Hazel is happy to suit up with shamrocks.

"We've been coming to Myrtle Beach ever since the band started," said Ryan Newell, the band's lead guitarist. "Myrtle Beach definitely feels like home. ... We just feel a connection to that town."

Sister Hazel, a Southern rock quintet formed in 1993 in Gainesville, Fla., will headline the Myrtle Beach Oceanfront Merchant's Association 2011 St. Patrick's Day Celebration on Saturday. The party, also a fundraiser for Horry County Special Olympics, will go from about 1 to 11 p.m. on Ocean Boulevard between Eighth and 11th avenues. Seven music groups will take turns on stage before fireworks close the night.

"I think anytime you travel to a beach town, there a lot of locals who turn out, and lots of people who visit," Newell said.

Besides playing the House of Blues in North Myrtle Beach regularly, Newell said the band treasured the honor of being musical "ambassadors" for the opening of the former Hard Rock Park in 2008. Every show in Myrtle Beach adds to memories not only for the group members, but concertgoers, too.

"We see people from all over," Newell said. "Many people are on vacation. It's not purely a local crowd. A lot of people travel to see us. They use our concerts as a vacation excuse for them to go to the beach."

By phone from his residence in Atlanta, Newell said the band would fly to Houston the next day for a tour across the Lone Star State. Rather than hit the road for three months, the group takes off here and there for brief runs.

"It's more conducive for family life," Newell said.

Sister Hazel released its eighth studio CD, "Heartland Highway," in October, through Rock Ridge Music. This 12-song package continues the group's growth in depth of teamwork in songwriting, playing and production, Newell said.

He penned the first single, "Stay Awhile," as well as "Far Away," and co-wrote "Complicate" - all mid-tempo tracks.

Self-production jells

Newell said to build this latest album, everyone brought in three songs. Since recording a Christmas CD, "Santa's Playlist," in 2007, Sister Hazel has produced all of its own work.

"It was the first time everybody produced his own song," Newell said. "Our last two studio records were the same way: Whoever brought in a song produces it from start to finish."

Newell said this system helps the band continue creativity from new forks in the road they encounter.

"I think we've been a band long enough to know everyone's strengths and weaknesses," he said. "Producing ourselves at this point is easy and enjoyable. That's the bottom line."

Bassist Jett Beres provided the final three numbers on "Heartland Highway" with a three-part suite called "Lessons in Love, Hope, and Faith." Newell said Beres wrote the trio based on three female influences in his life: his wife, mother and daughter.

With every member contributing to albums, "as a band, we put our stamp on it," Newell said.

"It's just keeping the music fresh," he said, "and trying to do something a little different while maintaining our sound and accentuating our strengths."

Newell said besides the Christmas collection, two other collaborations - a "Life in the Day" concert DVD from 2004 and "Before the Amplifiers: Live Acoustic" CD from 2008 - have let the band show some other sides with fans.

Cruising parties

Sister Hazel's annual "Rock Boat" Carnival cruise will start a second decade next winter, departing from New Orleans in March 2012, Newell said. Thirty groups took part in the latest excursion.

"It's basically a music festival on the water," he said.

This kind of access lets fans interact with Sister Hazel.

"We wanted to throw a party for our fans," Newell said, recalling the inaugural voyage. "At that time, we charted half of a Carnival cruise ship. ... Now we charter the whole ship."

On this new road tour to promote "Heartland Highway," the band has revamped its whole set with material "we've never played before," Newell said.

"We're just starting to get it under our fingernails," he said, "and we'll be set by the time we get to Myrtle Beach."

Newell identified three of the five guys as "really big golfers" who try to hit the greens as much as possible on every Strand stay, and spring weather will be embraced in unison.

"We're all Florida boys," Newell said, "but for some reason, we always tour the Northeast in January and February. We saw blizzards up there, so we're definitely looking forward to thawing out."

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