Lancaster is a town of 363 in the northwest corner of Minnesota, a burg so tiny that locals consider Grand Forks, N.D., to be "the big city." The Hewitt Sisters actually come from a farm 20 miles outside Lancaster.
Still, in that little corner of the world, almost everyone knows this five-piece country band that includes a trio of sisters. If they don't, it's only a matter of time before they do.
Lead vocalist Ashlee, 17; fiddler Katrice, 20; and drummer Lacey, 22, are part of a family of eight girls and five boys. (Fighting for attention in the country music biz is nothing compared to fighting for the bathroom in the morning.) The band is rounded out by Katrice's husband, Ray Housker, on lead guitar and Duane Lyberg on bass.
A WE Fest entertainment manager was among those who stumbled across the Hewitt Sisters. While hunting in the area last fall, he stopped by a bar in Middle River where the band happened to be playing.
After the show, by way of introduction, he said, "Did you guys know you're playing WE Fest next year?"
In an interview two weeks before WE Fest -- the band, sans Lyberg, was in Brainerd for a two-night stop at the Rail and took time to chat at the Eclectic Cafe -- Katrice laughed at the memory.
"He asked for a press kit," she said, noting the band had been hoping to get on the WE Fest stage since forming in 2001. "We said, 'We think you have two already.'"
Not only will it be the sisters' first time on the WE Fest stage, it will be their first time at WE Fest, period. They've never attended as spectators.
"Every weekend we've been busy the last few years," Katrice said.
The snowball effect started Dec. 31, 2001, at a New Year's Eve party at Lancaster City Hall.
"(At first), we weren't really planning on doing it all the time," Katrice said.
"Then we just kept getting gigs," Ashlee said.
Hewitt Sisters lead singer Ashlee Hewitt sang a tune last month at the Rail in Brainerd. The band will make its first appearance at WE Fest on Friday.
It's easy to see why: Katrice and Lacey are striking brunettes, Ashlee is a doe-eyed blonde (she advanced past a recent "American Idol" regional in Grand Forks, and you have to like her chances of going further) and Housker brims with old-fashioned cowboy confidence.
When they perform, that's the clincher. Like any young band, they pause a bit too long when deciding what to play next, but it's always worth the wait. Ashlee and Housker have classic country voices, the band rocks just enough to be edgy, and while the Hewitt Sisters' 2004 debut "Yellow" -- recorded last year in Nashville, Tenn. -- boasts only two originals, both are winners.
"I had painted my bedroom walls yellow," Ashlee said, describing the title track. "It's about a guy I met. He said, 'My walls are yellow, too.' I looked at my yellow walls and thought of him. It's a dreamy song about dandelions, the sun ..." She breaks into a giggle that reminds you she's young enough to consider LeAnn Rimes a veteran role model. "OK, it sounds corny now, but listen to the song."
The other original, "My Angel," is the opposite of corny. With Ashlee's wispy chorus "There goes my baby/There goes my little girl/There goes my angel/There goes my world," it's powerful even if you didn't know it was written in memory of the Hewitts' nearest neighbor (and one of their earliest fans), Jody, who was killed in a snowmobile accident at age 17.
Incidents like that can put things in perspective, but it's doubtful the Hewitt Sisters needed a dose of harsh reality to tell them that. After all, when informed that yes, there is a Wal-Mart in the Brainerd area, the sisters' eyes light up like they've just been told Alan Jackson wants to sign them to his personal label. Apparently you can take the girls out of the small town, but you can't take the small town out of the girls.
The Lancaster-based Hewitt Sisters include Ashlee (left) on rhythm guitar, Lacey on drums, Katrice on bass and Katrice's husband, Ray Housker, on lead guitar. The band performed last month at the Rail in Brainerd and will play Friday at WE Fest.
For the Hewitt Sisters, every road trip is an adventure, whether it's to Nashville to record an album, or to Brainerd to play before a small weeknight crowd.
Ashlee: "It's cool just traveling and meeting new people, and being together all the time."
Housker: "We all get along. A lot of bands have problems with that."
Lacey: "We all have a lot in common."
Katrice: "It's like a vacation being on the road. This is our job, but it's a fun job."
When asked about the hardest part of being in a band that hasn't quite made it yet, all four struggle to think of an answer before Ashlee comes up with something.
If you go
What: Hewitt Sisters at WE Fest
When: 12:15 p.m. Friday (main stage), 9:30 p.m. Friday (side stage)
Where: Soo Pass Ranch, Detroit Lakes
WE Fest tickets: $110-$175
Web sites: www.hewittsisters.com, www.wefest.com
"As soon as we get paid enough money, I'm going to pay someone to help us with setting up and tearing down. That's the toughest part, tearing down after a set at 2 a.m."
But Lacey, who has as much passion for training horses as she does for pounding the skins, disagrees.
"Actually, it's easier than the farm," she said.
"It keeps you in shape," Ashlee acknowledged.
It seems the Hewitt Sisters are always looking on the bright side. And if that snowball keeps rolling beyond WE Fest, their future could be as bright as the sunshine on Ashlee's bedroom walls.
JOHN HANSEN can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5863.
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