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| 26 May 2016 | 1 Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Black Stone Cherry - Chris & Ben

With their fifth album Kentucky now out, and their first visit to Australia – supporting Steel Panther – coming up fast, SHANE PINNEGAR got singer/lead guitarist Chris Robertson and rhythm guitarist Ben Wells on the phone (separately) to find out more about both.


Kentucky sounds like nothing more so than ‘home’. After four well-received albums, relentless touring around America, the UK and Europe, and a split with label Roadrunner, the band went back to their original stomping grounds: home. Kentucky. The result is a kick arse heavy record that sounds like the changes have really agreed with them.

“Man, you know, we had nine great years but it was just time for it: it was time for us to part ways [with Roadrunner],” Robertson declares. “We had taken it as far as we could together, and when it came time do to a new record, man, we said, ‘fuck it, we’re gonna do this record just the four of us. We’re going to self-produce it. We’re going to go back to the studio we recorded our self-titled debut and we’re just going to do it on our own and make the music that the four of us want.’

“The Mascot Label Group was gracious enough to let us do that and we came out with I think definitely the heaviest record we’ve ever done, and honestly, man, the most honest representation of our music that we’ve ever been able to get on a recording.”

“Is Kentucky a love letter to home? Sure it is.” opines Wells. “We’ve always been proud of being from Kentucky, and being from where we’re from and who we are. That’s something that always been with us. When we travel to many different countries, and different states and cities, I think we become more appreciative of where we’ve come from.”

Black Stone Cherry albums are always about the songs first, and Kentucky is no exception, with a killer collection of catchy and memorable hard rockin’ tunes that encapsulate everything that the four-piece do so well.

“I really appreciate that,” says Robertson. “That means a lot, especially since we self-produced it. You know: you’re right. The songs are always the biggest thing with us. We really wanted to capture the energy of the live performance with this record because everybody’s always told us they like our band better live than in the studio. When we were doing this record we were really trying to just keep a really live mindset and not playing it perfect for the studio, but playing everything with the intensity we would play live. I think that it worked. I think it comes across.”

Black Stone Cherry 01

Recording the album at home surrounded by friends and family was pivotal for the southern rockers.

“I think a big thing is that you never get tired of being in the studio and being away from family, just because the studio is in Glasgow, Kentucky, and I live in Edmonton,” Robertson explains in his slow but assured drawl. “From my front door to the front door of the studio is about a 25- or 30-minute ride, but when we finished every night I got to go home to my bed and my wife, and I got to see my little boy every night, and wake up with him every morning, and then go back to the studio.

“It keeps it from feeling too much like work. It just keeps a positive mindset going through everybody there because you don’t have that separation of being in California, thousands of miles from home, and on a different time schedule from everyone and you just, I don’t know man it just made the whole thing a lot more fun. Somebody 15- or 20-minutes late to the studio is not a big deal because you’re in your hometown and the engineer’s not going to be pissed off because you didn’t start exactly on time. It’s a really relaxed, laid back environment, dude.”

Ben Wells adds, “that was our goal: to make an album that not only was heavy and rocking, but had some soul to it, and had definite roots. So going back home, that’s one of the reasons we did that.”

Like Robertson, Wells goes on to suggest that Kentucky is more of the mindset of their self-titled debut – even reborn.

“I think we have [been], because the album, we were able to do stuff on our own, and it’s kind of a reawakening, so to speak. Lots of fresh energy, so in a way it’s like that – a reawakening of the band, I think. I think we’ll gain a lot of fans off this, and we’re super excited about it.”

Listen to any Black Stone Cherry album and you’ll find lyrical affirmations pointing to how special family are to the band. On Kentucky, Longride is a great example, with the line, ‘wouldn’t be the same without you,’ emphasised. It’s something the four-some (completed by drummer John Fred Young and bassist Jon Lawhon) hold close and dear.

“Oh absolutely!” Robertson confirms. “We all write the songs together, [and] for me, man, that song is all about family. That’s what the general feeling of that one is. The first half of the song is me more or less talking about my wife and kid, my little boy. The last chorus is when it changes, the lyrics change and the chords – it’s really thinking about the passing of my grandfather, who I was really, really close to. He passed away in November of 2014.

“Yeah, I mean family is everything to us. We would have our wives and kids come in the studio and hang out with us. It was just so cool to get back to that after 10 years of doing it the other way where we would leave home and go somewhere for a month and a half to record a record. We recorded this entire album in about three days!”

What might seem a left turn for the band is their cover of Edwin Starr’s War. Wells explains how they approached the classic track and made it their own.

“When we were planning on recording Kentucky, we knew we had to do a cover song for a bonus version of the album,” he says. “That song came about, and we were like, ‘oh we could do a great version of this song – we can make it heavy, and rocking, and Chris would do a great job singing it.’

“We recorded it, and it came out so cool, that we decided to put it out on the album in an instant. Not even knowing we were going to do that, it was very spontaneous. It’s just something kinda cool, kinda unexpected. We like doing stuff like that.”

Robertson’s vocals sound fantastic on Kentucky: strong and mighty. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask if he works hard to keep it in such great shape.

“Man, I appreciate that,” he says humbly. “Dude, I’ve never been a guy that took any vocal lessons or did any vocal training or anything. I don’t warm up or anything every night. I have a little bit of Bourbon and a cigarette – that’s how I warm up. I’ve just, I’ve always sang a certain way, man, since I learned how to sing. Geoffrey’s dad was a big help with some old blues records, learning how to sing from my stomach instead of my throat and it… it just works, man. I have no idea how it works but I’m thankful it does.”

Black Stone Cherry - Chris Robertson

Fifteen years as a band did take its toll on the Black Stone Cherry lads, with late nights, drugs and booze almost winning them over. Robertson in particular has been very brave in talking about his problems with depression, self-medication and thoughts of suicide. YouTube hosts some videos of the singer/guitarist doing his bit in support of the YouRock foundation in the hope of helping others who are suffering from similar problems.

“Man, you know, I look at it like this,” he says, “if me opening up and being honest about the struggles that I’ve gone through helps one person with their struggles, then I don’t give a shit what all the naysayers say: it’s all about the one person it helps. For me that’s why I don’t mind opening up and talking about the struggles I’ve been through because I wish somebody that I looked up to would have made a video about prescription drug abuse, and all the other things I used to have problems with – but there just wasn’t… It’s kind of taboo to talk about that stuff, but we’re all human and we all fuck up and make mistakes so at the end of the day why not talk about it and help somebody, to possibly help them get out of a dark place or to prevent them from making mistakes to begin with.”

Black Stone Cherry 02

Struggles or not, Robertson reckons he’d do it all again the same way.

“I honestly wouldn’t change a thing about the road we’ve taken,” he says earnestly. “All the struggles and everything brought us all closer together as a band and as a family. Without those things to go through, we wouldn’t be where we are now. The past is something that you can’t change but nobody lives there so why even look back. We’ve always had the mentality of keeping looking forward. I wouldn’t change anything man. I’ve made some horrible, horribly shitty mistakes in my life but they made me who I am and taught me what not to do, so I just take them as lessons learned man and move on with it. I wish more people had the mentality of just keep looking forward, man.”

Wells agrees.

“Oh, for sure. I think it’s made us stronger, and probably better people. You grow up, you get older, you get wiser, you experience things, and learn some things. It only helps you, which is part of life’s growth.”

The band have never been shy to throw down an acoustic version of a song here and there: we’re willing to bet they’ve got a killer front porch style, acoustic album in them.

“Man, we’ve been asked about that quite a few times actually!” Robertson laughs. “It’s something I would like to do at some point but every time we talk about doing something like that, we end up dropping the acoustic guitars and flipping on the amps and just going balls to the walls with it. It’s something we’ve definitely talked about and thought about and would love to do at some point.”

“We talked about it before,” Wells confirms. “I would like to do something like that, and a lot of our fans would as well, so it might be something we can look into the future, for sure.”

Black Stone Cherry - Ben Wells

The lads come from rock n’ roll stock: Robertson’s Dad is a guitarist, John Fred’s Dad was a member of southern rock band The Kentucky Headhunters… would they have got to the point of that debut album without those people around them teaching you not only music but also about the music business?

“Absolutely not, man,” he exclaims. “They’re a huge part of our early beginnings. There was meetings run by people who loved instruments and who knew the business and knew the decisions to make and could help kind of guide us both musically and in a business sense. Without that, man, I don’t think we would be where we are today, by any means.”

The band have focussed the last five or ten years on building their fanbase in America and the UK, with repeated trips every year. Is this first trip to Australia the start of a similarly concerted campaign to win us over?

“We hope so!” Wells says emphatically. “I’ve always wanted to come to Australia, ever since the band started. We just haven’t been able to do it because of scheduling conflicts and what not. Hopefully it can be the first of many times for us to come down there and play to our fans there.

“We try to see as much as we can,” Wells says, commenting on whether they like to get touristy on tour, “but sometimes it can be a little tiring. Sometimes we just want to sleep when we can. We like to take advantage of where we’re at and see stuff, I’m sure when we come to Australia, we’ll be getting out and seeing as much as we can, because we’ve never been there.”

With all four band members now happily married family men, Wells says the rock n’ roll lifestyle makes it hard to balance home versus life on the road at times.

“Yeah, it takes its toll on me sometimes,” he shares, sounding weary down the line from Europe where they’ve not long got offstage. “I miss everybody at home in some ways. Everything like that is expected, though. We’re still at home people – on the road or back home, we try to balance the two to make them both comfy.”

Any fan of the band will know that with five dynamite albums under their name, Black Stone Cherry have no shortage of much-loved crackerjack material. Is it difficult to cram in all the favourites to a set?

“It is,” Wells confirms. “We have two new songs off the album [in the set] now, off the new album that hasn’t come out yet [at the time of this interview]. It will be even harder when the album is officially released. We have to pick songs that we know people want to hear, the bigger songs. We’ve been trying to mix it up each night, so it’s not the same old thing.”

Black Stone Cherry 03

As a long term goal for the band, Black tone Cherry have always been more about building a family of fans and taking them on a journey, rather than amassing a fortune and getting on front pages. No ridiculous diva behaviour or celebrity feuds for these guys. Will they be remembered in thirty years in the same regard as AC/DC, Motorhead and Lynyrd Skynyrd?

“What a big honour if we were – that’s why we do it,” Wells says humbly. “We don’t do this to make tons and tons of money and to be rich, and drive 15 cars. We want to do this to make an impact, to make people feel something. So if we can be remembered years down the line as a great rock and roll band, that would be one of the best honours we could receive.”

With five great albums underneath their belt, Black Stone Cherry have made a pretty solid start to that legacy already.

Category: Interviews

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