By Brian M. Howle
In the realm of new bands that make a wide spectrum of fans sit up and take notice, the rise of Edmonton, Kentucky’s favorites sons – Black Stone Cherry – has been nothing short of spectacularly blue-collar, journeymen-like amazing.
Since they signed with RoadRunner Records in 2006, this group of talented young men has been fulfilling their musical equivalent of Rocky Balboa’s unrelenting training schedule in preparation for their shot at the title. They’ve recorded two extremely well written, performed and produced albums (their 2006 debut, Black Stone Cherry, and the most recent release, 2008’s Folklore and Superstition); embarked on a world-wide touring regime that has sharpened their musical chops and induced invaluable maturity in the process, and have culled a fervently loyal and dedicated following of fans that spans genres and generations.
The product of good ol’ fashioned, hands-on parenting and the beneficiaries of having family members who have already endured the rigors of musical success and touring, Black Stone Cherry are the exemplary incarnation of how a young band can do this music thing the right way.
With the signature vocals of lead singer/guitarist Chris Robertson, guitarist Ben Wells, drummer John Fred Young, and bassist Jon Lawhorn, they have done a masterful job of carving out a distinctive, unique sound in a cluttered field of cookie-cutter clones. Sounding far older than their glorious youthfulness, they’ve doubled the feat by writing – in a collective, give-and-take manner, as a band – extremely good songs that connect with all ages of people in the magical way that all artists ardently strive to learn and pray to achieve.
Actually, the secret to their success – which happens when anyone really listens to their songs – boils down to an incredibly simple formula, to borrow on an old campaign slogan from a few years back:
It’s about life, stupid.
The all-about-me eclectics can write about ethereal dreamworlds all they want, but when others hear real lyrics of the trials and tribulations of life that we have all experienced, regardless of social, economic or ethic background; things that snare our attention with a personal connection – it’s game over, man.
I had the good fortune to catch up with the band last March, while they were in Columbia, as they were opening on a bill with Shinedown. I climbed onboard their tour bus with guitarist Ben Wells for my second interview with the quiet, easy-going axe man and set about to find out what’s new with the band. We headed to the big, back room for some quiet time to chat.
Howle: Well, first of all, it’s great to see you again! I know you’re busy getting ready for the show, so thanks for the time.
Wells: Oh, hey, it’s my pleasure, and it’s great to see you again, too. (Laughing) We saw you walking up and we all said, “Look, it’s Gregg Allman from Myrtle Beach!” (Inside joke from when we first met while I was taking pictures of them onstage at House Of Blues; Ben thought Gregg was there taking pictures of them when he saw me, because all he could see was an older guy with long, blonde hair and a beard, leaning on the edge of the stage behind a camera.)
Howle: Yeah, yeah, that’s because you’re all too damn young to know any better! So, tell me, buddy – how’s the current tour going?
Wells: It’s going great, man, going great. We’re out here with Shinedown; we’ve known those guys for years and we’ve been touring with them for awhile now, and it’s been a blast!
Howle: I know you’ve been doing some extensive overseas touring. How’s the response over there been, and what’s the main difference between European and American audiences?
Wells: It’s hard to say, ‘cause it varies with every show; but over in England and all over the United Kingdom, everyone there has really, really picked up on the band. We’ve played rooms over there that are like, 3,000 to 5,000+ seats, and we’re selling them out every night on our own – and that’s pretty amazing. That’s the biggest difference between there and here right now. But everywhere we go, it’s been great .. the fans universally are just badass, and it’s really nice.
Howle: Oh, it always aggravates me about how American audiences take so long to accept new bands, whereas Europeans are always just so incredibly open to new music and talent. So many bands before you have found success overseas before the homefolks got a clue, you know?
Wells: Yeah, back here, folks tend to be a lot more fickle about that, but the fans in Europe are into what’s a lot more real, you know?
Howle: Yeah, we have that “Shiny, sparkly idol worship” thing going on more than they do. So, how long did you guys work on the current album, and what’s your songwriting process like now?
Wells: Well, we always write together. That’s the way it’s always been and always will be – the four of us get together in a room and start playing; hashing out different ideas, different melodies and lyrics and stuff. We tear it apart and then put it back together, pretty much. For this album, we started pre-production in February (2008) back home in Kentucky, getting all the songs arranged and ready, and then started recording in March – pretty much the month of March and a little bit in April. It only took a little bit over a month to record everything and get it all done.
Howle: And very nicely done at that. So, you have any new “toys” since I last saw you? Pick up any new guitars and stuff lately?
Wells: Oh, Chris and I got a couple of new amp heads from Peavey, the 6550, that are really nice. And I guess since the last time I saw you, I got a new guitar called the Midas that’s made in Japan, a beautiful guitar; and I got a new Gretsch. We still play the Les Pauls and Telecasters, you know. Whatever sounds good, that’s what we’re gonna play.
Howle: Ah, I was gonna ask about that Gretsch .. it’s the one you play on the “Please Come In” and “Things My Father Said” videos, right?
Howle: Yeah, those have such a nice, warm, live tone to them … I bet you’ve enjoyed playing that one. So, what was the video shoot like? And how many videos have you guys done now?
Wells: Well, let’s see … “Please Come In” was the fourth one. We shot part of it live in New Jersey when we were on the road; we shot it in the studio with the “Green Screen” for the trippy effects behind and stuff they put in. It was a lot of fun to shoot that one, we had a great crew. A lot of times they can be really tiring to shoot, but this was not one of those, it really flew by .. and the director was great, too! (They just released the video of “Things My Father Said” – in which the band’s performance scene was shot inside the legendary practice house in Edmonton, where they honed their skills starting out – and fans were asked to submit photos of themselves holding pictures of their dads for use in the video.)
Howle: Very interesting … I’ve watched some internet clips from your website with you and Chris giving tutorials to guitarists on how to play certain riffs from your songs – like “Blind Man”. That’s really great for showing young kids who are trying to learn guitar, you know? Are you going to be doing more of that?
Wells: Man, I hope so, it’s neat to be able to show young guitarists how to play stuff, you know? It would be neat to put out a DVD like that one day, you know, in a way that’s not over their heads. But we really like to keep in touch with our fans, by any means we can .. the Internet is a great tool for that.
Howle: How much time do you guys get to put into stuff like your MySpace site?
Wells: Oh, we’re on our MySpace site all the time. That means a lot to us because it’s how we’ve met a lot of our fans, both here and overseas. It’s such a great way to keep in touch with the fans, to do self-promotion, whether we’re overseas touring or here … we’re adding new friends there and on FaceBook all the time, checking emails .. so we’re very active on the Internet, yeah.
Howle: Well, that’s so great to hear, ‘cause like I told you last time (both laugh) … We’ve been watching you guys from the git-go, and keeping up with your progress, and I really hope this album is the one that will break you guys out …
Wells: Oh, well, thank you, thank you so much!
Howle: And what’s that support mechanism like that you guys have back home (in Edmonton, KY), and with your record label, while you’re going up this ladder striving to grab ‘hold of that big brass ring of rock superstardom?
Wells: Oh, it’s been an uphill climb all the way. But our families are very, very supportive of us; they’ve been behind us 100% all the way, and the label’s been great. We’ve matured as people as well as musicians, and we haven’t become jaded by the road or anything. We’re still very, very hungry; we’re still trying to top ourselves, and we’re still going for it, you know?
Howle: Well, for an older fan like me, it’s so reminiscent of the way songwriting and music should be – great melodies, great hooks, and great lyrics.
Wells: Oh, wow … well, again, thank you, man.
Howle: I’m just a fan, but I know others share my appreciation for your music, and perhaps as important, for the way you treat people while you pursue your dream in a somewhat narcissistic profession.
Wells: We just want people to dig the band, you know … we’re just four guys who write and play music from the soul; we love our fans and we hope they know we’re four guys who just got lucky, and we love to go out every night and meet them and thank them for supporting us.
Howle: Well, two years ago I asked you what were the best and worst things about being on the road – and you said the best was meeting and being with all the new bands you play alongside and getting to meet and hang out with your fans; and the worst was being away from mama’s cooking (both laugh)… What’s the answer to those same questions now?
Wells: Oh, it’s just great to be out here and meet new people, it’s just the greatest thing on earth. Any, yeah, you get homesick every now and then, sure; but the families are there for us all the time, and it makes it a little bit easier.
Howle: Well said, Ben. Alright then, I’m going to let you get back to getting ready for the show tonight … we’re looking forward to seeing you again, whenever you’re in our area, as always. Just remember us when you’re headlining the big tour!
Wells: (Laughs) Alright, Brian, you’ve got a deal. And thank you again for being so supportive of us and sharing the word with your readers. Thanks again for everything!
Hey, Ben – thank you, my friend … and for all of you out there, I still say the biggest favor you can ever do yourself and your closest friends is to beat feet to the front row whenever these very talented and personable guys roll anywhere near your town.
And allow me to add this one personal note: When I finished the interview with Ben, we made our way back to the front of the bus, where Chris, John Fred and Jon were hanging out with some friends. I stopped to tell them that, two years ago after I met them, I had asked their PR gal to please make sure to tell their moms and dads that they did a great job of raising them.
In their usual, humble manner, they thanked me in gracious unison, and then John Fred added, “Well, hey, in my case, you can tell him yourself!” as he pointed to the gentleman seated beside me. It was John Fred’s dad, Richard Young, former guitarist for the Kentucky Headhunters and now, official Black Stone Cherry bus driver and band consigliere. I earnestly shook his hand and repeated my assessment. “Oh, let me tell you, this is a twofer, then – because I got to enjoy seeing you on stage back in the day, too!”
Well, I can tell you from my own experience: In Richard’s eyes, my little observation about their collective upbringing brought out a pride that a dad can’t feign. And I know the other guys’ parents feel the exact same way.
But, hey – the cherry never falls far from the tree.