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Live, Energetic, Off The Cuff: How Black Stone Cherry Discovered Their 'Family Tree'

Monday, 30 April 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Harry Reese

Lots of rock ‘n’ roll groups try to embody the mythic notion that they’re some kind of swaggering last gang in town with a special camaraderie. While many start off that way, over time reality usually bites and they end up becoming decidedly unromantic business concerns with a clear pecking order. It’s refreshing to discover that, after 17 successful years, Black Stone Cherry remain the same four friends who grew up together in Kentucky.

You can talk about the role their families and friends have played in helping the band throughout their career. Maybe reference either the tight knit community where the foursome were raised or the natural kinship that exists between southern rock bands.  

Possibly even mention the airtight relationship the guys have with their fans. But no matter which example you choose, it’s clear that these unbreakable bonds of trust and respect inform every aspect of Black Stone Cherry’s past, present and future.

It’s therefore unsurprising that, when outsiders have interfered in the band’s affairs, the outcome hasn’t always been as pure and authentic as they’d have liked. ‘Family Tree’, the sixth album of their career, was subject to no such meddling. Left to their own devices, the results are unimpeachable.

We spoke to guitarist Ben Wells about why he and his musical brethren decided to revisit their roots on ‘Family Tree’, how they’ve managed to remain such good friends and what’s so special about the homestead where they were born and raised.

Your last two records were quite heavy and emotionally intense, but ‘Family Tree’ is the sound of a band who are having fun and in a very positive headspace. What precipitated that change?

It was a natural thing. We never sit down when we record an album and go ‘we want it to sound like this or this or this’. We want it to be organic. We’d just done the ‘Black To Blues’ EP and took the spirit of that recording process and put it towards this record. We didn’t overthink things and didn’t over rehearse the songs. We wanted this to be a fun, southern, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll record.

It’s certainly your most classically southern album, with nods to Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers and ZZ Top. How did you end up going in that direction?

When we did ‘Black To Blues’ we just started listening to a lot of the music that got us playing in the first place. A lot of the great blues songs. And when we started writing for the new record that’s the way they started to sound. Just a lot of classic music. Like I said, it kind of happened organically. We weren’t concerned if something was going to be heavy enough. We were a different spirit and it’s been very refreshing, honestly.  

Do you prefer making albums in this style or playing the heavier stuff?

I’m really happy with where we’re at right now. I love heavy music and think any song can be heavy, just in different ways. The sound doesn’t have to be over distorted or be fast to be heavy. But I think we shine best just playing straight-up, bluesy southern rock ‘n’ roll. It’s been really refreshing, creatively, to get in that mindset and that’s why this album came so naturally because we just did what we do. We weren’t trying to be heavy, we weren’t forcing anything out of us.

Do you think there are more nuances in your riffs, grooves and musical interplay because there isn’t the wall to wall distortion that characterises heavier songs?

Absolutely. This album is the most musical we’ve done. We wanted to make it a thing where Chris [Robertson] would do one thing and I’d play something else, instead of just a big wall of sound. We wanted to make it musical. We grew up listening to two guitar players in a band so why not play two different things? It’s challenged us as musicians and we embraced that.

Chris said that on this record you broke down the barriers that had been put in front of you and just made a rock ‘n’ roll record. What barriers were those?

Well, our former record label had different visions for us than we did. They didn’t embrace the bluesy southern side of us, so to speak, and when you’re under a contract and go into a studio, in a way you’re put into a corner to make a certain record. We’re very proud of every record we’ve done but with this one we took all those things we were told to tone down in the past and enhanced them. I think that’s what our fans want, that’s what they appreciate from us.

With each album we want to grow, evolve and do something different, while staying true to who we are. Since we’ve signed with Mascot and produced the albums on our own, we really just do things the way we want to. We’re not writing songs for any type of commercial success. We don’t have to worry about how long a guitar solo is.  It’s really great to be creatively free.

Chris also stated that you let your guard down and experimented with stuff. How has that manifested itself?

Well there’s more piano, keyboard and organ. There’s horns, which we had on the last album and the blues EP, we’ve brought the female vocalists back in to sing some background stuff. There’s a lot of percussion that we haven’t done in the past too. It all comes from us experimenting in the studio.

Having an idea and going ‘hey let’s try it’. That’s what makes the studio fun. Everything is laid out on the table and you can try anything. In the past maybe we were told ‘well that doesn’t sell anymore, that’s not what rock bands do’. We’re like ‘screw that man, we don’t care what anyone else is doing, we want to do what we want to do’.

It must be difficult when people outside of the creative process try to influence your artistic direction?

It’s not organic and unfortunately that’s the way of the world for a lot of bands these days. We’re very thankful to be out of that and be with a label that supports us creatively.

In terms of making the kind of record you wanted to make, Chris was responsible for mixing ‘Family Tree’ and he’s gifted it with a really warm and inviting, but also powerful, clear and live sounding, sonic punch.

Yeah, he did a great job. He did ‘Black To Blues’ as well but we didn’t want this record to sound like anybody else’s record. He mixed it, we were all involved and giving input, and it’s a really great sound. I’m proud of him for what he did and the way it came out because it sounds different, unique and, again, it’s another way for us to be fully involved in what we’re doing creatively. From our artwork design to production to mixing, we’re trying to keep it all in house. What better person to know what you want it to sound like than somebody in the band?

I know you wanted to capture the magic of the moment when you were recording in the studio. Can you give any examples of where that happened and you came up with something special?

Almost every song. I say that because we didn’t rehearse ahead of time. We knew the songs because we had demos of them, but that’s the way we wanted it. So literally every single song had something in it that was spontaneous, that was different from the demo. The cool thing is it makes the album sound live, energetic and off the cuff because it really is. As long as we knew where the intros, outros, choruses and things of that nature were, everything else was improvised to a degree.

How are your songs written before they get to that stage?

We all write together, the four of us, but it starts with the music most of the time.  Somebody might have a guitar riff or say ‘hey, check this out’ and if everybody likes it then we’ll start working on it and everybody starts pitching in their ideas. If not we’ll move on to something else. It’s important for all of us to be involved. It takes all four of us to make it happen.

Bad Habit is a very dynamic track with interesting choices, like the sound dropping out on the chorus and a wonderful tempo change in the middle. What can you tell me about that one and why does it open the record?

We just thought it was a good, fun, spirited song. We love the guitar riff, it’s energetic, it’s upbeat. I think we all agreed from the beginning that would be the album opener.  It just starts it off on a good note and says ‘this is Black Stone Cherry’. We’ve been playing that one live quite a bit and it goes over real good.

Carry Me On Down The Road is a great touring song and will go down a storm with your audiences when you play it for them. Are you conscious of the effect your songs will have on people when you’re writing?

It’s important when we write to think about how this is going to go over in a live setting, because you never want to write an album that’s not going to transpose live, that’s not going to reproduce the same spirit live. So we always keep that in mind when we write. We’ve been playing Carry Me On Down The Road, we’ve done it twice now, and it’s going over great.

You mentioned the Honkette style backing vocals that are on the likes of James Brown and Ain’t Nobody. What does that bring to a song?

I think you can put those on any song and they make it all better. We’re a sucker for that kind of stuff, growing up listening to the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith. You hear when they had those female vocalists on there, man, it’s just so good. That’s always been something we like to put on when we can.

Warren Haynes appears on Dancin’ In The Rain and it almost feels like the baton being passed down from the old master to the young apprentices. How did that come about?

We’ve known Warren for a little bit and asked him if he wanted to be a part of the record. We sent him the demo and he loved it. He was on tour at the time so we sent him the track to his studio, got on the phone with him to discuss how we wanted the song and told him to do what he does, it’s his campus. He just nailed it. It’s an honour to have him on the record and now we’re going on tour with him. So it’s really cool how it all comes full circle.

The track Family Tree is about your roots and that subject is very much a staple of the southern rock genre. What’s so special to people from the south about where they come from and why have so many songs been written about it?

We’re very proud of where we’re from. It’s a small town, it’s a slow pace, there’s no buses, no subways. That stuff is fun to go visit but it’s just a very simple way of life around here. And for the most part people are…there’s manners that come along with the southern United States. Everywhere is polite, but the ‘yes, mam’ and ‘no, sir’ and the hospitality that comes along with the south, it’s just something we’re very proud of.

In my opinion you can’t write too many songs about that. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker, they all sang about this stuff and those songs will never die. People like it because southern rock is a genre that’s a way of life, it’s not just music, and we’re proud to be part of that.

In terms of the album title, it almost seems you’re more of a family than a band.

Yeah, we’re very close. All our families are close, our crew is close. We run this very much like a family because that’s what it is. We’re very blessed to be able to do what we’re doing because we grew up together and we’re friends before we’re a band. That’s what’s kept us going so long. We’re a unit. It’s not lead singer, it’s not lead guitar player, it’s not this this this. We do everything together and that’s just the way it works.

What happens if there’s a fundamental disagreement – how is that resolved?  

We usually try to meet in the middle somewhere. We’re all on the same page with evolving and moving. We’re just really lucky. We work together for the good of the band.

With Skynyrd hanging up their spurs and the Allman Brothers no more, do you guys - as one of the most prominent southern rock bands on the scene these days - feel a sense of responsibility to ensure the style they pioneered lives on through your music, while also inspiring the next generation to keep the flag flying?

Maybe, to a degree. The good thing is there are lots of great southern rock ‘n’ roll groups out there right now. I think with all of us together we can keep this thing going. The important thing is, even though the Allman Brothers are gone, Lynyrd Skynyrd is on their farewell tour, those songs will live on in people’s lives forever. So the genre is never going away. It’s only going to grow and we can just be thankful those great songs were written.

'Family Tree' is out now on Mascot.

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