“I’m in dad mode,” Black Stone Cherry’s John Fred Young says with a laugh when I call him for an interview a few weeks ago. “It’s our first one, the first grandbaby and the first great-grandbaby on both sides so she has no hope, she’s going to be spoiled.” With a daughter approaching the one year mark, you would think the last thing on this drummer’s mind is playing music with a bunch of other sweaty guys he’s known, for the most part, since junior high school. But music has been very much on his mind of late as the popular Kentucky band finish up a new record and prep the release of a live DVD they recorded in England a year ago this month.
For Black Stone Cherry, their star has been on the rise since they first stepped out their practice house and onto stages across the south. A mixture of rock, blues and southern sweat and charm, Young, singer Chris Robertson, bass player Jon Lawhon and guitar player Ben Wells have a stellar, energetic chemistry that fans gravitate to like moths to a flame. And the new DVD, Thank You: Livin’ Live, Birmingham, UK, October 30, 2014, has certainly captured that. “Growing up watching my Elvis and Aerosmith DVDs and VHS tapes, I never thought I would be in a band that would one day be releasing one,” Wells has said about the film.
For Young, music has always been a part of his life. His father is Richard Young, guitar player and founding member of the Kentucky Headhunters, who won a Grammy in 1990 for their debut album, Pickin’ On Nashville. Taking up the drums like his uncle Fred, also a member of the Headhunters, Young and Robertson decided to start playing together following a school talent show. Black Stone Cherry would release their self-titled debut in 2006. “When we started in 2006, we were all kids on the music scene and we were always able to find and gain the respect of the older bands because we’re one of those few bands that are going today that are still true to what rock & roll used to be,” Robertson told me during an interview in 2013 when they were opening for Bad Company and Lynyrd Skynyrd. “It’s not about a bunch of make-up or computer-simulated music. It’s guitars and bass and drums and four dudes on stage.” “We’re not trying to fit into any kind of mold,” added Wells. “Granted, we have to play ball to be able to be successful, you know what I mean. But we’re not going to like cut our wrists to be successful.”
Holding true to that, the band continues to add fans everywhere they go, especially in the UK, where fans have been especially acclamatory. So choosing to film their first live DVD at Birmingham’s LG Arena was almost a no-brainer. Young talked with Glide about the adoration of the British fans, getting started as kids in the country playing rock & roll, the importance of staying true to YOUR music and what we can expect on the upcoming new album.
When did you decide you wanted to make a live DVD?
Well, we had wanted to film a DVD for some time. We built ourselves on our live reputation, if you will, and I think that over the years there’s been a lot of times where I wish we had had a film crew. Sometimes you think, “Oh my gosh, that was the best show we’ve ever done.” Obviously, you’ve got YouTube footage and everything like that but having a real film crew, you can’t do that every show. But we wanted to film it on this tour because it was our biggest tour to date, headlining those arenas, but also because our fans in the UK are insane and they have been so great to us and have stood by our side.
I remember in 2007, we went over there and it was on a whim, you know. We were opening up for some buddies of ours, Hinder, the American rock band, and they were nice enough to take us over there, and I think the type of music we were playing I think it really resonated with fans. I think when you’re from an area, like southern rock in the southern United States, you only see it at like bike rallies and you only see it at honky tonks and things like that. Over there, our style of music is embraced because it’s different, it’s unique, it’s rare over there. Like, take Volbeat for example, who are from Denmark. They do well in the States, and I don’t know for a fact but I’m sure that the reason that they probably did well over here was because they were different. I think we’re the first band from Kentucky to ever go to the UK and kind of do what we’ve done and stir up that and be a torch carrier for southern rock. I don’t know, Rickey Medlocke said that about us (laughs).
So I think us filming the DVD in Birmingham was amazing too because that was the first place we ever played in England. In 2007, we were out with Hinder and we were in Europe and we did like Sweden, Germany and France and Holland but we had three English shows. We had Manchester, Birmingham and London. And Manchester and London were incredible but I think Birmingham just had a different atmosphere, you know what I mean. Maybe because Zeppelin is from there and Sabbath. It’s a rich cultural history of music there. So for us to be able to film that video in Birmingham, it’s kind of an homage to that first little show we did there.
Do you consider Black Stone Cherry to be more in the southern rock genre?
You know, I think more than anything we were influenced by southern rock big time but we were influenced by a lot of other stuff. The list is endless. And we’re kind of from the south and we can’t help but be associated with southern music. I mean, we would never deny the great roots of growing up with like my dad’s band, the Kentucky Headhunters. That was a huge influence to us, still is. But you had Skynyrd and you had bands like the Allman Brothers and I think all those bands played a huge influence on the way that the south, the southern music scene, really flourished. I mean, Skynyrd kind of wanted to be the Rolling Stones and it was funny because they never set out to be a southern rock band. We didn’t either. We were like, no, we’re not that. But I think all the southern rock bands deny being southern rock but there’re so many different genres. You have hip hop and you have rock and you have country and I think southern rock is like that too because there’s a lot of metal southern rock bands. Look at Pantera, they were a metal band but they were really kind of southern rock in the same way. It’s hard not to be a musician of any genre and not be influenced by southern music. It’s not just southern rock but everything from the south when you look at music.
You mentioned earlier how much the British fans embraced you and also the British music press, making the cover of Classic Rock Magazine last year. But when I went out to buy it, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were on the American version.
I know. We were kind of disappointed. It was unreal that we were on the cover but it does kind of knock the wind out of your sails a little bit because you want Americans to know what you’ve accomplished. But it makes sense to me. They’re in the business of selling magazines and we’re not at that level here in the States what we’re doing over there. I hope we get there here but I think, and I hate to talk bad about anybody or anything, but I think the American mindset is very quick to kind of be on something and then if it’s not the hottest thing in the world, they’re on to something else. And I think a lot of that has to do with reality TV and just the opportunity we have to have so many things at our fingertips.
And too, England is smaller, it’s an island, and you think about the festivals that go on there and it’s a big huge music community. If you went and saw Alter Bridge, you would see Black Stone Cherry fans there. If you went and saw Black Stone Cherry, you’d see some Alter Bridge fans or Slash fans or any of those bands that are doing things over there, you’re going to see a lot of people that like the same stuff. I think more than anything, we’re just kind of fickle here when it comes to music.
I was talking to Carlene Carter and she told me about being on the same bill with the Clash. They’re more open to different styles of music there.
It’s true. If you’re doing something genuine, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing hillbilly country or punk metal country, it’s not that the fans can’t tell the difference, hell, I just think there’s a better appreciation for music. I think here we’re so desensitized by all these reality TV shows. I don’t allow it in my house (laughs). And I think honestly, and I hate to say it, but I think, not to get all conspiracy-theory, but I think the government just tries to dumb us down with media and I think that we kind of allow ourselves to be subjected to that. But I think too like a lot of people that come to our shows in America, we have fans here that are just as appreciative of music and just as intelligent about music as anywhere in the world.
I just think that because we’re such a big country it’s hard for somebody in Oregon or Washington to go and see us in South Carolina. You can get on a plane but it’s the fact of it’s so diverse and so big. We travel around the country, you know, we’re a traveling circus, we go from town to town and make new fans, and we really haven’t had the radio support in this country. They play us on the radio in England but we made it over there on the ground. And that’s what we had to do over here too, it’s just that America is so much bigger. And I think when people have the chance to buy this DVD [out on October 30], I think the people that are going to buy it will be our fans, obviously, but I think other people that might get the opportunity to see it may have heard of our name but might mix it up with Buckcherry or Blackberry Smoke (laughs), which are great, great friends of ours and we’ve toured with both those guys. I think that it’ll help us some because I think that people might go, “Wait a minute, yeah, I’ve heard of them.” (laughs) So I think it’s going to be a great positive thing for us to get that DVD out.
When you and Chris first put this band together, and you’ve got so much rock & roll energy up on that stage, were you guys that aggressive when you first started?
You know, over time when we got out playing I think we found ourselves and trying to develop some level of entertainment and showmanship and things like that. But we grew up practicing in my dad and uncle’s old farmhouse and really we didn’t have a lot of room. It’s like about a 14×14 room so in there you couldn’t really move around. And I play drums hard and I’ve always kind of been a basher but I don’t think I knew how to entertain really until we got out there. When we first started out, we were doing these little clubs and the stages weren’t much bigger than the practice house room. But I think when we started doing these radio shows and these festivals, that’s when we became like, oh wow, what do we do? I remember we played Florida in 2006 and it was our first show that we actually played as a signed band and it was like in Tampa or Orlando. And man, we were just so lost cause the stage was this huge stage. It probably wasn’t big compared now to some things but it was at least a good forty feet and we were just lost (laughs). But over time touring, I think that’s what really brought us together and we kind of honed in what we do. But yeah, it takes time to get your bearings around how you perform onstage.
Did you form the band when you guys were in high school?
Well, Chris and I had known each other since kindergarten. We were buddies and his dad played guitar and my dad played guitar and I did a talent contest one year. I brought my drum set to school, played, it was horrible and Chris came up and he said, “Hey man, I’m going to get a guitar this summer,” school was about out, and he was like, “We should get together.” I was like, “Yeah, let’s do that.” So between seventh and eighth grade, Chris and I started playing music together. Then Jon, our bass player, moved up from Florida that coming school year and he was a freshman in high school and we were eighth grade. It’s funny because we hated him. Oh my God, all the girls liked him and we were like, who is this surfer dude? (laughs)
But over time we got to be friends with Jon and found out he played guitar. So we were like, “Man, Chris is playing guitar but we need a bass player.” And Chris was like, “Why don’t you play bass. My dad’s got one.” So Jon traded his, and he had a really nice Fender Strat, and he traded with Chris’s dad for like this junky bass and he just learned how to play bass. Two years later after we’d been jamming together, we met Ben from the next county over. He came down to the practice house with a buddy of ours, David, and he came in and Dave was like, “Man, you got to let him play. He’s a great guitar player.” And of course we all probably just sucked so bad then (laughs) but I remember the next day, June the 4th, 2001, we started the band, on Chris’ sixteenth birthday, with the four members and we’ve been the four ever since.
Your dad helped produce the first album. Did he let you guys be you or did he have a lot of advice and guidance?
He had a lot of advice and guidance and we wanted to kill each other but you know what, he really did let us be what we were being. But he did have a lot of influence over trying to help us write. For lack of better words, Dad’s kind of been like the fifth member of our band for years. He has helped us with so much business stuff and learning the music business, the publishing side, the touring side, how to survive on the road. You know, when we were nineteen or twenty we got a record deal and we didn’t have a clue what was going on. So we really needed my dad and we are so grateful and honored to have him help us. And also our other dads too. I mean, Ben’s dad helped us drive everywhere before we had a vehicle and Chris’ dad helped with guitars and amps. Jon’s dad bought us a camper. It was like five grand and we took it out one time and the damn thing broke down so he bought it back from us so we could do something else. We’ve just had a lot of help from our families.
But I think the biggest thing Dad did in the studio was he helped us bring a lot of the classic sounds to the band. We grew up in the practice house and we had posters of, and I can go down the list, Hendrix, Cream, Zeppelin, Mountain, Blue Cheer, Aerosmith, Elvis, Albert King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, all those great blues guys, even soul guys like Marvin Gaye and Otis and Wilson Pickett. I mean, everything you can imagine that would be in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland, put that in a spider-infested house on a farm. We were so lucky to be around that stuff. When we were really first out there doing it, at the practice house, I mean, Limp Biscuit was huge and Korn and don’t get me wrong, we like those bands too but I remember that Lincoln Park had just came out and all these bands, and there wasn’t a lot of bands that were out around here in this area in Kentucky, but the oldest thing they were listening to and jamming to was Alice In Chains and Metallica, which everybody loves Alice In Chains and Metallica. But we had this amazing opportunity to be influenced by Frank Zappa and Mott The Hoople, things that I don’t even think kids knew. That was the reason we came out sounding the way we did and we’re very grateful to everybody cause think about it, who in their damn right mind would let four teenagers use an old farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere to just hammer out music (laughs). I mean, we didn’t have to worry about cops, we didn’t have to worry about noise, anything. We would sit out there and we still do it. We’re working on the new album, fixing to go record it, and I get nervous every time we go record cause I’m like, man, this is going to be on record the rest of our lives. So it’s got to be good, it can’t suck (laughs).
What is it sounding like so far?
Sonically, it’s hard to describe. Every band including us go, “Oh this is the greatest stuff ever, it’s our newest stuff, it’s the greatest thing ever.” It is. It is an incredible group of songs that we have come up with for this album. I really don’t know how to describe it cause a lot of them were really fresh ideas, stuff that we had written in the past month, and then there is stuff that I think is like six years old. There was some leftover stuff and there’s some things that never ever got to see the light of day. But oh man, there’s some good songs. We try to make some party anthems and we try to make those songs that have epic riffs in them where the musicians in the crowd are going to go, “Oh God, that’s the greatest riff.” (laughs)
Has Chris upped his songwriting?
He is a wonderful songwriter. He’s brilliant with recording and we’re very thankful for that. He actually mixed the DVD and we couldn’t be more pleased with how he mixed it. And that was the first time he had ever mixed a DVD. But we all four actually write and play the songs and record so it’s great cause all four of us will sit in a room and come up with lyric ideas, or on the back of the bus or wherever we’re at, and we’ll come up with guitar riffs, piano riffs, a bassline, a melody line just out of thin air, a vocal melody, and all those things kind of go into this Black Stone Cherry stew pot and form.
It’s amazing to see how these songs come together cause some of this stuff on the back of the bus, a lot of times we’re rolling down the road and we plug into whatever we’re using on the digital platform, and start recording guitar parts. It’s cool. There were a couple of songs that were from like 2008 that we loved, loved the songs, thought they should have been on the album and we had a label dispute or whatever, you know, and sometimes they don’t hear a song that’s a hit and they get paid to. It’s like, God almighty, how do you not hear a hit song? I mean, we were fortunate enough to have the Florida Georgia Line guys cut our song “Stay,” which is on the Devil record and I remember the label was like, “Man, we just don’t hear it as a single,” and we were like, God, you get paid to be a label and hear hits? (laughs) But thankfully those guys cut it and it went to #1 for six weeks. That don’t suck (laughs)
When you know you’re right and nobody is listening to you it can get very frustrating.
It is frustrating and it’s so different being an artist and having an opportunity to express yourself. You pour your heart out, right, to really write stuff that people connect with. And we have songs on this upcoming record that I know are going to hit people in the heart. The only difference between us and somebody who listens to music, and we feel the same emotions that people do, is that we’re fortunate enough that we can pick up a guitar or a mic or whatever, drum set, and kind of bash out those thoughts and put them down in song form. I think when you start writing lyrics and you’re rushing or you’re TRYING to write a heart-felt ballad, and I don’t even like the word ballad (laughs), but I think the softer songs we have had have always came from a place. We weren’t trying, oh we got to write a song for the chicks, we’ve got to write a song for Top 40 Adult Contemporary Radio. I think we’ve always had things that really meant things. Like “Things My Father Said,” “Peace Is Free,” “All I’m Dreamin’ Of;” those are three songs that I think never really got the light of day on radio but our fans will sing every word to them. That’s how we kind of try and write. We try to write from the heart.
You’re a very visual drummer, moving around and knocking the heck out of all those drums, so which one of the songs in your catalog takes the most energy for you to play live?
As far as energy expenditure, I think definitely the heavier stuff, the faster songs, the up tempo stuff; those require more of a physical approach. I always try to look at it like an athletic type of event, you know, and train for it. But when you’re home, it’s hard to play drums. You can pick up a guitar or a bass guitar or a keyboard. Drums, nobody wants to hear drums by themselves because they just sound like garbage, unless you’re a drummer, right (laughs). So if we’ve been off a while, some of those heavier songs are kind of hard to get back into.
I find that the hardest thing to do, and this seems so contradictory of what people might think, the hardest thing to do is play a thirty minute set because from a physical standpoint, it would be like just getting warmed up and then you stop and your muscles are like, what in the hell just happened? We don’t do too many thirty minute opening spots anymore. We’ll do forty-five or fifty but those thirty minute shows are awful cause you have to try to play all your songs, your hits so to say, in thirty minutes and that’s why I’d rather play two hour long shows because your body, for what we do, your body starts to get a second wind and you condition yourself, and your pain threshold can go beyond that. So the short, short shows are hard to do. The shortest show I think we ever did was twelve minutes at the Sweden Rock Awards last year. We did three songs and it was like, I don’t even know if I broke a sweat. It was like, man, this is insane.
You did a Ramones-type set
Yeah, Yeah, that’s right (laughs). Every song is forty-two seconds.
Saying that, which body part hurts the most when you walk off that stage?
When I walk off stage, I think most of my fatigue will come from my back and shoulders. I should probably be doing crossfit and I just don’t. I’ve got the dad bod going on from just not having time to do it so I think that’s the part that kind of hurts. But you know, after a while, like I said, you condition to it. I try to stretch and warm up and things like that before I play so I don’t go in to it ice cold.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
Robert Plant. My dad’s best friend and manager used to PR for Zeppelin before Bonham passed away. The Headhunters used to be a band called Itchy Brother and basically my dad called up Atlantic Records one day and he was like, “Hey, we’re a band from Kentucky,” gave them all the whole spiel, and he said, “We really need somebody to come down here and check us out cause we want to be on Atlantic.” And this guy named Mitchell Fox was the PR guy for them then and he took a flight and came down and saw the Headhunters, and they were Itchy Brother then. So he fell in love with the band and he took demos to Peter Grant and waited at Peter’s house for like three days before Peter would come downstairs. It was crazy but they liked the stuff and the Headhunters, I keep saying Headhunters but they were Itchy Brother, they were going to be the first American band to be signed onto Swan Song. Richie Sambora had a band before he joined Bon Jovi and they were going to be on there too. But Bonham passes away, unfortunately, and Swan Song was no longer and everything just went to a halt. The Headhunters became the Headhunters and Mitchell stayed with them and became their manager and to this day he’s still a family member of ours. But I went to Nashville when Jimmy and Robert were doing the Walking Into Clarksdale tour in 1997 and I got to meet Robert. It was very life-changing.
Because at that age, I was twelve, I still didn’t really grasp it; but I kind of did because I had saw how much my dad liked Led Zeppelin and how that had kind of been a staple in our house. Then as I got older, I realized, oh my God, how incredible that really was. I got to meet Jimmy Page at Wembley. We were playing with Whitesnake and Def Leppard on tour and Jimmy came to watch the Whitesnake/Def Leppard guys and he watched our set and we got to meet him and it was incredible. That was one of those things that you never forget. Those guys are real rock stars.
The worst advice you were given when you became a professional musician?
We’ve gotten bad advice. I mean, there’s bad advice every day and you kind of have to use your own judgment. But I think for young bands who are trying to aspire to go out there and make it and do it and struggle and starve to death and play rock & roll, I think the BEST advice is to not try to change who you are for a record label, for any kind of yes man or a manager or anything. Stick to your guns. If the label wants you to change the way you look, then you don’t need to be on that label. If a manager wants you to change the way you look or the way you sound as a singer or guitar player, if anybody tries to change who you are artistically, you need to be searching somewhere else. I think this is probably my best advice I could give. If anybody in the music industry tries to change you for what you are, it’s because they’ve never seen anything like you so I’d suggest running the hell away from them and find someone else who can appreciate what you are and what you can bring to the music world as your own individual self. I know when we first started, every single day somebody was telling Chris to lose weight, cause Chris is a big ole boy and he’ll tell you that. But it was really a pain in the ass for us because we couldn’t even concentrate on music because we had some A&R whack telling us, “Hey man, if you lose like forty or fifty pounds …”
I remember when we first started, we actually tried to get on Atlantic before we had our Roadrunner deal, and we’re not on Roadrunner anymore, but I remember back in the early days trying to get songs together to pitch to labels and stuff, and we went to this producer who was the biggest jerk. And he wasn’t a producer because a producer brings out the greatest positive thing that the artist can bring to the table and help structure that. And this guy was so narcissistic and he was so negative about things and I don’t know if it was from his own insecurities but that really almost damaged us as a band. I won’t say his name cause I’d hate for anybody to hear his name, but I’ll say this, he was out of Florida, you can put that in there, Sanford, Florida (laughs). But it was a big hit for us because he tried to change who we were as players. He was very condescending, and I’m not trying to get off on a negative thing, but I try to tell young kids, or anybody who is trying to play, I always say, “Look, whatever you’re doing, stick to what you’re doing. It might not be cool right now and if you’re doing anything that is trendy, go ahead and NOT do that. Don’t do that at all because by the time somebody sees you and you’re blowing up, that’s going to be long gone.”
For example, who doesn’t like “Uptown Funk”? That is one of the greatest funk masterpieces to come out in a long time. Love Bruno Mars. But as soon as that song came out, I saw so many bands in bars doing that or so many bands trying to lean toward that. And I’m like, dude, that’s exactly what bands shouldn’t do. I remember doing some co-writes with somebody and they were like, “Man, this pub company is looking for stuff like Bruno Mars.” And I’m like, “Why are they doing that?” By the time you get the song written, the song recorded, the song out on somebody’s record, that’s going to be gone. Not to say that Bruno will be gone, he’s a great artist and I love that guy, but that’s his style. So be original and if you feel like it’s bad advice in your gut, use your gut; stick to your guns and make the music, make the art that YOU want to make.
As a drummer, out of all the songs you have ever heard, what song boggles your mind the most in terms of the drumming?
A lot of stuff we do cause I don’t know how to play it again (laughs). I never play the same thing twice and that’s my fault. No, I think some of the greatest drumming that’s ever been on record has been from some of the greats. I look at Bonham, everybody tries to play Bonham stuff, even me, I try to play it. There’s a certain swing and a certain R&B element that Bonham had and you can listen to those tracks with all the audio pulled off for just Bonham’s drum tracks and you can hear all these little ghost notes. But I’ve heard stuff that my uncle did on record, you know, Fred Young from the Headhunters, and I still listen to him and, God bless, what drum tracks. Tony Williams, Bernard Purdie, Max Roach, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa. Bernard Purdie, for me, is one of the greatest session drummers of all time. I think he is the most recorded drummer.
As far as stuff that would be hard to learn, that’s such an open question. You look at the progression of how drummers even had to mic drum kits to get a wonderful sound. It’s like, your drum is in the studio and you’ve got thirty-seven mics on your drum kit. Back in the day of Motown, you might have had a kick and a snare drum and maybe one overhead to capture the whole kit. They just didn’t have that many channels on the board. A lot of the stuff I like is a lot of jazz stuff too. A lot of stuff I listen to in my car when I’m just rolling around is just crazy obscure stuff. I think a lot of drum tracks that are epic are stuff that aren’t mainstream. You think, oh, “Moby Dick” is one of the greatest solos of all time. It is but then I look at stuff that also played for the song, like some of that Motown stuff. It wasn’t outlandish but what they were doing with Afro-Cuban beats and holding it down, I don’t know, it’s hard. Probably one of my favorite drummers of all time, besides my uncle and John Bonham, was Ginger Baker from Cream. And we all know that Ginger was nuts. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that DVD [Beware Of Mr Baker] but that DVD is incredible.
What about your own drumming?
Well, to be quite honest with you, it is really hard for me to go back and play exactly what I played on record because a lot of times I will go in the studio and, okay, I know what the bass drum pattern needs to be on the chorus and what it needs to be to lock-in to keep that groove to repetition. But there’re so many mistakes I make in the studio on stuff. I try to be a perfectionist and try to make drum parts over-the-top, even if it’s just a groove is over-the-top or the fill. But I think I’m more aware as a drummer now than I was when I first started, which takes some of the green creativity away because you want to get back to that rawness, you know. But then as you progress and you work with producers that are like, “Well, when there comes a key change you got to switch cymbals, you don’t want to make this beat too complex for people to follow.” And I’m like, “I know. That’s exactly why I play rock & roll and didn’t become a CPA (laughs). So let me do what I want to do.” But I think it is hard. There’re lots of drummers that write out everything they play and I can’t do that. There’s no way I could do that. Actually, there probably is. I could do it but I just like to go in there and bash and see what comes out.
Top photograph by Leslie Michele Derrough