John Fred Young of Black Stone Cherry Gears Up For ‘The Human Condition’ (INTERVIEW)

Sometimes when a band decides to use songs from the past that never made it onto an album, that disc can sound disjointed, uninspired, dull. But when Black Stone Cherry had a hankering to do this for their new record, they got lightning in a bottle. Never a band to really chill out sonically, BSC – singer/guitar player Chris Robertson, guitarist Ben Wells, drummer John Fred Young and bassist Jon Lawhon – gathered some cool oldies, mixed them around and spruced them up and now they’re coming out on Friday [October 30th] as The Human Condition. And the crazy thing about them is they could have been written during the heart of the 2020 pandemic. 

Working on the album while coronavirus was hitting the US but before we went into lockdown, the band felt an urgency to get finished. Then after experiencing all the same anxieties that we all have felt during these last several months, BSC knew there was no better time than now to release what they had worked so hard on. “Every song on this album tells a story of the experiences we all go through – our happiness, our struggles, and how we have to adapt,” explained Young. Songs like the opening track, “Ringin’ In My Head,” especially hit home lyrically while causing a rocking ruckus instrumentally. “With this one, we cranked up the amps, the drums are in your face, and there are some really heavy riffs,” explained Wells. “After nineteen years and seven albums, we wanted to prove that we still kick ass. This album feels like a rebirth.”

For a band that released their debut album in 2006, but had known each other since high school in Kentucky, you wouldn’t think it was prime time for rejuvenation. But as Young told me during our recent interview, the band was feeling a bit worn down. Between traveling and flu season, they needed a break without taking too long of a break. They needed something to kick them back into gear and pulling out some songs that didn’t get picked for previous recordings was just the remedy. With “Again,” “Ragin’ In My Head” and “In Love With The Pain,” already set loose, BSC prepares to drop the whole she-bang this Friday, coinciding with a livestream of them playing the entire album along with some fan favorites. 

It’s rare that a band with this amount of longevity to still be intact with original members. But they consider themselves brothers to the core. Young and Robertson have been best buddies since grade school; Lawhon moved to Kentucky from Florida when the others were in Junior High (Wells was attending school in a neighboring county at this time). And they didn’t exactly click right away. “Chris hated me the least; John Fred hated me longer,” Lawhon said during a 2018 interview with Glide. Being that Lawhon was older and all three were in the marching band, “I was drum captain at the high school the entire time I was in school, which John Fred even back then could play circles around me, but, bless his heart, he still to this day has two left feet and he can’t walk to save his life. So I always skunked him when it came to marching. (laughs).” But music finally solidified their brotherhood. “We started playing music together just out of necessity but it wasn’t very long before we grew to love and hate each other (laughs).”

“I think back then we may have been a little more childish in our aggression, just being mad about people giving us crap about having long hair and playing rock & roll,” Robertson remarked to Red Magazine about the band’s early days. “We’re still a bunch of kids, you know what I mean. We’re still four sixteen-year-old dudes at heart that just get to go play rock & roll for a living. We just have fun with it. I mean, the way this business works, it will chew you up and spit you out quicker than you can blink so if you’re not having fun there’s no reason doing it.”

That sound is still what makes Black Stone Cherry hum like a racecar. With six albums under their belts and the seventh about to come out, they have yet to stray too far from their original center. And the fans love it. I spoke with Young last week about putting the new album together, why he didn’t mind lockdown, raising chickens and why awards can’t compare to what their songs mean to their fans.

John Fred, how has the pandemic been treating you?

Well, I think everybody is just ready to have it over. It’s been a learning experience for them, it’s been a learning experience for us. Of course, I have been very blessed. I have three little girls. We just had our latest edition born in August. She’s a mess (laughs). So we’ve got three running around here and getting into Dad’s music gear and they want to play and put on rock shows back here in Dad’s studio. But I tell you what though, I hate that we’re not out there touring and I hate that the fans are not able to go to shows but I will say, I try to always look at stuff in the most positive light. I got to spend time with my family. So I’m not saying I’m glad the virus hit or nothing like that, but with the time I’ve had with my family, it has been beautiful to be home and be with them.

How’s your chickens? The last time we talked you had just gotten a bunch of them to raise.

I had eighty English Orpingtons and they all died. They got ate up by coyotes and raccoons and opossums and it sucked. We loved them so much and we never ate a single one of them. We just kept them as pets and ate the eggs. I loved it but being on tour it was just hard. My dad [Richard Young of the Kentucky Headhunters], when I was out, he would feed them for me. My kids grew up with them and I’m threatening to get a bunch more because they’re so unique. People that have them for pets understand they’re super smart. I had one that was called Lemmy and he was solid black and he was the sweetest rooster. And I had one that I called Jesse after Jesse Dupree from Jackyl and he was wild. He’d fight you and run around (laughs). Jesse’s been a really good friend of ours for a long time and I can’t remember if I told him yet that I named a rooster after him. But yeah, they all died. It was a sad day. But I’m going to get some more.

You guys were finishing up this album when coronavirus was already here but we hadn’t gone into lockdown yet. Was there any added pressure to get it done?

It was really hard being there because you were worried about this coronavirus going on and we’d get news updates that these cases were spreading and spreading. So there was a different mindset on this record. I think it was one of those things, we wanted to make something that if we weren’t able to tour for a while, we wanted something really killer and awesome for the time and also something that would stand up for generations.

So what was it like in the studio?

Well, we went into the studio in the last part of February and we started tracking drums, setting up drums. We took eleven days to get drum sounds and that was the most time I’ve ever spent on trying to get an original drum sound for a record and I’ll tell you, I really, really was lucky. We had a guy that we met through Shaman’s Harvest, some really good buddies of ours and they’re actually on Mascot Records too. They’re based out of Missouri but Jordan Westfall was working monitors with them and he came on the road with us to help out while they were doing a record and we found out that he was just an incredible audio engineer so we had him come in to engineer our record. He was such a big help at getting the sounds for the drums. 

Jon, our bass player, built a studio down in the woods out here in this county we live in and he built a monster drum room, he really did, and our buddy Mark Owens, who is an older guy, he was in with Jon on the studio and helping and he helped me get a great drum sound. It takes a whole village to make something and this record, everybody is telling me, “Man, this record is the best record ya’ll have ever done. The drums are so prevalent and you can hear every single note that you’re playing on the drums; and you can hear everything that everybody’s playing; Chris’ voice sounds incredible.” We worked so hard on this and we held each other accountable and we 100% had a monster engineer in Jordan that helped us get the sounds we were looking for.

You know, the past three records we’ve produced and it’s been epic. It’s like, ever since we signed with Mascot out of Holland, we’ve been able to just do our own thing, produce our own records and I think when you’re a young band and you kind of have an idea what you’re doing but you still are really kind of creating what it is you’re going to be doing, you need some label advice and you need A&R and things like that. But man, when you’ve done it for fifteen years and then you get dropped by a record label, and we got dropped by Roadrunner back in 2015, it was bittersweet because we had a lot of great friends there. But, it had just got really corporate. They got bought out and it wasn’t really working for us anymore and thank goodness we signed with Mascot and they totally understand us and they’ve got a great team.

But yeah, this record right here, we really didn’t know what we were doing. We wrote four songs on the back of the bus last year and I hate to admit this but we were kind of burnt out. Everybody was feeling the cold and kind of flu stuff last year. But I think once we got home and went in the studio in February, we pulled out some of these old songs that we had not been able to put on records. And they weren’t B-sides at all. They were songs that just literally it came down between one song and another or the label might have liked this song and so on. But we took these twelve older songs in the studio and just reworked them and about eight of them made the record. So this record is almost a full picture of sonic moments from as far back as 2004. There’s a song called “Ride” that we wrote in 2004. So you’ve got stuff that was leftover from every single record. And I know people say, well, anytime you hear a band say they took a bunch of older songs and put them out, people think those are just B-sides. These were not B-sides at all. Hell, we don’t ever try to write a B-side. 

But it came together, it really did. It came together as this amazing sonic landscape that told a story and I think that we were so fortunate to be able to use those great songs. Like, “Heart Had Wings,” that was a song that we wrote back in 2010 . And “Ringin’ In My Head,” as crazy as this sounds, was written four and a half years ago. I know people are not going to believe that because it sounds like we wrote it for this pandemic, but I swear it was written probably right after we did Kentucky, if my memory serves me well.

It does sound like it could have fit on Kentucky

That was a cool record. We did that at David Barrick’s studio in Glasgow, Kentucky. David has been a great friend of ours for years and he was using the old music store in Glasgow and we had been kids growing up there and that store was owned by Kenny Weber and Kenny owned that place since probably the early seventies. So it was cool knowing we used to go in there and buy guitar strings and sticks and now we’re making a record in there (laughs). 

But yeah, Kentucky was, for me, a big ole ball of just frustrated emotions that I think we had accumulated over years and years of dealing with record industry politics, being on a previous label. I won’t get into that but that record was pretty heavy. Then we go to Family Tree and we sound like a bunch of Allman Brothers. That record was, man, it was out there (laughs). We wanted to make a seventies classic rock album. It wasn’t a concept record. I don’t guess we’ve ever made a concept record. Hell, I guess the only record we’ve ever made that you could call a concept record was Folklore, because it sounded like we were in New Orleans, you know. 

And I love your state. I’m telling you, that state is one of the most unique, cool places on this planet and I’ve been fortunate to go to a lot of countries and places. In 2006, that first record, the debut album, we went down to the French Quarter and we shot “Lonely Train” and we shot it in an old bank and it was wild. Listen, there is a lot of spiritual energy in that city and I love it so much. I’m kind of fascinated with the paranormal anyway and I’m big into history and the historical value in that town is unreal. 

Black Stone Cherry is a very rocking band. How conscious are you to create a song or two that slows things down?

Well, we don’t really ever try to write ballads. We don’t have anything against them, we just never really sit down and say, well, we’ve got to have at least one ballad for this record. They normally just come naturally. Stuff like, “If My Heart Had Wings,” that’s pretty much, to me, your textbook ballad, okay. But “If My Heart Had Wings” is a song that’s pretty deep to Chris. It’s about his mother-in-law, his wife’s mom, passing away and she was a really big inspiration and mentor to him. 

Our records, like if you look at stuff like “Peace Is Free,” “Things My Father Said” from Folklore; and if you look at stuff like “All I’m Dreamin’ Of” and you go to Magic Mountain and there’s “Sometimes;” and on Kentucky there’s “The Rambler.” Those type of songs, I don’t think you can call them ballads but they lend themselves more to a slower tempo song that really pulls on the heartstrings. But we don’t ever sit down and go, man, we need a heartstrings song; we need a song that’s a super ballad that’s going to make the chicks love us! (laughs) We never do that. It’s always straight from the heart and I don’t mean to sound like cliché or anything but they come to us, you know. It’s through personal life events. So I think that’s what makes those songs genuine. It’s not something we set out to write, it’s something that we go, you know what, this happened and we’re going to let it come out and that’s not something we try to do. 

So they’re genuine and they mean something to people. Like, “Things My Father Said,” that’s one of those songs that I don’t care where we are – in a bar, in an arena – when we play it people get emotional. I had a guy one time send a letter, he was from Scotland, and he said he hadn’t talked to his dad in like six years and he said he heard that song and it made him call his dad up to go play a round of golf and they started hanging out and he said, “My dad passed away four months later and if it hadn’t been for that song I wouldn’t have contacted my dad.” You know, we don’t have a Grammy but stuff like that, you can’t compare awards and accolades to the fact that you can touch people with your songs in their heart like that. That right there, that’s what really means something, as a songwriter and a musician. And you can ask any of the other guys too, that’s the biggest payback right there, is if you’ve written something that will live on forever and generations will listen to it. That’s cool.

The drum intro to “Some Stories” makes me think of “When The Levee Breaks.”

Well, I’m going to tell you something. I appreciate that but I can’t take credit for that. That is Chris Robertson playing the drums on that. You know, our band works like a big ole team effort. We sometimes play each other’s parts and we tell each other what to do and we get bossy but really it works. And Chris had an idea just how to open that song up and he said, “You care if I sit down and play it?” And I said, “No, go on in there and play it.” Jordan recorded it and Chris was like, “What do you think about that?” And I said, “I think it’s perfect.” So he comes back in and he says, “Man, go in there and play it.” And I said, “No, you played it and it sounds great so let’s leave it.” Chris is actually a pretty damn good little drummer too. But that’s how we roll. We’re a real band. I played a little guitar part on “When Angels Learn To Fly.” It’s a breakdown, just a drone guitar part before it goes into the bridge. But those are things that we do and we all get in there. Chris is really good about coming up with drum parts and patterns to help me and I’m always coming up with vocal melodies. We work together like a band. We really do. We’re very hands on and hold each other very high in each other’s parts on playing and we want to see the other guy absolutely play the part as good as he can. We’re a team and that’s what makes us Black Stone Cherry.

Tell us about the livestream coming up on October 30th, which is the album’s release date.

We filmed a livestream down in Bowling Green, Kentucky, at SKyPAC Theatre and we did that last week. It’s not live because we were afraid the server would fail and then it may go haywire. So we prerecorded it. We had our great buddy Mike Rodway shoot the performance. But it’s weird because nobody was in the audience so our thinking was, we’ll turn everybody around and we’ll face each other. So Chris and I are facing each other, Ben and Jon, so it’s a circle and that way we could play off each other’s energy. It came out really great but I’ll be honest with you, it’s the first time we’ve played together in eight months. There’s mistakes, there’s places where I thought I was going to die because of just throwing that much energy around and not being able to do that for eight months. I woke up the next day and couldn’t move! And I know Ben was too, he said the same thing, “I was just about ready to die after that!” But I think it came out great and I think people when they watch it, they will absolutely be able to say, well, this is something that we didn’t get to go to it and it wasn’t in our town but due to the nature of where we’re at in the world, this is the closest you’ll get to a kind of unique situation to watch us play. They can go to to sign up to watch it.

Has Black Stone Cherry met all your original goals of what you wanted for the band?

I think our original goal was just to be able to go out and play music. Back then we were kids, we didn’t have families obviously, but we didn’t have a backup plan, we didn’t have anything in our minds except for, let’s go play rock & roll, we’re brothers, we love each other. And now we’re getting to tour the world, well, not right now, but we’re getting to tour the world and see fans that we’ve got in different countries. Last year, or year before last, we made it to Eastern Europe. It was the first time we played Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic. So we’re getting over there now. We played Pol’and’Rock Festival last year and it was one of the greatest things I think I’ve ever played. It was 480,000 people and it was unreal. We went on right after Ziggy Marley and Ziggy was going to play later but he had a show the next day and they weren’t going to have enough time to get there if he played later. So he played right before us and that was like, I don’t even know how to describe that experience because, obviously, we’re all huge Bob Marley fans, especially Chris, and getting to watch him play, that was just, my gosh, the hair is standing up on my arms right now. 

I think it was one of our original goals to just go out there and play rock & roll and continue to be brothers and be able to do this. And we have. We have absolutely been able to do this and write music and be creative and we’re so thankful we have fans all across the world that allow us to do that. We’re very fortunate guys.


Portrait by Mike Rodway; live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough

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