Back To ‘Kentucky’ With Black Stone Cherry

Black Stone Cherry guitarist/singer Chris Robertson talks about the band’s 15 years of making music. “We were all friends before we decided we wanted to be a band for the rest of our lives,” Robertson told Pollstar.  “And we just kept on … we wouldn’t give up.”

You’ll find Black Stone Cherry on the road for much of 2016.  The most recent addition to the band’s schedule is the “Carnival Of Madness” tour that also includes Shinedown, Halestorm and Whiskey Myers.

Kentucky is the band’s fifth studio effort, scheduled to arrive April 1 via Mascot Label Group/Mascot Records. Click here to pre-order the disc.

Trying to pin Robertson down regarding which songs he likes best on Kentucky is like asking a parent which child he/she likes best.  But he did mention a couple of tracks that he’s excited for fans to hear.

Robertson also spent a little time discussing his battle with depression and how his bandmates stood beside him during those dark days when he was thinking of leaving the group.  The frontman also revealed how a conversation with Sammy Hagar changed his life.

Photo: Rob Fenn
The Black Stone Cherry guitarist

The new album, Kentucky, arrives 10 years after Black Stone Cherry released its self-titled debut LP.  What’s different about today’s band compared to the four young men who recorded that first album?

We have a lot of responsibility, now.  We were 19-20 years old when we made that first record.  I had just turned 20 … it came out right after I turned 21.  We all have mortgages and kids now.  Other than that, we’re the same dudes who love to play music.  We’re just fortunate enough to travel the globe a couple of times and spread some positivity around the world.

Is this one way of never growing up?

Yeah.  It’s different.  The hardest part about what we do is just being gone. You learn things in a different way when you grow up on the road. … My little boy is 3 years old.  When I leave and go on the road for six weeks, when I come back home he’s like a different person.  He’s talking differently, he’s into different stuff and things like that.  We’ve got FaceTime, stuff like that.  Social media, you’re always connected but it’s not the same.

While on the road do you call home every day?

I text my wife constantly.  We try to FaceTime once or twice a day.  My boy understands Dad’s working and he plays music for a living.  But he still wants to know why I don’t come home.  It’s difficult at times.  You want to just … go home but you know you can’t because you have a job to do.  We get on FaceTime and it soothes the problems a little bit but it still tends to be hard at times.  You just can’t reach for the phone and get somebody at home.

What songs on Kentucky are you most excited about having the fans hear?

I’m really excited for them to hear all of them. For me, “Long Ride” holds a really special place.  Obviously “The Rambler,” as well, and it has already been released [as] a grat-track.  But  “Long Ride” is one of those songs that talks directly about family and loss.  It’s one of those … heartfelt songs and I’m really excited for people to hear that one. 

On the opposite end of that I’m really excited for people to hear “Soul Machine,” which is … a positive vibe song.

Has the past 10 years made you and bandmates look at subjects and themes for songs differently?

The method of our songwriting is exactly the same.  We still write music first.  On a rare occasion there’ll be a vocal idea that leads to a song. … The music kind of sets up different vibes for a song.  We tend to write about things we understand, that we’ve lived through, things of that nature.  But this record, a lot of people I’ve talked to that have reviewed or listened to it, talk about it being kind of a darker record.  To some degrees it is but all the songs still hit a positive light. 

I had issues with depression and anxiety really bad a couple of years ago.  I was always open and outspoken about it.  It’s OK for people to talk about things like that.  That’s why I’m a huge fan of the new Chris Stapleton video.  I love Chris’ music to begin with.  I’ve been listening to him since … the SteelDrivers days.  That new video he put out for the song “Fire Away” was amazing to watch – to see somebody with as much steam as he’s got going to do a video like that.

I think … I’ve finally been able to let go and write.  [My bandmates and I] also write the songs together, music and lyrics, and they obviously lived all of that with me.  But I think I finally got comfortable enough to put it into songs. You say something and it’s kind of there forever but it’s not like a song that could live on for years and years.  I think there’s quite a bit of that in the record in songs like “Hangman,” “Rescue Me,” and “Darkest Secret.”  But at the same time all those songs have positive messages.

Other artists have talked about their experiences with depression.  Do you think that might be common among creative people?

I don’t know.  It very well could be.  The hardest thing for me a lot of times is just getting the brain to shut down at nighttime.  When it’s time to go to bed and you’re 6,000 miles from home, in Finland, and you try to go to sleep and you start thinking of any and every possibility in the world being a reality – it kind of wears you down after a while.  Especially for me now that I have a child of my own. Me and my wife built a new house last year.  Luckily I’ve been able to keep everything kind of suppressed and catch things before they start.  But a few years ago it was like my brain would never shut off.  I could never have that 10-15 minutes of quiet time a day unless I was asleep.  That’s the hardest part of it.

[Black Stone Cherry’s] been together for 15 years this coming June.  We started in 2001 and the biggest factor [is] that we’ve never had a lineup change.  We were all friends before we decided we wanted to be a band for the rest of our lives.  And we just kept on … we wouldn’t give up.  With all the crazy shit I went through several years ago, a lot of bands would have signed a new singer.  But those dudes never gave up on me.  They actually came to me and said, “If you want to be done, we’ll just stop the band now because it’s not going to continue without one guy.”  I think that’s a testament to who we are as friends above being a band.  If I was ready to give up, they were going to stop all together.

What came first for you – singing or playing guitar?

Guitar 100 percent.  I never wanted to be the singer. The only reason I ended up being the singer in the band is because we couldn’t find anybody else to do it.  The rest of the guys in the band had similarities to other guys who were in bands that were already on the radio.  Basically, I was the only guy who didn’t sound like anybody else and I could remember all the words.  That’s the no bullshit truth about it, man. (laughs)

Five albums later, can you still remember all of the words?

Most nights.  There have been a few times when I forget.  I laugh it off.  Shit happens.  I don’t have a Teleprompter.  We’re not that cool yet.  For the most part, I remember.  It never fails. We’ll be playing a 500-seat ballroom and I’ll remember every word.  Then we’ll get to some big show where there’s 20,000 or 30,000 people at a big festival, and the next thing you know I’ve forgotten the first verse to “Lonely Train” or something.  I’m like, “Holy shit!  Is this really happening right now?”

What makes for a great Black Stone Cherry show?

The biggest thing is the crowd.  It’s not the size of the crowd, it’s the interactivity of the crowd.  If we have a crowd of 100 people but they’re having a helluva time – it’s going to be an awesome show.  But you can have 10,000 people and they stand there with their arms folded over and you’re like, “This sucks.  Are we done yet?”  It’s all about the crowd.  If they’re having a good time and we’re having a good time, it’s going to be a great show.

The crowd on the live CD/DVD Thank You: Livin’ Live, Birmingham UK knows every word and is with you note by note.

That’s what it’s like for us in the U.K.  It’s mind-blowing for me.  An interesting side note about that CD/DVD is when we got the footage back we had a mix done by a guy on a couple of songs and it didn’t come out the way we wanted it.  Our management and the rest of the guys in the band were like, “Chris, why don’t you try mix a version [and we’ll] see what it sounds like.”

I’ve never mixed anything live in my life.  My whole intention was I was going to mix it like I’m standing in the crowd listening to the show.  That’s what a live concert [album] should sound like to me.  That was the approach I took.  The only  negative comment I read about the mixing on it was someone said the crowd was too loud. And I was like, “Well, you’ve never been to one of our shows over there.”  We all wear in-ear monitors but you can hear the crowd over the music on certain sounds. 

Do you have any methods for taking care of your voice on show days?

I’m the world’s worst about that stuff. I’m a smoker …  probably a pack a day.  For me, before we go on stage, when we hit that 10-minutes-to-stage mark, generally, I’ll smoke a cigarette, take a few sips of bourbon, and go out and do the show.  That’s the way I’ve done it for a while.  Don’t fix what ain’t broke.

I think in the entire history of the band we’ve canceled five or six shows because my voice went out.  One of those times we canceled two shows on a tour.  The company we used had to sublease a bus from another company in the heart of the summer.  This bus shows up and low and behold, I got sick.  I’m the kind of guy that might get sick once a year but it’s like I get sick when I get sick.  But this was different, like a respiratory thing. That was so odd for me.  Low and behold there was black mold growing in the back of the bus. That’s what was screwing me up.  I couldn’t get better.  We switched the bus and two days later I was totally fine.  It was weird.

If you had to choose between singing and playing guitar, what would you pick?

Oh, man, that’s like picking your favorite kid.  If you had asked me this four years ago I would have said “Guitar, hands down.”  It’s just been in the last 3-4 years that I’ve enjoyed singing.  For me, playing guitar was something that came naturally.  It’s something I’ve done going on 18 years. … I’ve been singing for 15 years, started a couple of weeks after we started the band. At heart I’ll always be a guitar player but everybody knows me as a singer, I guess. 

Is there a Black Stone Cherry song that’s almost impossible to play on stage?

No.  There’s some that we put too much stuff on in the studio, too many parts that would be hard to play for that reason.  There are songs you get tired of playing.  You played them for so many years and you try to reinvent bits here and there to make them unique again.  There are songs you do, you start doing different stuff, put jam sections in them and then you end up going back to exactly how it is on the album.  It’s refreshing.

With us, especially with this new record, we wrote every song and recorded them so that they could be performed live.

Do you already know what the album will sound like before going into the studio?

Kind of.  You have an idea.  For us, we try to not … get too much of a preconceived notion about what the album is going to be.  You get into the studio, start playing and parts change.  For me, as a guitar player, it takes a little while to get your amp dialed in the way you want it.  You may think a really crunchy, gamey sound is right, then you end up cleaning up your amp, and it sounds way better.  Sonically, it’s always depended on how good the performance is.  Once you get that it’s how good is the signal flow going in and going to the mixer.  For us, we go in and play it.  We try not to ever be like, “We want this to sound like a track off of a Zeppelin album.”  We just go in there and we’re like, “We’re going to make this stuff rock and see what the mixer does.”

Although you’ve worked with producers in the past, Kentucky is produced by the band.

The first record was produced by John Fred’s dad, Richard Young, who’s in the Kentucky Headhunters.  It was produced by him and David Barrick. Folklore and Superstition was Bob Marlette, Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea was Howard Benson, and Magic Mountain was Joe Barresi.  Those guys were all incredible.

For us, this new record, we’ve been doing this long enough to know what we want to sound like and we know what our fans want to hear.  If you’ve been in a band for 15 years … [and]if you don’t know what your band needs to sound like, then you have problems.  That’s not a knock to anybody who works as a producer because producers do great things. 

I’m not saying it’s always been this way but a record label signs a band.  The record label loves the band and sees potential.  Then they get the band to work with producers to completely change everything they do but keep the same faces.  For us, we’ve been fortunate enough to keep the root of our sound in all of our records.  In this business you never know how many chances you’re gonna get.  After all these years we know better than anybody about what we want to sound like.  We were like, “Let’s go back to the studio at home, record these songs the way we want to do it. There’s no A&R guy, no producer, none of that stuff, and make a rock ’n’ roll record that we all believe in.”

While traveling all over the world, what’s the strangest place you’ve ever heard your music played?

I don’t know the strangest place but I can tell you the first time I ever heard “Lonely Train” on the radio. … I don’t listen to radio much, but the first time I heard “Lonely Train” on the radio was in Stockholm, Sweden.  We were over there and on our way to the radio station and they played the song.  It was so cool.

Another cool experience was when we toured on the Folklore record, we went to Japan and played Tokyo at a festival called Wild Park.  After our set we went up to do a signing between a couple of the other bands.  As we were walking up we hear “Peace Is Free” playing.  Then there’s, like, 400 Japanese people waiting in line to get autographs from us. It was just surreal to have that song playing.  It was our first time in another country in a totally different culture and to see people smiling because of our band coming up to sign autographs while that song played was a really beautiful thing.

What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?

There’s two separate occasions that I always look back on.  One of them being Richard Young saying, “Fellows, there’s no room to basically be an ass in this business.  Everybody you meet as you’re climbing, you’re going to meet them on the descent as well.”  You look at [Kentucky Headhunters] and they were on top of the world and then had two members leave, and it all changed overnight for them.  That was something that always stayed with us.  Anybody who wants to take the time to talk to you, you talk to him, you don’t put on any front.  [Just] be your humble self and talk to them. 

We go to concerts. … You see bands play and you see singers that make it seem the crowd should be grateful to see that band on stage.  Our mentality is the complete opposite because of what Richard taught us.  We’re overwhelmed and grateful to see a crowd show up to want to watch us play our music.  There’s no room for the other in this business.

The other bit of advice I’ll always remember is  when I was going through all my battles with depression and everything, we went and did a run with Chickenfoot.  You’re looking at two guys who were in Van Halen, Joe Satriani playing guitar and Kenny Aronoff playing drums.  Chad Smith was out with the Chili Peppers, I think.  I remember talking to Sammy Hagar one night.  They were doing a song called “The Future Is In The Past” and he was talking before the song and it really connected with me.  I went up to him after the show, I thanked him and said, “I’ve been back and forth about maybe just going home and giving up all of this,” and he was like, “You can’t do that.  Everybody is put here for a reason. Obviously your reason is to come out and make these people happy.  Never give up on what you want. Just remember we’re all in this big thing together. … You always keep after the things you wanted most.”

It just stuck with me. … That’s Sammy Hagar.  That guy is a legend. To have him talk to me and make me understand that it’s bigger than what you think it is sometimes, to truly understand what we do has a great purpose, is something I’ll never forget.

Photo: Photo by Rob Fenn
“We were all friends before we decided we wanted to be a band for the rest of our lives.”

Here’s where you can see Black Stone Cherry:

April 1 – Nashville, Tenn., Marathon Music Works
April 2 – Glasgow, Ky., Walmart (1 p.m. acoustic performance & autograph signings)
April 12 – Denver, Colo., Marquis Theater
April 14 – Las Vegas, Nev., The Joint @ Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
April 15 – San Diego, Calif., House Of Blues
April 16 – San Jose, Calif., The Ritz
April 18 – Modesto, Calif., Modesto Centre Plaza
April 20 – Chico, Calif., Silver Dollar Fairgrounds
April 21 – Fresno, Calif.,  Rotary Amphitheater (105.1 The Blaze “BlazeFest”)
April 22 – W. Hollywood, Calif., The Whisky 
April 24 – Phoenix, Ariz., Downtown Phoenix
April 25 – El Paso, Texas, Abraham Chavez Theatre
April 26 – Lubbock, Texas, Amphitheatre @ Lone Star Event Ctr.
April 28 – Dallas, Texas, Trees
April 29 – Houston, Texas, Scout Bar
May 4 – Johns Creek, Ga., 37 Main – Johns Creek
May 6 – Concord, N.C., Charlotte Motor Speedway (Carolina Rebellion)
May 7 – Stroudsburg, Pa., Sherman Theater
May 11 – Libertyville, Ill., Austin’s Fuel Room
May 13 – Clive, Iowa, Seven Flags Event Center
May 21 – Green Bay, Wis., Sandlot Entertainment Complex
May 27 – Clear Lake, Iowa, Surf Ballroom
May 28 – Lancaster, Ohio, Mickey’s Bar & Grill 
June 12 – South Bend, Ind., St. Joseph County Fairgrounds (103.9 The Big Growl)
June 24 – Marrickville, Australia, Factory Theatre
June 25 – West End, Australia, Max Watt’s Brisbane
June 26 – Melbourne, Australia, Max Watt’s Melbourne
June 28 – Hindmarsh, Australia, The Gov
June 29 – Perth, Australia, Capitol

“Carnival Of Madness”

July 20 – Southaven, Miss., Landers Center
July 22 – Kansas City, Mo., Starlight Theatre

July 24 – Maidstone, England, Mote Park (Ramblin’ Man Fair)

“Carnival Of Madness”

July 26 – Rogers, Ark., Walmart AMP
July 27 – Tulsa, Okla., BOK Center
July 29 – New Orleans, La.,  Lakefront Arena
July 31 – Cedar Park, Texas, Cedar Park Center
Aug. 2 – Bossier City, La., CenturyLink Center
Aug. 4 – Nashville, Tenn., Ascend Amphitheater
Aug. 7 – Brooklyn, N.Y., The Amphitheater At Coney Island Boardwalk
Aug. 10 – Columbia, Md., Merriweather Post Pavilion
Aug. 12 – Gilford, N.H., Bank Of NH Pavilion
Aug. 13 – Uncasville, Conn., Mohegan Sun Arena
Aug. 14 – Erie, Pa., Erie Insurance Arena
Aug. 16 – Chicago, Ill., FirstMerit Bank Pavilion @ Northerly Island
Aug. 18 – Clarkston, Mich., DTE Energy Music Theatre

For more information about Black Stone Cherry, please visit the band’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram account and YouTube channel.