They say you can't go home again. But Black Stone Cherry proves otherwise on KENTUCKY, the quartet's fifth album and most diverse and mature -- not to mention dynamically exciting -- effort to date.
A decade ago, Black Stone Cherry made its attention-grabbing self-titled debut at David Barrick's Barrick Recording near their hometown of Edmonton, KY. It proclaimed the arrival of a vibrant and exciting new force in Southern rock 'n’ roll, a group that played with fire, sang with brimstone and had plenty of cajones -- what other young band, after all, is willing to take on something as iconic as the Yardbirds' "Shapes of Things" on its first album?
Flash forward nine years and the BSC crew -- still guitarists Chris Robertson and Ben Wells, bassist Jon Lawhon and drummer John Fred Young -- found themselves back at Barrick, which had relocated and modernized a bit during the intervening years, although its analog mixing board hails from EMI's legendary Abbey Road studios in London. This was hardly the same group of fresh-faced rock nubiles that made the BLACK STONE CHERRY album, either; they'd traveled hundreds of thousands of miles on six continents, written scores more songs and even jousted a bit with the industry. They're family men and homeowners, too -- still rockers to the core but well aware of the "real world" outside the tour bus. So they came into KENTUCKY –- the quartet’s first release for Mascot Records -- more seasoned, battle-savvy and focused, ready to come back home and turn everything they'd learned into a set of ambitious and fearless new music.
"There's all this freedom because it's just us producing it this time," says Robertson. "We're doing it like we did that first one; people still rave about that record, our fans do. But a decade later we're all older, more mature. We all feel like better musicians and songwriters. But even though we're older now it's got a certain element of youth about it that you just can't escape. It's the most interesting album we've done thus far.”
Young adds that, "Man, it was perfect, the experience of getting to record here at home, being with our families, having the opportunity to record with David Barrick again and with all that amazing gear he has. You can never really go back to, 'Oh, I'm 17 again. I don't know how to perfectly tune a guitar or hit the perfect drum lick.' But you can mix some of that into what you are now. We just had a blast and didn't hold anything back.”
Then again, BSC is hardly known for restraint, something anyone who's seen the group blaze through any of its live shows can attest to. The story starts on June 4, 2001, in Edmonton, KY, when Robertson and Young, musical playmates since they were teens, were joined by Wells and Florida transplant Lawhon. Encouraged by musician relatives (Young's dad Richard and uncle Fred are two of the Kentucky HeadHunters), the fledging troupe cut its musical teeth at the Practice House, a 1940s bungalow -- pictured on the cover of KENTUCKY -- that had been relocated to a remote field by Young's grandparents. Used first by the HeadHunters and then BSC - its walls covered with posters, concert tickets and other memorabilia - it was as much of a learning space as the high school the four attended. "We'd go there and sit and smoke cigarettes and jam on Nirvana and AC/DC, Skynyrd songs and Pantera, try to play Led Zeppelin songs," Young remembers. "It was perfect, man. The closest neighbor was, like, more than a mile away, so we could make as much noise as we wanted, any time we wanted. It was a great way to become a band."
After releasing the independent “Rock N’ Roll Tape” demo, BSC's burgeoning reputation got the group a label deal, and BLACK STONE CHERRY was followed by FOLKLORE AND SUPERSTITION, BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA and MAGIC MOUNTAIN, which spawned rock radio favorites such as "Lonely Train," "Blind Man," "White Trash Millionaire" and "Me and Mary Jane." The group's muscular style and homespun attitude connected particularly well overseas, where its last three albums hit No. 1 on the U.K. rock charts – MAGIC MOUNTAIN debuted Top 5 on the U.K. album chart overall - making that the perfect place to film and record the scorching concert souvenir "THANK YOU LIVIN' LIVE, BIRMINGHAM UK OCTOBER 30, 2014.
"For us it's realizing we're a live band -- that's where people are really sold on us and where we cut our teeth," says Wells. "So in writing the riffs and writing the songs for KENTUCKY, we had that in mind. We'd say 'OK, how is this gonna go over live in a festival setting? How is this gonna go over live in a club? Is this what our fans expect?' That was our whole mindset, just to get back to where we were when we first started and 'Let's not overthink this. Let's go in there and make the riffs cool and heavy. Let's just do it.’"
KENTUCKY does it from the get-go, letting loose with the meaty groove of the appropriately named "The Way of the Future," and fellow heavyweights such as "Shakin' My Cage," "Rescue Me," "Hangman" and the metallic "In Our Dreams," which was co-written with Bob Marlette (Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie, Seether, Saliva). “We wanted to write a song to show the struggle people faced in a situation of disparity, who when presented with danger and chaos could rise above the physical world and escape to another dimension of peace,” explains the band of “In Our Dreams.” The group's rendition of Edwin Starr's Motown classic "War," besides being eerily timely, features a full brass attack from Jonas Butler and Ryan Stiles, while "Soul Machine" shows that BSC knows how to get a deeply funky groove, complete with backing vocals by Sandra Dye and Toynnia Dye. "Long Ride," meanwhile, is a testament of devotion, whose anthemic chorus will have fists pumping into the air whenever the group pulls it out in concert.
"The songs came off more pure and not forced on this album," says Lawhon. "A lot of bands will get very political about things and be like, 'We need this kind of song' or 'We need this batch of songs for this part of our audience' and so on. With us, we just write. Once we feel like we've got the record, that's when we sit back and think about marketing angles and all that. The songs come first and foremost."
The emotional crucible of the album, meanwhile, comes via the wrenching "When Your Heart Breaks Down," a richly melodic co-write with former Shinedown guitarist Jasin Todd that takes stock of some of the costs that come with BSC's chosen life but also offers comfort to those left back home. "It's just about heartbreak and being a true rebel spirit at heart," explains Young. “We all knew the song was special, and when we were in the studio writing it Chris lost his grandpa, and he got pretty emotional when he was putting his vocal on it. It's a really wonderful song.”
BSC is particularly proud that KENTUCKY was not only made at home but also features a corps of hometown players adding their magic to the songs, including Chris Carmichael (strings), Paul Hatchett (organ), Chad Lockhart (vocals), Boone Frogget (vocals), and Andrea Tanaro (vocals). "This album IS Kentucky," Robertson says with palpably fierce pride. "Everyone who plays on it is from Kentucky. It's in their blood just like it's in ours, and they added so much to the record."
KENTUCKY will, of course, send BSC away from Kentucky and back to its second home on the road, with a fresh batch of songs Lawhon notes, "were meant to be played live." And it's key to remember that it's the same four guys playing it now as it was in Edmonton, when they were wet behind the ears and ready to put on some miles.
"It's cool we've been able to be the same four guys just doing it, putting out albums. You don't see that many bands who are the same members after all these years," says Wells. "We're friends first, and from the beginning it's always been four equals. That's what's kept us together. We're all in it, all on the team. It takes four of us to lead the band, not just one." And, Robertson adds, everyone in BSC shares the same credo.
"Music is life, life is music," he says. "It's faith, family and music. Those are the things that are quintessential for my life -- for all our lives."