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Black Stone Cherry: "We had to fight for our integrity, stand up for our sound"

A portrait of Black Stone Cherry
(Image credit: Mike Rodway)

Edmonton is a small town deep in the US state of Kentucky, with a population of around 2,000. It was near here, out in a cabin in the woods, its walls plastered with posters of music legends, that the seeds of Black Stone Cherry were sown almost 20 years ago. 

Here, the four fiercely determined kids spent all their time playing music, honing a refreshing sound that elevated their southern rock roots to anthemic hard-rock heights. 

In 2005, when they were barely out of their teens, they signed a record deal with Roadrunner and it all kicked off: they released hit after hit, and flew around the world to play with their heroes, becoming famed for their fire-cracker live shows. 

Now in their 30s, they’ve achieved more than most bands would have done in a lifetime, while remaining delightfully grounded – still living in their home towns. 

“We’re no different from anyone else,” drummer John Fred Young drawls. “We just happen to get up on a stage and play rock’n’roll.” 

With the band having released The Human Condition, their seventh album, Classic Rock caught up with all four members – the same line-up since day one – to discover their story, told in their own words.

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John Fred Young (drums): I’ve known Chris since I was five. We went to school together. Our dads both played guitar, and we became close friends. When we got into middle school I got interested in drumming, and Chris and I were in a school band together. 

Chris Robertson (vocals, guitar): I saw John Fred do a drum solo in the school talent show, and I said, man, we gotta start a band. Then I got an electric guitar for my thirteenth birthday. 

Jon Lawhon (bass): I moved up from Florida in 1998. I joined Drumline [percussion school band], and through that I met John Fred and Chris. I was a year above them – I’m the grandpa. We didn’t like each other at first. They were always screwing around, and didn’t like how all business I was. But the music brought us together. 

Chris: Jon played guitar, but we needed a bass player. My dad had a bass at home, so Jon came over and tried it out, and it all went from there. 

John Fred: My dad and uncle were in a band called Itchy Hunter in the sixties, later becoming the Kentucky Headhunters. They had this old practice house out on a farm near my grandparents, so we used that. It’s a craftsman-style home, with posters and vinyl records nailed to the walls cos there was no insulation. – everything from Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, the Rolling Stones, old bluegrass stuff. It was like growing up in a rock’n’roll museum. And we could play as loud as we wanted. 

Ben Wells (guitar): I lived in Glasgow, which is about fifteen minutes from Edmonton. A mutual friend of ours took me to the practice house. It was a Cinderella story: they were looking for a guitar player, and I was looking for guys who wanted to take music seriously. 

Chris: After we jammed with Ben, we asked him to come back the next day, which was June 4, 2001. He got to practice earlier than everyone else. He probably thought we’d stood him up. 

John Fred: The rest is history. We started the band right then. It was Chris’s sixteenth birthday. 

Ben: We were ready to go, anxious to get started now that we’d found each other. All we wanted to do was play music. And that’s what we did. Every single day. 

John Fred: Once my dad realised we were serious, he started working with us, teaching us about the music business, and how to write songs. He was a huge help. We had a lot of support from our families. Chris: We were like nineteen or twenty when we signed the deal with Roadrunner. It was such a feeling of accomplishment. 

Ben: Our families were so proud. We signed the contract in that practice house.

John Fred: We took some of our record advance money and bought this SUV instead of a van. We thought it would be more comfortable cos it had seats. 

Jon: I think we did 47,000 miles on that SUV in just four months! 

Ben: But we thought it was the greatest thing ever, cos we were on tour. We were finally doing it

John Fred: After the first album, we opened for this band Hinder, and they invited us to Europe with them. We landed in Sweden and it was a total culture shock. Seeing the architecture, hearing Swedish… I went into a sandwich shop, and the guy said that’s gonna be a hundred and forty krone. I said to the dudes: “We’re gonna starve out here, man! This is a hundred and forty dollars?” And Chris goes: “No, man, you gotta convert it. It’s like fifteen bucks!” [laughs]. That’s how naive I was. 

Chris: Going from Edmonton, Kentucky to Stockholm, Sweden was the craziest thing I had ever done in my life. I’d never been on a plane until we’d had to fly to a gig. I’d never seen the ocean. And that was okay to me. But I’m so grateful that the band allowed me to explore.

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From then on, Black Stone Cherry’s star kept rising. In 2007 they played London’s Hyde Park Calling, on a bill that included Aerosmith and Joe Satriani. That same year they won Best New Band at the Classic Rock Awards, where they found themselves hobnobbing with the stars that adorned the walls of their practice house. 

They released their second album, Folklore And Superstition, in 2008, and went on a UK arena tour supporting Def Leppard and Whitesnake. The following year they opened for radio-rock giants Nickelback, again in the UK, where they were gaining a fan base. 

Chris: We read a review of Hyde Park Calling where we had gotten like an eight-point-five out often and Aerosmith got a seven. We were like: “Oh my God, we got a higher rating on a live gig than Aerosmith!” 

John Fred: We’re a word-of-mouth band, I think – seeing is believing. Our live show is our ace card. Hyde Park Calling was kinda the game-changer for us. And the Classic Rock Awards were incredible. We were very starstruck, and nervous. 

Ben: This is kinda weird, but I used the urinal beside Steven Tyler at the Classic Rock Awards, and I couldn’t say a word. Aerosmith are my favourite band. They were sitting like two tables away from us, and I could not make myself go over. I was so nervous. I’ve still never met them. One day I’ll get the courage. 

John Fred: The Def Leppard/Whitesnake tour was really big. Those guys were so incredible to us. 

Chris: On that tour we’re two songs into our set at Wembley, and I look over and see this familiar-looking gentleman watching us. It was Jimmy Page! The other guys didn’t believe me. But then we met him after the show. When he said he loved what we were doing with southern rock, my head about exploded. 

John Fred: That was one of those moments where we were really trying not to freak out. 

Chris: I think that tour and Nickelback had a huge impact on our success in the UK. They got us in front of so many people. We’ve never been as successful in the United States as we are in the UK and Europe. Which is crazy, because we’re the most American band ever! 

Ben: The UK has really been our biggest following. People always ask us why is that. I guess people can see we’re a genuine band, and I think the UK audience is super-smart to that. We were ourselves, and I think that was something that people latched on to.

But amid all the starry excitement, tension was brewing within the band. Life on the road was taking its toll, and as their star rose, so did the pressure to deliver radio-ready hits. 

In 2011 Black Stone Cherry released their third album, Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, arguably their most commercial sounding record to date. But behind the scenes, things were falling apart for their frontman Chris Robertson.

John Fred: For the third record, the label wanted us to do co-writes with other people. We had never really done that. We’d written with Bob [Marlette, who produced Folklore And Superstition], and my dad, but otherwise it was just us four writing the songs. So we did it, we were open-minded, and wrote some great songs and made some new friends. But it was awkward, cos it was not how we had formulated things. 

Chris: We had to write and write for that album cycle, and we were trying to please too many people. It was feeling almost impossible. 

John Fred: It was stifling at times, because the label wanted us to make a radio-ready record. I think a lot of great things came out of it. It was an inside view of how big-time pop rock records are made. We always try to take away the positives. And working with Howard [Benson, producer] was great. 

Ben: Our biggest fear was that we did not want to be cookie-cutter. Sometimes you’re told: “Chris, can you not sing so southern”, or “Can you take out those guitar solos”, or “John Fred, don’t play so many drum fills”, and don’t do this or that because it won’t get on the radio. And it’s like, well, that’s not us, though!

I’m manic depressive, and I’m open about it. I think it’s horseshit that people have to feel weird talking about mental health.”

Chris Robertson

John Fred: We always had to fight for our integrity, and to stand up for our sound. I don’t think Between The Devil stripped away what we were, but it did obviously polish us. In a horse race, we’re the mule, man – we’re slow and steady and we’ll get there our own way. 

Chris: Around then I went through a nervous breakdown. I didn’t wanna play music or be on stage. I wanted to be done with the music business. That coupled with my own demons and not being around my family all got me into a bad spot. I decided to see a doctor. 

Jon: My mom went through depression, so I understood a little what Chris was going through. I tried my best to be supportive. He went through addiction to medications through that too, and we as a band fought with him. There was one night in Germany where John Fred and Chris had a big blow-up. I had to jump in between them. 

Ben: When you get to a dark point or argument, especially when you’re thousands of miles from home, a lot of bands would throw in the towel. But we’re brothers. 

Chris: I realised that Black Stone Cherry is who I am. At the end of 2012, we got together to decide if we were still going to be in a band. It had gotten that bad. Through my own practices and medication I’m much better now. I’m manic depressive, and I’m open about it. I think it’s horseshit that people have to feel weird talking about mental health. 

John Fred: I gotta be honest, I never thought we would break up. I knew we would kick this thing’s ass and come back strong as hell. We’re a family first and a band second. 

Jon: That’s the reason we’re still here today. If it wasn’t for that, Chris could have ended up committing suicide. You just don’t know. We’re never willing to give up on each other.

Revitalised and raring to go again, Black Stone Cherry came back even stronger. In 2014 they released their fourth album, Magic Mountain, which focused less on radio, more on music. 

“We found out we were bringing in fans from the jam-band world, who liked Phish, the Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule. That was cool to us,” Jon says of that release. 

The following year they went on their first headlining arena tour, in their beloved UK, on which the Birmingham show was shot for a live DVD, Thank You – Livin’ Live. Soon after that high came a low, when the band were let go by Roadrunner Records.

Jon: The very first time we headlined an arena, we were all so choked up and crying we could hardly speak! I think we’re the only band to have an extremely successful arena tour, come home, and a couple months later be dropped by our label [laughs]. But it meant we were free agents. 

John Fred: For about six months we didn’t have a record deal. We thought, whoever we sign with, they are gonna have to understand that we wanna produce our own records, we don’t wanna have the A&R fingers in the pie, we just wanna do our own thing. Jon: We were kind of courted by several labels. We met with Ed [van Zijl], the owner of Mascot, and the majority of the conversation was about amplifiers, guitars, classic rock acts, blues bands… He’s a music guy. 

John Fred: That was refreshing. Mascot support us, and just let us be ourselves. We also liked that Mascot had bands that were real musicians. Underground artists that are blues, rock, left-field. 

Ben: We put out two blues cover EPs with Mascot, of our favourite blues songs. We got to introduce a younger generation to those artists. 

Chris: We released our first album with them, Kentucky, in 2016. And nothing against producers or anything, but all the final music proceedings are now down to us, which I love.

Jon: Now we’re on our third album with them [The Human Condition], and I feel like we’ve really hit our stride not only as a band, but also as producers. We did it in my studio [Monocle Studios]. 

John Fred: I think we kept the integrity of what Black Stone Cherry is: the raw rock, the badass playing, the songwriting. The new album has about eight or nine older songs that we didn’t get to use until now, for whatever reasons, but that were always dear to our hearts. 

Jon: We wrote Ringin’ In My Head ages ago, but when you listen to the lyrics – ‘People, people your attention please/I need to tell y’all about a new disease…’ – it’s like it was written by psychics! 

Ben: We recorded the album right around the beginning of the pandemic, and I think that emotional side comes out. We were confused and angry, watching our tour dates go away. We played with pure intensity, because we didn’t know when or if we would play again. 

Chris: This year has been tough. As much as we love making records, we want the human interaction of playing music for people. Right before the pandemic we played with Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Jonny Van Zant brought me and my dad up on stage with them to hold up the American flag during Free Bird. It’s one of my fondest memories. 

John Fred: I think there’s so much greatness still left in our story. It’s so inspiring when you go on tour with someone like Alice Cooper, like we did last year. That guy’s in his seventies and he is just the most positive guy. We wanna keep touring, making music and contributing to the world. We wanna do this until we die.

The Human Condition is available now via the Mascot Label Group.