Rewind to 2006. As the four hicksville longhairs troop on stage to open up for Zakk Wylde’s Black Label Society, you wouldn’t have marked their card for future glory. “Dude, it was hate,” shudders John Fred Young, Black Stone Cherry’s affable drummer. “We got up there and his fans just started out screamin’ and hollerin’. Like: ‘Get off the stage! You guys suck!’ You’d see these hecklers with their mouths wide open. We were scared to death.
“I’ll be honest with you, man,” Young continues. “We just about starved on that tour. Because we were only getting paid, like, a hundred and fifty dollars a night, and that would get us diesel for the bus. Some of us went eight days without showering, until we were finally: ‘Y’know, dude, we’ve gotta literally go to somebody’s house and use their hose.’ But it toughened us up.”
We mention this early low ebb because it’s a good yardstick by which to measure the rise of Black Stone Cherry. During campaigns for their first three albums – 2006’s self-titled debut, 2008’s_ Folklore And Superstition_ and 2011’s Between The Devil & The Deep Blue Sea – the Kentucky band made steady gains. Yet it was 2014’s Magic Mountain that saw a major upturn in their trajectory.
“It’s great, because we can really see it paying off now,” says bassist Jon Lawhon. “At the same time, it’s kinda weird. There’s been a couple of instances when girls will cry and it’s like Beatles stuff. And we’re like: ‘It’s alright. We’re just four rednecks from Kentucky. Don’t be freaking out now!’” While we can’t take all the credit, there’s a case that Black Stone Cherry’s annus mirabilis began with last April’s Classic Rock cover shoot. “That was amazing,” guitarist Ben Wells remembers. “Everybody was buying copies for their mom and dad.” Then in May came the release of Magic Mountain: a fourth album that was harder, hookier and more heartfelt than any before it. “Was I pleased with the reaction?” muses frontman Chris Robertson. “Yes and no. You’re always gonna have people who want to bash on something. Any time you put out any kind of art form – for lack of better words – for public approval, certain people are gonna talk shit about it. A lot of times, people reviewing records want to voice their opinions, to make themselves sound cool and the band sound like a bunch of dickweeds. “Unless it’s a good review I don’t even read them. At the end of the day, I don’t care how people review the record, as long as the fans love it.”
Fair to say, the fans did indeed like it, especially in Europe and the UK, where the band’s tour diary began to list some serious venues. The first time this writer interviewed Black Stone Cherry, they were playing in a Cardiff rat-hole. Last November, the band filled Wembley Arena under their own steam. “We were pinching ourselves walking on,” recalls Robertson. “The first concert I ever went to was Aerosmith, at a big old amphitheatre in Nashville. To have so many people out there enjoying what you’re doing… you can’t find words to describe it.”Better than sex, for example? “My wife might kick my ass if I say that. But in its own right, yes it is.” “It’s that stomach-churning feeling you get when you go over a hump in the road,” Lawhon explains. “Y’know, where it feels like your stomach and your heart and all your internal organs jump up into your throat for a second and then drop back down. When you play an arena, it feels like everything jumps up and doesn’t come back down for the entire time you’re on stage.” Subsequent dates have been more intimate, but no less incendiary. In May the southerners hooked up with Rival Sons to detonate Canada and the US East Coast. “Those guys are great, man,” says Young. “I remember back in 2012 they did a tour with us. And we knew that they were really good musicians but, I don’t know why, we didn’t understand how badass they were until this summer. It was unreal. We all became huge fans of their stuff. “We got in adventures,” he grins. “We were in Ocean City, Maryland, with them, and we had a day off so we went and ate seafood, got hammered and played mini-golf, and it was fun as hell. Our tour manager slayed us all. He came in with, like, fifty-one strokes. We’re better musicians than we are golfers.” Back home the four of them might be domesticated family men, but on the road the scrapes keep coming. “The other day,” Young says, grinning, “we had to fly from Atlanta, to Amsterdam, then on to London. We got there and all our baggage was still in Atlanta. So we were gonna have to play the show in our shorts. We encounter things like that all the time. The other day we had this driver… you know those concrete barriers they put up at the side of the gas tank? This dude nailed it. Wiped our trailer out. Destroyed our trailer. So we had to leave our trailer at this gas station, go on to Copenhagen. We’re the ambassadors for bad luck.”
Somehow they always pull it back from the brink. Take this year’s Download, when the band turned Friday night’s biblical weather into a triumphant headline set on the Zippo Encore Stage. “It rained so much,” Wells remembers, “that my guitar started cutting out, in front of fifty thousand people. But we made it through. It was a monsoon of rain out there, but the fans were out there kicking ass, and that’s a true testament to them. British audiences are badass. They don’t care. They’re like the people we grew up around in Kentucky – just with a different accent.” “We opened up with Rain Wizard,” Robertson chuckles. “And it was so funny, because as I stepped up to the mic, rain was blowing in on the stage, just pouring all over me, man. Part of me was thinking: ‘This sucks,’ because I feel bad for everybody standing in the rain. But there’s something awesome about that many people screaming: ‘Here comes the rain!’ But the fans in Britain will stay with you through a monsoon.” Curiously, Black Stone Cherry have yet to experience the same level of devotion on home turf. “We’re definitely bigger in the UK,” notes the singer. “A few months ago we played in Mobile, Alabama, and there weren’t even two hundred people. I think the final count was a hundred and fifty-eight. That keeps you humble. Then we get to headline the second stage at Download. So there’s a pretty drastic difference there, man.” “Honestly,” picks up Lawhon, “in the UK I think everybody got Magic Mountain immediately. But the States is very radio-driven, and nothing on that record is very ‘radio’. Me And Mary Jane is probably the closest thing. With radio over here it’s always: ‘Well, it’s too southern’, ‘It’s too country-sounding’, ‘It’s too redneck’, ‘It’s too heavy…’ Our personal opinion is: ‘Okay, who cares? If you like it, cool. If you don’t, then don’t plug it.’” Either way, Black Stone Cherry have no intention of bending their vision of cask-conditioned rock’n’roll for mass-market acceptance. “When you look at music today,” considers Robertson, “there are so many bands on stage that have a computer running half their music. But all those new bands that are on the cover of your magazine, every band on there could walk on stage with a drum set, a guitar, a bass and an amp and put on a great show. The biggest bunch of shit ever is when you pay money for a concert and you can tell they’re just miming the show. That’s the one true testament of why we still talk about Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aerosmith. They never needed a crutch. A lot of bands that are around today, I don’t know if we’ll talk about them forty years after the fact.” Perhaps the star pupils of our Class Of 2015 can take the baton from those behemoths. “You can never forget the past and you have to honour it,” concludes Robertson. “You gotta thank them, man. And the unfortunate thing that’s happened to AC/DC with Malcolm and his illness, y’know, you look at all these bands, and these guys are getting old. They’re not gonna be around forever. I hope Black Stone Cherry can kinda be part of a new wave of bands that were true rock’n’roll bands. Y’know, that go up there and play their own instruments every night, sing their own songs and have nothing to fall back on except for falling flat on our faces if we mess up.” The singer lays it on the line: “Thirty years from now, when my son is my age, his dad will be in a classic rock band. The goal is to leave something behind. Do you know what I mean?”