Under The Influence: Black Stone Cherry’s Chris Robertson

Black Stone Cherry standing in a line, looking at the camera.
Black Stone Cherry: Chris Robertson, second from right.

I first got interested in the guitar because my dad and my grandpa both played music. My dad got me a guitar and I fumbled with it for a year or so, until I finally decided ‘if you want to be good at this, you’ve got to really do it, not just act like you’re gonna do it’. Stevie Ray Vaughan was my first want-to as far as learning blues and understanding playing from passion and feeling, as opposed to just playing the notes.

I grew up around southern rock and country music, but when you get to the heart of it, it’s all blues. It’s always been amazing to me that everyone loved Elvis Presley but they forgot about Big Mama Thornton, who had those songs before him, and how people overlook the blues when they listen to their favourite music. The old saying ‘the blues had a baby and named it rock’n’roll’ – to me the blues had a baby and they named it music. It transcends every genre, from Adele, to Wiz Khalifa, to metal records – it all comes from the blues.

We didn’t have a singer when we started Black Stone Cherry, so I started singing because I was the only guy who could remember the words, and I was the only guy who didn’t sound similar to someone else. I had it thrown in my lap, and hated it for the longest time. I’ve never had any formal lessons or anything – I learned how to sing listening to Freddie King. There are similarities in our styles of singing – in the loudness, and the way we hold certain notes. I learned it all from him.

Howlin’ Wolf

The Howlin’ Wolf Album

(Cadet Concept, 1969)

This is one of my all-time favourite blues albums. There’s a spirit in this stuff – even though Howlin’ Wolf hates it – that makes my spine crawl. It’s a 60s psychedelic rock-blues mind-trip to hear those songs in a different light. People ask me which Howlin’ Wolf album I recommend and I tell them this one. I know Howlin’ Wolf would probably smack me for that if he could, but this record breaks the gap between rock’n’roll and blues and falls somewhere in the middle.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

The Real Deal: Greatest Hits Volume 2

(Epic, 1999)

Stevie Ray Vaughan was my first personal dive into the blues. The first time I heard this record I thought, “Jesus Christ, this is what guitar playing is meant to be like.” The thing I like about this record is that it’s got some of the instrumental stuff on it, and a lot of the big songs. One of my favourites on it is Ain’t Gone ’N’ Give Up On Love – the live performance on this album is amazing. It captures all the sides of Stevie Ray – from jazz, to the blues, to the funkier bass on Telephone Song, to the acoustic thing he does on 12-string on Life By The Drop – it encompasses him to me.

Freddie King

Burglar

(RSO, 1974)

The standout track on this for me is a song called Pack It Up. The musicianship other than Freddie is amazing, but his guitar and singing on this record are top notch. To me, Freddie King is the king of the three Kings. He commanded such a presence and an energy over everything he did that you couldn’t help but notice. Pack It Up is super funky, and it’s got a huge funk background. But then you listen to one of the other songs, and there’s slow blues that will put you in tears just hearing him sing before he even hits a note on his guitar.

Joe Bonamassa

Beacon Theatre: Live From New York

(J&R Adventures, 2012)

My big introduction to Bonamassa was actually this DVD, and he starts with a song called Slow Train. From that point on I was hooked on listening to Joe. My favourite Bonamassa song, The Ballad Of John Henry, isn’t even on this record, but there’s something about this live DVD that’s just ferocious. I got to watch him when he played Download, which was different for Joe, but he still went up there and killed it. It was really cool to see somebody who’s known more in the blues market play a festival like Download, and for it to still work – and that’s because blues transcends into every form of rock’n’roll there is.

Gary Clark Jr

Blak And Blu

(Warner Bros, 2012)

One of the best live guitar performances I’ve seen in the last 15 years – whether it be on DVD or in person or whatever – was Gary Clark Jr when he did the Eric Clapton Crossroads Festival. He did When My Train Pulls In and I just sat back, mouth hanging open with a tear in my eye. He doesn’t just play the guitar in that performance, he’s playing the guitar, the amp, the pedals, the natural reverb of the room. It’s one of the most captivating guitar performances I’ve seen in years, and it’s a song off this record, which is just top notch.

Otis

Tough Times: Tribute To John Brim

(Self-released, 2014)

This is actually a band from back home, and they’re not on a record label, but in terms of blues music they’re absolutely, undeniably as real as it gets – and they’re in their early twenties. Greg [Martin] from the Kentucky Headhunters produced this, and Jimmy Hall plays harmonica on it, and it’s phenomenal – especially considering their age. These dudes have a passion for the music and wanting to be the best, and they can go from heavier blues to more jam band stuff. If people like good, honest blues music that lends itself to rock’n’roll, this is a band that you have to check out.

The Kentucky Headhunters With Johnnie Johnson

Meet Me In Bluesland

(Alligator, 2015)

Johnnie Johnson was Chuck Berry’s piano player, and this was the last stuff he ever recorded. The Headhunters got to be great friends with Johnnie, and we were in the studio with them when they did this record, just hanging out as 16-year-old kids. When Johnnie passed, everybody from Keith Richards to Clapton gave their condolences and went to the wake. People give Chuck Berry a lot of the credit, but if it wouldn’t have been for Johnnie, Chuck wouldn’t have written any of those songs.

Muddy Waters

Hard Again

(Blue Sky, 1977)

We were once at Atlantic Warner’s offices in New York doing some acoustic stuff. We played a couple of songs but the crowd asked for some more. We were like, “We’ll do you guys something that’s close to us.” And it was our medley of Mannish Boy and Hoochie Coochie Man. We do it, and when we finish, this young lady comes up and she’s got tears in her eyes. She hugs us all, and thanks us, and says: “Muddy was my grandpa.” It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of. My love for Muddy Waters came from this record.