Across the American south, Chris Robertson tells us, bonfires are “kind of a thing”. After a storm the dead limbs of trees are gathered and set alight. People roast marshmallows. They cook out and have a few drinks, uniting in a primal, cathartic act of communion over fire. It was this image, on the back of a testing period for Black Stone Cherry, that gave Robertson the idea for the title track of their recent album, Screamin’ At The Sky, their fourth entry in the UK Top 10.
“I just had this idea of the four of us in the band,” the frontman explains, “and our friends and families gathered around a bonfire and simultaneously screaming all of our pains and worries into the sky.”
In recent years there’s been a bit to scream about. A pandemic that derailed tours, plans, lives. The death of Robertson’s father, a huge supporter of the band. Their first experience of a band member leaving – bass player Jon Lawhon, who called time amicably in 2021.
Today, in July 2023, we meet them up a mountain in Wales, a few hours before they headline Steelhouse festival. The weather is not good. Drummer John Fred Young is holed up on the bus with a sick bug. Nonetheless there’s an air of optimism as they prepare to perform new material, much of it conceived in parking lots across the US, with new bassist Steve Jewell Jr. in tow.
“We’re parking-lot pirates,” Young says with a laugh. “We’ll go to a mall, pull up, and it’s easy because there’s bathrooms, stores, places to eat. Then Chris brings out his computer, we sit there and somebody will come up with something. We normally have mall security coming by at least seven times an hour, but once they find out we’re good old Southern gentlemen they normally want to hang out and talk about music.”
Screamin’ At The Sky is a heavy, emotionally direct record with a few twists. One of the first things they wrote together was Show Me What It Feels Like, a sexy, funked up strut that feels genuinely different from anything they’ve done before. The album was recorded in Young’s spare room and the beautiful old Plaza theatre in Glasgow, Kentucky, locations that plant it firmly in the territory that unites them all.
“We have so much in common,” Young says. “Obviously music, but here’s so many things we share the love of. But also we are so spaced out in different directions. That’s what makes it interesting.”
Classic Rock sat down with each of them.
Chris Robertson exudes the calm of someone who’s been to hell, with a clear sense of his priorities. The band he fronts. His wife Ashley, a nurse, whom he met at 16, married at 26 and had a son with the following year. The Pokemon cards he collects obsessively; a flash of light in a man often described as ‘earnest’.
“I wish they’d put out better sets,” he mutters with a grin, “these last two have been kind of ass.”
Sheltering from the downpour in a portacabin backstage, the Black Stone Cherry frontman looks like an off-duty rapper in his shades and grey hoodie. He’s lost a lot of weight. Grey hairs pepper the stubble on his face. He speaks in deep, kind tones that go well with his singing voice – the rough-cut soul cry of a guy who drew from Kurt Cobain and Waylon Jennings, Bob Marley and Son House.
Robertson has long been frank about his vulnerabilities, in a way that most young men aren’t. The depression medication he still takes. The fact that, at one point, he almost turned a gun on himself. The cancer that killed his father during the pandemic, and fuelled much of Screamin’ At The Sky. His fears about the world his son now faces.
“When you become the oldest living male in your family, it changes you. Honesty becomes the most important thing to you and…” He shakes his head. “I don’t know, I wish we could all get to a place where we’re… we’re all cool, you know? Ifeel bad for kids today because they can’t fuck up and have it go away. Our generation, we could make mistakes and it would go away. Kids now, they make mistakes and they’re forever embedded in the internet.”
Back in Edmonton, in the rural property he and his wife built aged 30, he and his family shut out a certain amount. There’s no cable TV in the Robertson household, expressly to keep it a newsfree zone. “Because it’s just so negative, you know? And my little boy’s ten going on eleven, there should be positivity in the house.” As times have changed, so too has Robertson. Where target shooting and hunting were once regular parts of his life, these days they aren’t.
“I haven’t shot a gun in probably… [thinks] no shit, probably four or five years. I don’t hunt or anything any more. I’ve got a whole different outlook on everything. I’m not against guns. I’m not against hunting. But they’re not at the forefront for me any more.”
It’s a notable shift for someone raised in a world of guns, ATVs and his grandfather’s guitar/mandolin shop. The eldest of three siblings, Robertson grew up with young, “learning” parents who had him when they were 21.
“I was a big part of that learning process,” he says. “I hold nothing against anyone for that, but they had children young and had to figure it out. But I always felt loved and had everything I needed.”
His parents divorced but his father stayed close by, living his last years in a mobile home. He visited his son regularly, the two of them sitting and talking on the porch outside. Raindrops On A Rose was written in response to Robertson’s sense of hopelessness, as his father deteriorated, looking to tiny natural wonders for a lift.
“The dude’s my hero, you know. He’s Superman,” he mutters. “The decline over time was like, someone was slowly feeding him kryptonite and there’s nothing we could do about it. And it was painful to watch, but… [pause] my dad got to hear the original version of that song one time, and he really, really liked it.”
Shortly after, he passed away aged 57. Now Robertson looks for life’s positive pieces. Little things that honour his father’s memory. The song Smile, World echoes this.
“It is what it is,” he says with a shrug. “You find ways to remember stuff with a smile instead of being sad about shit all the time.”
The man emerging from the tour bus at Steelhouse is as white as a sheet. The Welsh rain is horizontal and relentless. It’s not a good place to be sick. “I would come and hug y’all but…” the drummer says, coughing, “yeah, you don’t want that.”
On stage a few hours later, we see none of this. Behind his kit, John Fred Young is an explosion of curly hair and arm-wheeling. Cavernous, Bonham-esque beats and gladiatorial roars. If a lion played drums, this is what it would look like.
A few days later, chatting over Zoom, the father of three girls is a different person. Cloud of curls bundled under a baseball cap. Neck chain paired with Buddy Holly reading glasses. Distinctive ‘country’ cadence that gives his speech an earthy, sing-song quality. It’s his youngest daughter’s birthday today.
“I’m a lucky dude,” he says, beaming, still a little croaky. “Watching ’em grow up too fast, that’s the hardest thing. One morning they’re these little bitty cute creatures, and all of a sudden you wake up and you got an eight-year-old, a fiveyear-old and a three-year-old. But man, I love it. I got home the other night and I wanted to just grab ’em up and hug them and kiss them, but I was like, argh I love you guys but I don’t wanna get y’all sick.”
Effusive and chatty, Young is a funny pair with frontman/lifelong best friend Robertson. They make very different first impressions. Robertson is straight bourbon; Young is the punchbowl at a tailgate party. But there are common values – music, family, the houses they built on Edmonton land owned by their respective grandparents – that make them similar on a deeper level.
They met in kindergarten over shared crayons, realising that both their dads played guitar. In elementary school they played football. They were in the Boy Scouts together. A couple of times they beat each other up in the playground. In middle school they were in the marching band, followed by drumline through their sophomore year.
When BSC started, the Young family were pivotal. It was in the tumbledown ‘practise house’ – owned by his uncle and father’s band, The Kentucky Headhunters – that they spent their teens jamming and writing songs. After late sessions they would retreat to Young’s grandparents’ house, where his grandmother cooked pot roast, meatloaf and Derby pie at midnight.
At the behest of his grandfather, a history teacher, Young did a semester at Western Kentucky University. “A semester and a half, I think,” he muses, “but we started getting record label interest. When I put it on hold [laughs], man he was so upset with me, and he just made me promise I’d go back some day. So I guess I gotta finish it one day.”
An only child and an old soul, Young grew up flitting between music and his family’s other passion: antiques. As a youth he collected old furniture, knives and antique pistols. At 13 he sold pocket knives at a gun show, to buy his first proper drum kit (on days off he still enjoys finding thrift stores and antique shops). Summer vacations were spent on the road with the Headhunters. “I was nine, ten years old, getting into a lot of trouble, knocking guitars over, tangling cables in my feet and being in the way… but I learned a lot. That was my introduction to what I’d be doing the rest of my life.”
Edmonton is the definition of a small town. People run into each other. Young still sees his school peers at Walmart or the gas station. It doesn’t give him ideas. There’s no suggestion that he’ll quit “beating stuff for a living” any time soon. “I’ll be doing this til the day I die,” he says, smiling. You can tell he means it.
Ben Wells, Back Stone Cherry’s other guitarist, is nothing like most ‘other guitarists’. A blond fireball of turbo-rockabilly and metallic chops, his performance is informed by huge characters. Elvis Presley. Dolly Parton. Brian Setzer. Jimmy Buffett. It’s all there in his high-kicking, face-pulling style that makes him (arguably) BSC’s most watchable member.
Off stage he leaves that behind. Sort of. All huge eyes and wiry limbs encased in jeans, a pink hoodie, blue sunglasses and a ‘Dolly For President’ cap, Wells has a cartoonish hint tempered by southern courtesy. There’s a little swagger in his voice. A ripple of weirdness under the polite manners and eye contact.
His Instagram profile reads: “Love Jesus. Love Animals. Love Ocean”, with links to his band and other projects. “When you get on stage you’re sort of a different persona,” he says. “It’s the same person, but with that energy, you know? And I love that. People want to see a great show. I couldn’t be still if I was paid to be still. I just can’t. That’s the way I feel music, you know what I mean? If I don’t come off stage, completely covered in sweat, then I’m like, I didn’t do my job.”
As children, Wells and his sister acted in local theatre productions. Through their parents he heard Elvis Presley, which quickly became an intense love. His first ‘gigs’ were as an Elvis impersonator at nursing homes and local talent shows. Years later he and his wife did their first wedding dance to Can’t Help Falling In Love from the Elvis film Blue Hawaii.
“I’ve been to Graceland several times,” he drawls with a sideways grin. “My wife and I are big fans, so our house is highly modelled after Graceland.”
Not unlike The King, faith is a quietly key part of Wells’s life. Raised in a baptist household, he famously baptised Robertson in 2013. Today he’s quick to state that he has no time for the judgemental, dogmatic aspects of organised religion. “I don’t get down with people like that because that puts a bad stigma on the actual relationship that you should have, you know, that I have with Jesus. People think you have to walk this straight and narrow line.”
He stops. There’s a hint of a frown. “I hate the fact that people have that idea, because it doesn’t have to be that way.”
At home in Glasgow, Kentucky, Wells runs four-to-five miles five days a week. He goes to the gym at least as often. For holidays he and his wife go surfing in Panama City Beach, Florida. During lockdown they started an outdoor clothing line, Sunny & Stoked, which they still run – between looking after their three beagles. It keeps the guitarist busy and that suits him fine.
“A day to decompress at home after a tour is nice,” he says. “But after that I’m ready to make some plans. I just can’t sit around.”
At the start of 2020, Steve Jewell Jr weighed 320 pounds. Back then he was playing guitar with blues rockers Otis, living out of a van, with little money, and a bad diet as a result. Still only in his twenties, he found himself vastly overweight and feeling “like crap”. He’d drive through Glasgow and watch local friend Ben Wells jog past, knowing he wouldn’t be able to do the same.
The onset of the pandemic changed everything. Stuck at home, Jewell set about changing his life for good. He lost 140 pounds. In 2021 he left Otis to become Black Stone Cherry’s new bass player. America’s Men’s Health magazine featured him in their 2023 ‘Ultimate Guy’ list. Later today, when the band headline Steelhouse, he’ll be as much of an athletic performer as Wells. It’s an extraordinary transformation.
“It became a new sanctuary for me,” he says, grinning, looking trim and hippie-ish under mala beads, jeans and a baggy overcoat, “going to the gym, meditation, yoga and stuff of that nature. And it was a complete shock to be honoured in Men’s Health. Sometimes there’s not a lot of advocacy for men’s health. It can be hard for men to talk about things because of certain stigmas.”
A sweet guy who smiles easily, Jewell’s manner masks a steely, determined streak. For the past few years he’s taught drums, guitar and bass alongside band work. From the age of 16 he was playing in one of his dad’s two bands when his old man found himself double-booked.
“I was making money to buy gas and guitar strings,” he recalls. “I was also doing some work at my high school, in our greenhouse; my agriculture teacher would pay me and another guy to water the plants and stuff. I was always hustling.”
A few years younger (Jewell is 32, the rest of Black Stone Cherry are in their late 30s) and raised nearby in Horse Cave, Kentucky, Jewell is cut from the same smalltown cloth as his bandmates. He grew up out in the country with not a lot to do besides play music. At family get-togethers his relatives sang old gospel and bluegrass songs with acoustic guitars. His dad was his first guitar hero. His early gigs were in spots like school halls, the local church, shopping malls and parking lots.
It’s easy to see how he fit in as a replacement for founding bassist Jon Lawhon. The four of them enjoy hanging out over snacks and playlists on the tour bus (“Billy Strings, Gojira, Lamb Of God, Brooks & Dunn…”) almost as much as playing shows. You sense that it’ll work out.
“I’ve known the guys my whole life,” says Jewell. “We eat at the same restaurants, shop at the same places. One of my first rock concerts was watching Black Stone Cherry with The Kentucky Headhunters when I was a kid in high school. We’re buddies and brothers first and a band second.”