Black Stone Cherry signed a record deal with Roadrunner in 2005, released their self-titled debut the following year, and have rarely spent time off the road since. For singer Chris Robertson, this is what Black Stone Cherry is: a live band. "We're one of those few bands that are going today that are still true to what rock and roll used to be," Chris told me during a 2013 interview for Glide magazine. "It's not about a bunch of make-up or computer-simulated music. It's guitars and bass and drums and four dudes on stage."
Chris officially formed Black Stone Cherry with his childhood friend, drummer John Fred Young, guitarist Ben Wells and bass player Jon Lawhon following a party at their practice house the night before his 16th birthday. Although Chris and John Fred had been messing around with music since they were kids, it went from fun jamming on psychedelic blues to something more serious real quick. "That was in early June of 2001 and the next day, which was my birthday, we started Black Stone Cherry and it's been the same four dudes ever since," said Chris.
Since forming, Black Stone Cherry have released five albums, their latest being 2016's Kentucky, which they produced themselves. Numerous BSC singles have landed on the charts worldwide, such as "White Trash Millionaire," "Me And Mary Jane" and "Lonely Train." Their videos have received tons of YouTube airplay, not only for the music but for their humorous interpretations. "Cheaper To Drink Alone" is their latest video. Directed by Blake Judd, it features guest appearances by friends Lzzy Hale and Joe Hottinger from Halestorm. The storyline: the guys are dressed in drag trying to get dates... with themselves. Chris told us how that came together and engaged in an in-depth discussion on songwriting, complete with the stories behind many Black Stone Cherry favorites.
Chris Robertson: We have a lot of the music. We don't have any of the lyrics really written though. We've always been a music first, lyrics second kind of band. We do have some rare occasions where it goes the other way but we actually write lyrics and music together. I'm the guy singing them, but a lot of times we'll have music first and that will kind of put off a certain feeling or a vibe for a lyric and then the song transpires from there.
It's a really unique situation with us because all of us write together, but there are instances where I come in with a song and then we all just kind of play it together. We all actually sit down and write every aspect of it together.
Songfacts: Do you prefer to do that when you're at home or on the road?
Robertson: We do a lot of writing on the road, actually. We've got ProTools and stuff out here on the road with us and we tend to write a lot out here just because you'll have an idea at soundcheck and then we'll record it and go from there. I like writing on the road. It's inspiring to be out here.
Songfacts: When did you start writing songs?
Robertson: Pretty much when we started this band. We started writing our own songs from day one. We loved playing other people's songs, but that's not what we wanted to do for our lives. We wanted to write our own songs like all the bands we looked up to did. We still do some covers, but we started writing when we were 16, when we first started the band. It's been wide open ever since.
His grandfather built guitars and mandolins, and Chris's house now stands where his grandfather's old shop once stood. "It killed me to tear it down. Like, I cried when I tore it down but it's what he wanted. He told me to tear it down and build my house right here so I did exactly what he said and I'll never leave. These 12 acres are like my little piece of heaven. It's where I will always be."
Robertson: That was actually my idea. We were trying to figure out how to make this video just hilarious and somebody brought up speed dating and I was like, "That's cool. What if we were speed dating ourselves?" The phone call got really quiet and I was like, "Okay, maybe I didn't address that right. What if we were speed dating ourselves dressed as women?" And they all kind of erupted into laughter and it was like, yeah, that's the video.
But that song started with a guitar riff. We wrote that with a buddy of ours, Brandon Kinney, in Nashville. We were actually writing that song to try to get it pitched to a country artist, but at the end of the day when we got done and we went home and made a demo of it, we were like, this song is kind of awesome, let's keep it for ourselves.
Songfacts: Is making videos fun for you?
But the videos for "In Our Dreams" and "The Rambler" and "Cheaper To Drink Alone," they're easy videos to do and they were a lot of fun. This record has been the most fun as far as recording and then doing videos and everything of that nature.
Songfacts: What about the song "Feelin' Fuzzy" off of Kentucky?
Robertson: That song came from a guitar riff. We had the stuff set up on the bus and I actually had a dobro in the back lounge and I started playing the beginning guitar part. And within about 10 or 15 minutes we had all the music kind of lined out for the song.
It was funny, we were like, "That riff sounds so good, it's fuzzy." Ben had the title "Feelin' Fuzzy" and we just wrote it from there. It's not too obvious, but it is kind of obvious what it's about. Lyrically, that song is very reminiscent of Alice In Wonderland, that whole story. The lyric says:
Took a trip and might've slipped and fell into a hole
Might be magic, might be tragic the way this all unfolds
It was all kind of Alice In Wonderland-inspired. I love that movie and then my wife's favorite movie is Wizard Of Oz, so I've got to figure out how to write a Wizard Of Oz song at some point [Laughs].
Songfacts: You guys produced Kentucky yourselves. Do you think that because John Fred's dad [Richard Young of the Kentucky Headhunters, who produced the album] let you be yourselves in the studio on your first record that it helped you stay true to who you are as a band and be able to eventually produce yourselves on this last record?
Robertson: I do, and I think the fact that we've worked with some big-name producers after that and learned what to do and what not to do all at the same time, all of that was a huge contributing factor to when we did get in the studio this last time to be able to really just do whatever we wanted, and to know that we had no one looking over our shoulders saying, "You can't do this, you can't do that." We just reverted back to that mentality of when we were younger and just playing what we felt was the best.
Robertson: The only mistake you can make as a songwriter, in my opinion, is not writing a song. You're going to learn something from every song you write and every song you write is going to mean something to somebody, whether it's a song like "Sometimes" off our Magic Mountain album or it's a song like "Cheaper To Drink Alone," the two opposite ends of the spectrum - one very serious song and one just a party, good-time song - you learn from both of those and you take things away from them.
We love all kinds of music. We've written songs that could have been for Marvin Gaye, but at the same time we've written songs that could have been on a Black Sabbath record. Sometimes those songs never see the light of day, but you learn something every song you write. So being afraid to step out on a limb is the big thing.
Songfacts: Do you remember the first song that you ever heard where the lyrics meant more to you than the actual music?
Robertson: "Tuesday's Gone," hands down. I don't know what it was but even when I was a kid that song just evoked a feeling in me that I could never describe. Still to this day that song makes me cry. Whenever we play with Skynyrd and they do that, that song puts tears in my eyes every time I hear it.
Songfacts: Have you ever played it in concert?
Robertson: We actually did it the last time we played The Varsity in Baton Rouge. We played like a two-minute version of it.
Songfacts: Speaking of Louisiana, you filmed "Lonely Train" in New Orleans. Why that city?
Fast forward to 2006 when we put the first record out. Hurricane Katrina had just hit a year earlier, in 2005, and New Orleans was a place that was still in ruins, but there was such a strength and determination to come out of that city that when the record label was like, "You guys are on the road, where do you think we should shoot it?," We were like, "Let's go to New Orleans. Let's go down there. With this city showing all this determination right now and everything, let's capture some of that spirit in this video." And to this day, it is one of my absolute favorite videos we've ever done.
Songfacts: Why did you film it in black and white?
Robertson: That was something that the record editor decided in post to do. But I love the video being in black and white. It adds a whole new perspective and a graininess and a rawness to it that I don't think it would have had had it been in color.
Robertson: That song, again, started with a guitar riff and then we were like, What if the vocal just kind of followed the guitar? It was one of the first things that anybody sang. I don't remember who exactly sang it first at the Practice House but, in the writing process, it was [singing] "Me and Mary Jane, da da da da da da." And then we filled in the blanks.
That song is pretty self-explanatory what it's about, and anytime you get to reference Lynyrd Skynyrd in a song, it's pretty kick ass. But that song is 100 percent what you think it's about.
Songfacts: What about "Peace Is Free"?
Robertson: That song was actually started by Ben and John Fred in a hotel room in London. We were over there doing some press on the back end of a tour. Ben had his guitar in his room and they found a spot on the wall that he could stick the headstock of the guitar in to make the guitar a little louder and they wrote a good part of that song right there. Then we all got together and finished it up.
It's just one of those songs, much like "Tuesday's Gone," that evokes an emotion in people in a unifying way. One of the most beautiful things to me is when we do that song, especially over in the UK, I get the crowds to grab each other's hands to put their hands in the air, and the whole room is arm-in-arm like a chain singing that song.
It's one of those extremely powerful songs that just kind of poured out with not a lot of thought, just a feeling of the state of the world. We write songs about what we know and that's where we leave it. We're not writing songs about partying all night at the Roxy because we don't understand that kind of lifestyle, but we understand that we all need each other and the simplicity of how beautiful life can be when you realize that your own personal inner peace is something that shouldn't cost you anything.
Songfacts: "Such A Shame" has some pretty dramatic lyrics.
Robertson: We had some music that we had done through a really shitty computer program, but the music was really cool and it ended up being "Such A Shame." Then when we were in Germany, we played a show on the Reeperbahn, which is notorious for partying and prostitutes and things of that nature.
You know, we've traveled the world a bunch, but just to see the look on some of these girls' faces when they are out there selling themselves, you just start thinking, What in the hell went wrong for some of these girls?. Some get into that because it's the oldest profession on the planet, and men as well get into the profession, but where we're from it's like, What went wrong to cause this to happen? Because you see the sadness on some of these women. You see it all over their face that this is not what they want to be doing. We got to thinking about that and that is 100 percent where that song came from. It was being out there on the road and experiencing something from the window of the bus, just watching everything go down on the street and seeing how different people's reactions were.
First Concert He Paid To See: Aerosmith in 2001
First Guitar: Epiphone Telecaster. "My dad took his entire paycheck and bought it for me for my 13th birthday. $220 bucks at Backstage Music."
First Ambition: "I wanted to play football but I never got big enough for it."
Early Jobs: "I did masonry work, house foundations. That was a lot of fun – NOT! [Laughs]. But it paid good."
Biggest Fish Caught: "I caught a 37 pound blue catfish," remembered Chris. "I caught it at a pay lake but I caught it! [Laughs]. I caught it on an eight-pound cast line. It took so much line out at one point that I had time to pull a cigarette out of my pocket and light it before I had to reel again. True story."
Robertson: Ronnie Van Zant, that one is easy. To me, Ronnie wrote songs for the everyday guy on the street, and is the guy I am in everyday life. He wrote songs that resonated with people like no other. It's hard after that 'cause that's the top of my list.
I want to say The Beatles as a whole. I know that's unfair but they all wrote amazing songs. I mean, George Harrison wrote some of the greatest Beatles songs ever.
And the last one I want to go with would be John Fred's dad, Richard, because he taught us so much about songwriting and got us listening to the right kind of music, which made us the songwriters we are today. Richard's written some of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. They have a new record out called On Safari and it's an awesome record.
Songfacts: Does music ever stop for you? Do you ever take a break from it?
Robertson: Even when we're home, we're still a band. It's not like we come off the road and we're not a band anymore. But it's kind of nice, when you come home, to just take it back to basics and just be fans of music again and get re-inspired. You know, listening to some music that we grew up on and kind of reconnecting with what we do. It's good to do that because we're constantly touring and we get in that same daily grind. So we just set up the record player with speakers and sit back with a beer and just listen to some music. It's kind of like reliving the glory days of being kids wanting to play music all the time.
July 3, 2017. Get more at blackstonecherry.com.
Live photos by Leslie Michele Derrough; publicity portrait by Rob Fenn; Kentucky Headhunters photo by Joe McNally.
More Songwriter Interviews