You won’t hear them on the radio, read a fawning colour supplement profile devoted to them or find them selected by any self-styled tastemaker as the coolest band to see this week. But Black Stone Cherry are one of a diverse handful of heavy rock acts – alongside Airbourne and Devin Townsend – who’ve managed to reach a huge audience in this country. Their fifth album, Kentucky, followed its predecessor, Magic Mountain, into the UK top five. Since making their Bristol debut at the Fleece back in 2007, they’ve gone via the O2 Academy to become arena headliners. Indeed, they’re now so big that their sold-out Colston Hall show on December 2 counts as an intimate club date. They’re also doing a fan Q&A at the PMT Music store from 12.30-2pm on the same day. Admission is free, but you must reserve a place here.
Black Stone Cherry are the second band to hail from the tiny town of Edmonton, Kentucky. The first was Grammy-winning ’90s country rockers The Kentucky Headhunters, founded by brothers Richard and Fred Young. Black Stone Cherry’s drummer John Fred Young is Richard Young’s son. On the eve of – ulp! – the US Presidential election, genial bassist Jon Lawhon took time to answer B24/7’s impertinent questions about his band’s European success, touring with rock legends, American politics and smalltown resentment.
Does it surprise you how big Black Stone Cherry have become in Europe while you remain comparative tiddlers back home?
It surprises me every damn day. It really does. We’re still the red-headed step-child, for lack of a better word, here in America. We fight and struggle and try to get radio to pay attention. But these days in this country it’s all about whose palms you’re greasing, what kind of ads have been purchased, what kind of money has been spent, before programme directors will give you any support. It just so happens we’re a bunch of redneck dudes with no money. All we know how to do is play rock’n’roll. Over there it’s not about how much money you’ve got; it’s about how much rock’n’roll you can actually play. I think a lot of it is due to the fact that radio isn’t as important to the longevity of your career there as it is here. Without radio here, there’s literally no point. You will get nowhere. Radio programmes the American mind about what is cool and what isn’t. Over there, being the underground band that’s not played on the radio sometimes works out in your favour. The fans are genuine and they’re hungry.
And of course having won fans that way, they’re likely to be much more loyal than those who are simply looking out for the next cool thing.
Yes, absolutely. I have to agree a million per cent agree with that. Our audience in the UK are not here today, gone tomorrow fans. They’re diehards. They’re the kind of fans you hear Metallica talk about.
Do you have any memories of your previous gigs in Bristol, or does touring just go by in a blur?
Touring is definitely a blur, particularly over there because it’s always city after city after city. I remember the Academy and the Fleece and Firkin. That’s a cool rock club.
Last time you played the Academy, Chris remarked that there were more people in the audience than the entire population of your home town. That must be really weird for you.
It is. It is very strange. I’m sitting on my front porch right now in our little home town. I’m literally a one minute walk from the school that my oldest daughter is in currently, and a four minute walk from the dollar store – that’s like the go-to grocery store here. The only thing we have an abundance of, for some reason, is gas stations. We have four gas stations in a town of 1500 people.
How are you perceived at home? Are people pleased about your success and is there any smalltown resentment?
There is some of that smalltown resentment, for sure. But honestly, it’s far outweighed by local support. I think the Headhunters paved the way, because there was nobody from here, ever. And then all of a sudden in the early ’90s, the Headhunters came out like a Super Sport Camaro. They made it possible for people to think outside of the box. What I’m sure is difficult for not only you but a lot of people in the UK to understand is what Kentucky and smalltown Middle America is about. It’s very, “Well, my daddy works in this factory and that’s where I’m gonna work and that’s where my kids are gonna work and my grandkids are gonna work.” Everybody follows in the family business, whether that be working at a particular place or owning a farm. If you’re the fifth generation of a farming family and you step out of that mindset . . . well, there’s a ton of people round here, I can tell you right now, if they decided they wanted to pursue a music career their family would almost disown them. I can understand, I get it, because, you know, if it’s something that your family has been building for years, you fall into line and do everything you can to hold up this way of life that has been provided for you. But with my family it’s always been about: “Don’t do what I did. Work smart, not hard. Figure it out.” My dad was a mechanic for years; my mom has owned two different florists.
But the Headhunters definitely carved that path out, making it a little bit more acceptable. Back in high school, I was the only member of the band who had long hair for a long time. And I never caught any crap for it. But then if you look at Richard [Young] back in the ’70s, I remember hearing stories about how some of the football players went after him with scissors. They were gonna cut his hair. Richard is a big boy. He looked like a redneck Robert Plant, he really did. And he was a strong dude. He worked with his dad farming. So when these boys came after him, he picked up a big eight-foot table and used it like a battering ram to beat these guys up against a wall. Nobody really messed with him after that. It was like, “The Young family? You don’t really mess with them about that stuff.” And it just so happens that when you become associated with the Headhunters around here, you become part of the Young family.
Black Stone Cherry has retained the same line-up over 15 years. Your lives must have changed quite a lot in that period, so what’s the secret of getting along?
Yeah, we’re all married now. Three of us have kids. Our lives have changed dramatically. Our way of thinking individually has changed dramatically. I think the key to it is that when those changes happen, and when those conflicts arise, don’t keep you mouth shut about it. Get your opinion out. Let it be weighed by the other members of the band and make sure that everybody is happy with the situation – happy with the music, happy with the touring environment, happy with the way things work within the business. We constantly argue about stuff. I’m not saying there’s trouble in paradise. But we’re practically brothers. We’ve been together for years and years and years. Us and Halestorm are the only two bands that have done something musically on this sort of level and are still the original line-up. I can’t think of anybody else.
On the way up, you supported a lot of major bands. Who did you learn the most from – not necessarily musically?
We learned a lot from Def Leppard and Whitesnake. Nickelback was a really important tour for us. We’ve done tours with Skynyrd countless times – we did Skynyrd and Bad Company and we did Skynyrd and Kid Rock a few years ago. If I had to pick one band of all the bands we’ve toured with that’s been the most helpful, and took us under their wing, I would have to say Skynyrd. Just a short story, real quick. When we did the Skynyrd/Kid Rock tour, we were four or five shows in and Johnny [Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman Johnny Van Zant] – who’s a sweetheart of a human being – asked us where our money man was. And we were like: “Our money man? What are you talking about?” And he said, “Hold on, I’ll be right back.” He took off and a couple of minutes later he popped up out of the shadows and he said, “OK, have you decided who your money man is?” We pointed at Joe, our tour manager. Johnny dropped a roll of money in his hands. And we were like, what the hell is happening right now? Is he paying us off or something? But Johnny was like, “Hey man, I remember what it was like in the early days. And you never know, one day I might need somebody to open up for. I love you guys and I love your music and I want to see you do well. So I want you to take that and stick it in the gas tank on the bus.” It could have been five dollars and the gesture would have been just as resounding. But he gave us a thousand dollars. A thousand dollars to a touring band – that’s a lot of fuel. It was a struggle back then. I didn’t see any money from touring until just a few years ago.
Speaking of Skynyrd and southern rock in general, quite a few southern bands are doing very well in the UK at the moment – notably The Cadillac Three and Blackberry Smoke. Is it wrong of us to lump you all together and speak of a southern rock revival, or do you feel a genuine affinity with those bands?
Yeah, to a degree, for sure. We’re obviously a different breed of southern rock. I love those bands – great players, great songs. They’re incredible live. We’ve been friends with both bands for years and years now. But those bands set out to be what they are. Day one, we said we don’t know what the hell we are. Us becoming a ‘southern rock’ band just kinda happened – and it happened simply because you cannot scrub the southern off of us, no matter what we do. That’s the only reason we are in that category. Because if you listen to our music, it doesn’t sound like southern rock. There are elements that do, the biggest part being Chris’s twang. Some of the guitar playing – there’s some chicken pickin’ that goes on in there at times. There’s just as much early British rock movement influence in our music as there is southern, but the southern comes through so loudly because of where we’re from, how we talk and the stories that we tell.
You’re playing two sets on this tour, including an acoustic one. Are you daunted by that or is it something you’ve done before?
Never done it before. I’ll tell you if it’s daunting after the tour! We’ve done a lot of acoustic stuff, but we’ve never done a really long set. We did a couple of radio shows earlier this year and really enjoyed it. We were bringing ourselves to the front of the stage – not just literally but figuratively as well. We were drawing back the curtains and showing what’s really there – what’s underneath all of it. Because you can hide a lot with an electric guitar.
So when you come to working up these songs in an acoustic format, do you find some work better acoustically and others don’t work at all?
Yes, absolutely. There’s definitely songs that don’t work at all. The beauty of it, though, is finding a way of making them work. My favourite acoustic song is In Our Dreams, because we altered it to make it fit.
Your new album, Kentucky, opens with The Way of the Future, which delivers a timely angry broadside against politicians in general with the lines: “These perfect politicians/They’re smothered in grease/It’s the way of the future/That don’t work for me”. You’re currently coming to the end of this incredible Presidential election. Any feelings on that you’d like to share?
Incredible is the word. We always try our best to stay as far removed as we can from politics, religion and stuff like that because it’s not a good thing to talk about in the press. It could go great or it could go bad – and most times it goes bad. But we’ve written a number of songs that talk about politics. Man, from our standpoint, the simplest way I could put it is we’re just tired of all the liars and all the cheaters – all the people that are out for number one and have ulterior motives behind everything. It’s sad. A hundred years ago, our country stood for something that was moral and was right. It’s just been like election after election after election, president after president, another corrupt politician who thinks he knows what’s best. And almost always what he thinks is best is what’s going to put more money in his bank account.
Read more: Metal & Prog picks: November 2016