Interview: Black Stone Cherry's Chris Robertson says 'We've hit our stride' on 'Family Tree'
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Roots are extremely important to Kentucky’s Black Stone Cherry. The band has familial ties to the legendary Kentucky Headhunters, and when they formed the band in 2001, they even moved their gear into the band’s former practice house. Frontman Chris Robertson and drummer John Fred Young began their musical journey together in their teen years. Bassist Jon Lawhorn and guitarist Ben Wells would soon join the family.

Black Stone Cherry’s early sound blended their Southern roots with modern hard rock. They garnered a large following in North America, but in Europe they found a surprising amount of devoted followers. So much so that the band have been heavy hitters at the annual Download Festival, where they will play direct support this year with Guns ‘N’ Roses.  

Over the course of the band’s first five studio albums, they have continued to evolve their sound, initially moving to a more mainstream style, but eventually circling back to their comfort zone. In 2016, they reclaimed the reins of their own destiny to self-produce the album, Kentucky. The record found Black Stone Cherry returning to its Southern roots, going back to Barrack Recording Studios in Glasgow, Ken. and also taking over their own production duties. It was an empowering record for the band, and that new sense of freedom carried over in to their latest effort, Family Tree.

Family Tree once again finds the band in the comfort of their home studio and self-producing, but unlike the dark and broody, Kentucky, the new album is an upbeat celebration of the band’s Southern heritage and influences. During a recent interview with Chris Robertson, he talks with AXS about the growth and change between the two records.

“The last album, Kentucky was just about the freedom to do whatever we wanted, but even then sometimes we would still get stuck in doing things the same way for so long, that a lot of the songs were still very similar to what we had done before. To really understand this new record, you have to go back to the Black to Blues EP that we did.”

In 2017, Black Stone Cherry recorded a six-track EP of old blues covers by Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Albert King and Freddie King. The EP, Black to Blues was a spur of the moment thing, with the guys dropping into the studio a few days a month. “The greatest thing about recording the EP is it rejuvenated us and re-lit the fire for a more simplistic approach to the production side,” shares Robertson. “There was not much production on it at all. It was all about the song and the performance of each guy, and not about stacking parts.”

The guys took that revitalized commitment to simpler production into the recording of Family Tree. “We had about 30 songs ideas before we recorded the EP, and afterward we scratched those and started writing all new material and took off on a whole new path, which was amazing.”

The band entered the studio with a sense of joy, swagger, and freedom. This can be heard and felt in the music of Family Tree, on such groove and funk anthems as “Bad Habit,” “New Kinda Feelin’,” “James Brown,” and “Southern Fried Family Night.” Robertson and company embraced moment. “This is the first album where we let all of our influences shine through and didn’t try to mask them. This is the stuff we grew up on. This is the stuff we’ve lived our entire lives. We just let that ring through, and it’s a very musical album.”

Family Tree is a much lighter record in terms of mood and feel than its predecessor. Robertson offers that this is because every album captures a snapshot in time for the band. “With Kentucky, we had just gone through a record label change. There were still a lot of unanswered questions about certain things. There was a lot of frustration with the previous label, and I think some of that came through in the music. You could tell there were some beasts needing to be freed,” laughs Chris. “We’re in a totally different mindset now, and we carry ourselves differently.”

The album’s title, Family Tree was chosen last and is pulled from the record’s closing song of the same name. A track that Chris admits is close to the band’s heart. “Even before we had the album title we knew that song was special. It had its own unique movement and pace. It wasn’t really a concept to call the album Family Tree, it just kind of happened, and made itself the obvious choice.”

Fitting into the concept of Family Tree is the emotive ballad, “My Last Breath.” “That song is very near and dear to my heart,” offers the vocalist. “We were playing in Spokane, Washington at a place called The Knitting Factory, and I sat down after the show and just started playing and I immediately started singing what is now the chorus. It just kind of happened. That whole song is me talking to my son. It’s all the things I’d want to say to him in my final moments about how much he and his mother mean to me. It’s one of my favorite songs we’ve ever written or recorded. There’s just something beautiful about that song.”

The band’s self-determination and expressive freedom are all on display with Family Tree, which may be the first time that Black Stone Cherry has truly captured its signature sound. “This entire record, from start to finish, was conceived, brought to life, and finalized by the band,” Robertson notes with pride. “From the songwriting, to the recording, to the artwork, and the mixing--It was all done by the band. We were all talking, and it’s like we finally hit our stride. After 17 years into being a band and 11 years of putting out records and touring the world, we’ve accepted who we are.”

Black Stone Cherry will release Family Tree on April 20 through Mascot Label Group. Check out their video for “Bad Habit” above and find them on tour throughout 2018.