INTERVIEW: John Fred Young of Black Stone Cherry

Family always has run deep in Black Stone Cherry. For drummer John Fred Young, music is in his blood. His father and uncle are founding members of the country/Southern rock band The Kentucky Headhunters, and the foundation of Black Stone Cherry was laid in the Headhunters’ famed practice house—an abandoned building on the Young family’s Kentucky farmland—when its members were still teenagers. The band has grown steadily since releasing its debut album in 2006 and is about to release what might be a defining record, its sixth, appropriately titled “Family Tree” (April 20, Mascot Records). The gregarious John Fred recently spoke to Live Metal’s Greg Maki about the new album, the band’s diverse influences, the importance of family and more.

LIVE METAL: Well, the reason we’re talking is the new album, “Family Tree,” coming out April 20. It’s album number six for Black Stone Cherry. You’re veterans now. Does it feel like that to you?

John Fred Young

JOHN FRED YOUNG: I think that we definitely are thankful that we’re able to be able to put out albums and have fans across the world. The first time we ever played up your way, in Baltimore, it was a club called Sonar. I was just asking you was that still around, and you’re like, “No, it’s not.” That just kinda tells you you’ve been around a while (laughs), when older clubs start shutting down and your band’s still running.

I think it’s an honor to get to play and put out records, especially the situation we have, with all four of us growing up together here in Kentucky, just going through high school with each other. Chris (Robertson) and I, the singer, we’ve been together since kindergarten. We have a very, very tight family, and I don’t know any other rock band that has had a relationship from kindergarten, a brotherhood—except maybe Chris and Rich Robinson, man, but I think they can’t even tour together anymore (laughs).

I think we’re very blessed. I think with “Family Tree,” it’s gonna be really neat, man. I think people are gonna dig the sound of the record. We recorded it back home in Kentucky again and worked with our buddy, David Barrick, who engineered the debut album back in ‘06, and then, also, when we came back to do “Kentucky,” he did that record with us. But this one’s very special. “Family Tree” is the first album we actually fully produced of all of our albums. All four us, we write the songs, we write the music—so it’s a great collaboration between all of us. And just to be able to record at home and have that comfortable environment and have your friends over.

Some of the previous records we did, drums would take like two days, three days max. I think we spent like a week on drums, just ‘cause we were hanging out and getting sounds. Same with guitars—it was very relaxed. We made the album, actually, in 28 days. That’s pretty average for us. It takes us about a month to make a record.

It was just a great experience, man. I think it’s got a lot of songs on it that people are gonna go, oh man, that’s definitely Black Stone Cherry, it’s reminiscent of this album or whatnot. But then there’s stuff on there where people are gonna go, wow, man, they really dived into the roots well and pulled out some stuff like the Allmans and earlier British rock and earlier Southern rock.

And I think one thing, too, that really helped this record, almost more than anything, was we did an EP back last year.

Yeah, I was gonna ask if that had an influence.

Yeah. “Black to Blues.” That was an incredible experience to make. Obviously, if nobody’s heard it, it’s an EP that we took some great songs by great blues artists, covered ‘em and made ‘em our own versions. It was like we just wanted to do it to have a good time. We didn’t say we’re gonna do that to put this thing out and hopefully it’ll sell. We were just like, we were bored at home, it was the end cycle of “Kentucky.” We just went in, man, and six days later, we came out with this EP, and man, it went to number one of the Billboard blues chart. It hung around the top three or four for about six weeks. It’s crazy.

Were you surprised by that?

Oh, we were blown away by it, because we have been influenced by so much great blues music and American roots music. I think one of the cool things about the reception from the “Black to Blues” EP was the fact that we’ve had blues in our music for a long time, and people have always said, “Man, you can hear the blues come out when we see you play and hear your records.” But we never put out a full, just blues record or EP.

The blues audience is a very, very particular audience. You’ve got to really be genuine in your delivery, I think, on songs and original blues stuff. I think when we released the EP, our great friend, Lou Brutus, that heads up the Bluesville on Sirius, he had added it, and we came down to get on the radio show with him, and he said, “We’ve been playing the EP, and people are saying this is the most unique record that we’ve heard in years of people doing covers of great, classic artists.” It was very, very cool because especially with such a small, niche genre of music like the blues, you have your people that are diehards … It was all positive, people saying this is unreal stuff. So for us to get such a high praise and compliment from the blues society of people, the blues community—that was really neat, man. I think it kinda gave us such a huge pat on the back to go in the studio and record “Family Tree.”

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We went in, and I tell you what, we didn’t even practice, man. We just demoed songs on the back of the bus, went straight in the studio, and it gave it a live energy that in records past, you’re sitting there rehearsing songs and rehearsing, and you build this muscle memory where when you go to record ‘em, you don’t have any spontaneity or any type of excitement. And dude, there’s mistakes on this record; especially in the drums (laughs), there’s all kinds of stuff. But it makes it fun, because when I do something that’s off the cuff in a song and maybe not how the demo went—I never play the same thing twice; I just can’t do it, I don’t know why—but it makes the guitars—Chris and Ben (Wells) and (bassist) Jon (Lawhon), even, when they hear those drum rolls, they’re like, “Ah man, let’s switch that riff up.” So sometimes what I play—not to sound like I’m the head honcho or anything like that—but sometimes if you don’t rehearse, you get really magic moments. The same thing with the guitars, too, because they can rehearse their stuff to death, and you’re just kinda going through the motions.

It’s nice to be able to do records the way that we took the approach on “Family Tree.” Obviously, man, we’re highly influenced by so many different types of genres, from classic blues rock to metal to blues to all the Southern rock, even old-school country. It melds, and I think our musicianship grows and continues to grow as we tour around the world and discover even newer records and stuff that we haven’t heard before.

The funny thing is we never said we need to be the next Lynyrd Skynyrd, or we need to be the next Led Zeppelin or Bad Company. We listened to all those influences and made Black Stone Cherry. And I think that’s what’s definitely kept us going over the years in such a slow burn. We’ve been able to make fans that come out and say, “You can definitely hear all these older artists, but it doesn’t sound like you’re copying ‘em.” So any young band out there, I think you’ve definitely gotta listen to every single thing you can, no matter what time period, but create your own style of music. I think that’s very, very important. If I was asked for up-and-coming musicians, what some good advice would be, that would be it.

On all your albums going forward through your career and mostly on this new one, the Southern part of the sound has come out more and more. Is that you and the band becoming more comfortable with who you are and embracing your roots more and more each time?

Yeah, I think so, because if you take Skynyrd, for example, when they put the band together, they did not like the term “Southern rock,” because they wanted to be The Who. They wanted to be Cream. I think most Southern rocks bands that have come up—you’re looking at Blackfoot, The Outlaws, Marshall Tucker, Skynyrd. I always considered the Allman Brothers, obviously they’re a Southern band from the South, but they were a jam band. All those bands influenced us majorly, man. Even weird stuff from back in the day, like not many people know but a great band from the South, Wet Willie, who was just incredible, had a great song called “Keep on Smilin’.” Jimmy Hall sang and played harp for those guys. We’ve become great friends through my dad’s band, the Headhunters.

Bands from the South, it wasn’t like anybody was trying back in the ‘70s to create Southern rock. It was just kinda where you were from, and I think the times created those style bands.

The thing is, too, even with Kentucky Headhunters, my dad and uncle, the drummer and the guitar player of that band, they let us basically take over their practice house on my grandparents’ farm. That’s where they grew up playing, and it was kind of like Skynyrd’s Hell House. If you ask people what are the top 10 legendary practice rooms or cabin, rock sheds that bands had, honestly, Skynyrd’s Hell House would’ve been on there, and I think the Headhunters’ practice house would’ve been a legendary spot, too.

We were fortunate to grow up and get to play there, man. The place didn’t have any plumbing. It’s got electricity, but it didn’t have insulation, so back in the ‘70s, my dad and uncle and Greg and their cousin Anthony would put up these posters all over the place and these records to keep the heat in—’cause you could pee, standing up, through the wall; you could see the outside.

Growing up, being high-schoolers, we would go in there and look at all these epic artists and these posters, man—everything from Aretha to Sam Cooke to Skynyrd and Zeppelin and Cream, and of course, Mountain, which was a huge influence to us. It carved out who we were, man.

We were totally influenced by newer music, as well, Growing up, 16, 17 years old, we were listening to heavy stuff, as well, and you couldn’t escape what was on MTV at that time either. So we had influences from everywhere.

This album is full of great songs, but are there a few that stand out to you as your favorites?

Yeah. It’s hard, because you make an album and you don’t wanna pick favorites ‘cause they’re kinda like your children. But at the same time, you do have favorites. “Burnin’,” “Bad Habit”—those songs are just, for me, two of my favorites. We’re playing those out live, and people are digging it, man. We’ve got a video for “Bad Habit,” so that was fun to shoot. We shot that around our hometown, as well, called Cave City; it’s about 20 miles down the road.

When we grew up, we played at this old place called The Factory. It was a country western dance bar. A bar—you couldn’t even drink alcohol there. This was back in like 2001, man. We asked them if we could take it over to have a rock ‘n’ roll night, and they let us. The woman that owned the place, she was like, “I don’t know. This is gonna be dangerous.” We’d have like 10 or 15 kids over there—smallest crowds in the world.

But it was funny ‘cause we shot the video for “Bad Habit” over there. It was cool to go back over there and play. We hadn’t played there in like 16 years. So that was neat. It’s gonna be a funny video. Everybody’s gonna love it.

Also, one of my favorite songs off the record is a song called “James Brown.” It’s such a fun song, and I think when we play it live, it’s gonna really slam, man. And “Dancin’ in the Rain,” which had an incredible, incredible, historic player guest star on that, and it was Warren Haynes from Gov’t Mule. He played guitar and sang on the track, and dude, he just nailed it. He is just such a boss. We’ve been fans of Gov’t Mule for so many years. Just had a chance to meet him back in 2004. When we were first trying to get a record deal, we met him in New York with my dad. It’s awesome, man.

BSC - Full Band - (c) Harry Reese2

Another guest you have on the album is Chris’ (5-year-old) son singing some backing vocals. How did that happen?

Oh dude, it was such a cool thing. Chris’ son came over to the studio, and he was with his mom, and they stopped in to see Chris. And sure enough, the song, when we were doing demos, he just loved the song, “You Got the Blues.” He just got up on a stool, man, and Chris and Jon stuck a mic in front of his face, and he was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And he sang the perfect high octave of what Chris was singing. (laughs)

I think our kids—I’ve got two little girls, and Jon’s got girls—it’s just like they’re all interested in music and stuff. That’s one of the big plus things when you record around home: You’ve got the chance for your kids to come and see what you’re doing and break really expensive instruments and hang out. (laughs) But it’s fun. It is. It reminds me—and I know Chris, too, ‘cause Chris’ dad played guitar and has played for years and years—so for us, it’s cool to see your kids interested in your music when that’s what you were doing when you were a kid following your dad around.

That just fits right in with the album title, “Family Tree.” It’s always seemed like in the South, family is even more important than in other parts of the country, and I can tell from what you’ve been saying it’s a big part of everything you do.

I think worldwide. We’re very, very blessed to travel and see different cultures, and I think family’s worldwide. I think in the South, we have a little bit of a slow pace, and I think you want to spend time with family. At the end of the day, that’s what you are, who made you, and that’s what you can count on. Our band is an extremely tight family, and that’s what’s kept us together throughout the years. “Family Tree,” the song on the album, is an ode to where you’re from. No matter where you go, you’re always gonna come back there. I tell everybody it’s just salmon swimming upstream to die. (laughs)

John Fred - 61It is pretty amazing that this band has had the same lineup since 2001, since you started.

It’s amazing, man.

You mentioned Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule. You’re about to go out on tour them. It’s kind of a different tour for you guys.

It is going to be nuts, man. We have looked up to those guys for so long. We start mid-April with those guys. We’re going up, actually close to your way, man, going up the Eastern seaboard, then kinda back down—we end up in Alabama. Man, it’s gonna be fun. I can’t wait to see those cats play live, ‘cause they’re such killer, stellar musicians. It’s an honor. I hope everybody gets to come out and see those shows.

Then you’ve got a bunch of dates in Europe in the summer and the fall. You guys, from the beginning, really took off over in Europe. What’s that experience been like going over and playing there?

Well, we’re huge in Japan. (laughs) Everybody always says that: “I’m big in Japan.” (laughs) Yeah, man, it’s a crazy thing that happened. I think every day, you’re kind of still in shock that we do what we do—anywhere. Going out and playing for 10 people, if they wanna hear you play, is great. Also, being able to be four young guys from Edmonton, Kentucky, that’s got a population of 3,000 people, to go out and sell out Wembley Arena, it’s nuts.

There was six of us or seven of us that went over in 2007, the early spring. We were opening for an American band called Hinder. They took us out over there while they were having big success back here. We kept continuing to go over. We played bars, and we played ABC clubs. That summer, 2007, we got a chance to open for Aerosmith at Hyde Park. It was a lot of other bands, too. It kind of really kicked the fireworks off there. And we got to come back that year and do our first headline tour. And we’ve been staying over there and doing festivals—Download we’ve done in the past, arena tours with Whitesnake and Def Leppard, and we opened for Nickelback in the arenas over there.

Honestly, we had to just carve our own path out, and it’s wonderful. We’re going back this summer to direct support Guns N’ Roses at Download, which is just gonna be crazy. That’s not gonna suck. (laughs)

But it’s fun, man. I think that the more we can tour all across the world is what we wanna do. We got to tour Australia for the first time two years ago; we went back last year. We went to South America last year, and that was great, played the Maximus festivals down there. It’s crazy, man, getting to get out there and play different places and see the cultures that are brought together by music. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. Music is such a worldwide shared love, and you might not speak the same language, but you know the lyrics to all the songs. That’s a cool thing.

BSC - Full Band - (c) Harry Reese6So this might be a hard one for you. Everyone always says the newest album is their favorite, so of the first five Black Stone Cherry albums, which one is your personal favorite?

Yeah, that is a hard question. I did an interview the other day, and I was kinda asked a similar question. For me, every single album is different, and it’s because we’re going through—it’s just like a marriage. Over the years, your personality and your emotions change, ‘cause we’re all human, right? So whatever state of emotional and musician growth we’re in, that’s what’s gonna transcend to the album writing. And too, I think every album has been such a step for us, because I don’t think we’ve ever really made the same album twice. I really don’t. I think that’s great. You take classic bands like AC/DC. Nobody can do AC/DC like AC/DC. They make the same album, the same style every single time, but we expect that from ‘em, ‘cause that’s AC/DC. But you look at bands like Zeppelin—never made the same album twice. Never.

I think, for us, the reason our albums sound different is ‘cause we, all four, are writers. So you’re getting different personalities coming through and blending, and sometimes we have to fight each other to (so we don’t) miss out on something (laughs). But it’s really cool by the end of the project.

I think “Family Tree” is going to be very special to people because, first of all, as I said, it’s the first time that we’ve ever fully produced an album by ourselves. We’ve obviously had a big hand in producing ‘em, but this was like 100 percent on our shoulders. And Chris mixed the record and did a fabulous job. Jon did all the artwork. It’s all in house with us. I think people are really gonna enjoy it, ‘cause they know, “Hey man, this is totally them.”

I don’t want to use up a ton of your time, so I think that might be all the questions I have for now. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Well, just the album comes out April 20. We’ve got a video for “Bad Habit.” We’re obviously on Instagram, all the socials—Facebook and the Twitter. We’re gonna be touring so much this summer. If we’re in your area, come out and check it out.

LINKS:
www.blackstonecherry.com
www.facebook.com/blackstonecherry
www.twitter.com/blkstonecherry
www.instagram.com/blackstonecherryofficial
Black Stone Cherry Youtube channel

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