Explosive Southern rockers Black Stone Cherry to play Cambridge later this month
One of the leading lights in that wonderful musical sub-genre known as Southern rock, Black Stone Cherry’s music is generally heavier than the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, The Allman Brothers Band and The Marshall Tucker Band – four of its best-known exponents – though no less infectious.
With strong connections to Southern rock royalty (drummer John Fred Young is the son of Richard Young of the legendary Kentucky Headhunters), the Black Stone Cherry members are fiercely proud of their southern roots and even rehearsed in the same place where the Headhunters had honed their craft, albeit under a different name, back in the late 60s.
Black Stone Cherry’s most recent album, The Human Condition, came out last year and the band – whose best-known songs include Hell and High Water, White Trash Millionaire, Blame It on the Boom Boom and Me and Mary Jane – is set to hit Cambridge in the last week of September.
We can consider ourselves very fortunate as the group was recently forced to postpone its November dates in mainland Europe due to ongoing issues with the pandemic.
Speaking to the Cambridge Independent from his home in the state of Kentucky, guitarist Ben Wells was getting ready to leave later that day to go back out on tour elsewhere in his homeland. “It feels so good to be back playing music again,” he says. “Just the fact that we can be out there together and play... It’s one of those things; you never realise how much you love it till you’re not able to do it.
“But we’re just very grateful to be able to be back on the bus and being in front of live audiences again – it’s a great feeling. It has been the longest period that we have ever gone without seeing or playing with each other – it was pretty crazy.”
Ben says he tried to make the best of it during the lockdown period: “My wife and I got to spend some good time together; we hadn’t been able to be together as much as we were since we’ve been married – or even before we were married – so that was nice.
“We got to do some things we’d never done before. We started a clothing company, we have a non-profit charity named after our two beagles, Henry and Clark [The Henry and Clark Foundation – henryandclarkfoundation.org], so I definitely didn’t do nothing. I’m the type of person that always has to be doing something.”
In June, after 20 years with the band, it was announced that bass player Jon Lawhon was to take “an indefinite sabbatical”. Jon was a founding member of Black Stone Cherry in 2001, along with Ben, singer and guitarist Chris Robertson and drummer John Fred Young, whose uncle, Fred Young, is also a drummer – with, you’ve guessed it, The Kentucky Headhunters.
Has it been weird suddenly becoming a trio after so many years as a foursome? “Our bond has been so close since we started,” says Ben. “There was never just one or two of us that were close and then two of us that were not – we’ve always been super tight.
“Even though it took a little bit of adjustment at first, me Chris and John Fred have still spent over 20 years together, and Chris and John Fred have spent more than that – they went to kindergarten together. So there’s some real bones in this relationship and our foundation is very, very deep.
“It took some adjustment at first – and we definitely wish Jon well – but we’ve got Steve Jewell that’s with us now and he’s just an incredible musician and he brings a great spirit to the live show and to the band, and people have seen it.
“He’s been playing with us since December and people have commented, saying, ‘Man, we love the energy Steve’s bringing, it’s really cool’ – so it really feels good to see our fans embracing him in that way.”
Ben says he and the boys finished recording The Human Condition – Black Stone Cherry’s seventh studio album – at the end of March 2020 “right at the onset of the pandemic in the US” – “we were able to get in there and get it done, so that was good, but yeah, totally weird time, for sure.”
Interestingly, some of the songs on the record proved to be quite prophetic as to what was to come. “What’s funny is the song Ringin’ in My Head, especially, talks about new disease and stuff like that,” explains Ben. “The lyrics for that song were written four years ago and we were going to put it on our  album Family Tree, but we chose not to just because the song wasn’t finished yet.
“Then we said, ‘Man, this is a cool song, we should finish it for The Human Condition’, and it’s kind of eerie how some of those lyrics make sense now. It’s a good thing we didn’t release the song four years ago because it wouldn’t have really been as effective, I don’t think.”
Ben believes that there may be more songs still to come – not necessarily from his band but in general – that will relate to the pandemic in some way. “But then again, I’m hoping not too many because I don’t know if people ever want to be reminded of this ever again!”
The boys were able to see each other over the last year and a half. “We all live so close together that we would see each other throughout town or something,” says Ben, “but when it first started we just kept in touch over FaceTime or Zoom – we were always in communication with each other. Then when summertime rolled around we were able to see each other a bit more, which felt really good.”
On that special Kentucky Headhunters connection, that goes way back, Ben says: “I think especially in our area, because they were local, everybody knew them or knew about them. First guys from our area to win a Grammy Award, and I remember growing up and hearing about them and knowing their music from my parents – and then of course the relationship we have with them now is pretty incredible.
“Very thankful for them and they’re still out there touring and making great music, and it’s inspiring. They’ve been like mentors to us throughout the years and they’re an incredible band. They’re all great guys; we’re all from the same area so we’re all kind of quirky and goofy in a certain way, but they just have fun when they get out there and that’s the way to do it.”
The way that the likes of Black Stone Cherry and fellow Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke paid tribute on social media to Dusty Hill of ZZ Top, following his tragic death in July, suggests there may be a sort of ‘brotherhood’ among rock acts from the southern United States.
“I think there’s a lot of that out there in the world,” suggests Ben, “and you do see it a lot in southern bands... I think it’s because this is not just a genre, Southern rock, it’s also a way of life. I think it has a lot to do with upbringing and being from blue collar areas and that you kind of have to get out there and work for something.
“In certain areas like where we’re from, we weren’t from a big city that had different nightclubs where we could just go play and further ourselves and make fans – we had to be creative, and that makes you humble and really appreciative.
“So when something happens like the unfortunate passing of Dusty Hill, it hits everybody really hard, because they [ZZ Top] were such a huge influence on not just us but so many others. He was such an amazing talent and it’s just really sad... We got to play the last show that he played actually, with ZZ Top, so it was very special.”
There is one specific memory of Dusty that Ben will always cherish. “We played a show with them one time in Ohio,” he recalls. “We’d just got done playing and I remember I had a jacket on, it was kind of ZZ Top-esque, it had a bunch of flowers on it – it was kind of a Western jacket – and Chris had a cool jacket on too...
“We’d just come off stage and we went to go meet them and Dusty goes, ‘Well, look at these, here’s some sharp dressed men right here!’ And we thought that was pretty cool, just because obviously their song Sharp Dressed Man, and he looked at me and he goes, ‘Man, I like that jacket’ and I said, ‘Dude, I like your jacket!’ So it’s just a really cool memory of a little moment that we had there that I’ll never forget.”
Ben adds that he and the others are “so excited” to be coming over to the UK. “The UK has such a special place in our hearts,” he says, “and last I heard, I think we’re the first band from the US that’s going to come over there and tour since everything happened.
“So we hope everything still goes as planned and we can just bring a great show – and we cannot wait to see everybody.”