Black Stone Cherry’s Chris Robertson on ‘Family Tree': We Wanted to ‘Make a Record People Could Smile and Dance To’
Black Stone Cherry return this week with their sixth studio album, Family Tree. Singer Chris Robertson's soulful voice truly shines on the record, which finds the band embracing a more blues-rock sound more than they've really ever done before.
We spoke with Robertson about the Family Tree disc, and he discussed the band's hands-on approach to their music from production to artwork, and also about two special guests on the album -- Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes and his own son.
This seems even more bluesy and more soulful than ever, in my opinion. Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do going into this album?
The only thing we knew is when we did that  Black to Blues EP, that kind of gave us a free feeling where it took us back. It kind of re-sparked this and rejuvenated us into that kind of style of the recording and producing records where nothing is completely overdone.
It's a more simplistic approach to the production was the main thing, to where each part is its own unique sound and space rather than 46 instruments doing the exact same thing at one time. That was the only thing that was kind of in our heads. But I will say once we completed the Black to Blues EP - when we were starting, we completely started writing all over again and that's what you hear now. We had written about 30 or 40 ideas that were more in the traditional Black Stone Cherry kind of sound, where they were a little heavier, more aggressive. But man, we just hit a point in our career where we just want to do what it is that we've always kind of envisioned ourselves doing and now that we are with Mascot there's nobody saying, "Hey we need this on the radio." It's literally just a situation of you go write this record that you believe in and we'll believe in as well and we'll go from there making it what it is. It's been inspirational really.
You mentioned the production, I know you guys took on self-producing. I know you personally have been getting more involved on that side of things. Can you talk about wearing both hats?
The coolest thing about us has always been - at least one of the coolest things, in my opinion - is the fact that all of us worked together on the music and lyrics and we all write the songs together. So when we go in the studio everybody is all on the same page and we're all getting equal input.
We were all producing on the Kentucky record and then we self-produced the Black to Blues EP and then, you know, the mix on the Blues EP ended up being the rough mixes that I'd done which I engineered and we just kinda moved some levels and put a simple EQ here and there. Once somebody heard it they were like, "Man, let's just bring the vocals up a little bit and put this out as our record."
It was amazing how well received that Black to Blues EP was. You know, it's something that we could never have expected to happen, but we're very thankful that it did. So when it came time to do this record we just took that exact same approach. We're all fully the ones writing the songs.
And then David [Barrick], the engineer, who's just a fantastic engineer, he has an incredible ear for music. And he's also the first guy who ever recorded our band, you know, back when we were teenagers in high school. So to have him, and that extra set of ears, you know, for the music and the ideas he comes up with, being the executive producer, it's just fantastic man. This entire record was the four of us from the songwriting, and the performances and even down to the mix.
The tree, the view of the artwork, such a cool looking view. Is that based on anything in particular? Is that a tree that was personal to you guys or is it just great artwork conceived?
It's a combination to me, really. [Bassist] Jon Lawhon did a fantastic job with all the artwork. That image is actually - the exposure was a certain number of minutes long. I'm not very camera savvy so forgive me, [laughs]. I just remembered hearing Jon say it was "several minutes long." The exposure that was on that picture. It's a tree on John Fred's family farm here in Kentucky. He and Jon went out and set up the image with the bones, cauldron at the base of the tree. But it's just this one lone tree that's standing in the middle of this field by itself, man. The tree is probably a couple of hundred years old.
It symbolizes that one backbone of life that is family in a lot of people's eyes and especially in ours. It symbolizes that one rooted system with that one tree being out in the middle of nowhere. John Fred and Jon did a fantastic job putting that together and then Jon turning it into the actual artwork. We're a very fortunate band to be able to do stuff like that on our own and not have to outsource. It's a whole other level of authenticity and 100% all in and being inclusive from our band.
I wanted to ask about "Bad Habit" on this album. You mentioned a little earlier about having a chance to go back a little bit. I saw where you guys did a video shoot for this as well. Can you talk about first about the song and then also about what it meant to you to go back to The Factory where you launched your career all those years ago.
That song was one of the earlier songs written for the record. That was after we did the EP and we started re-writing again. That was one of the first ideas that idea came about when we were opening for Scared Man at an arena in Kentucky. We were going up doing soundcheck I was just checking my guitar rig and, it's funny man, we all do this thing and play something then kind of will look around to see if it is cool to see if it was getting a reaction from somebody else, and that happened that day.
I played that dang guitar part. I looked over at Ben [Wells] and he goes: "Yeah, go ahead and make sure you capture that with your phone so we can work on that."
A couple weeks later we had written a couple of songs. We wrote all the songs, If you added up all the days it was over maybe three weeks I guess where we wrote this record. It was spread out over a few weekends. But that riff got brought up and we wrote the intros, verse, chorus and had the songs kind of laid out and we weren't sure about the bridge.
We keep a computer set up on the bus - [we use] Logic quite a bit for writing songs just because It is such an incredible tool. It makes songwriting work much faster and you're not held back. So I said, "Yeah man, here's Logic - do you know how to run it? I'm going to step out for a smoke." We were all parked for a day off. I came back and David was working on that middle section where we shifted gears completely for a minute. It is one of the coolest things ever and we went from there.
Lyrically that song is that classic "guy wants a girl because that's what is on his mind" kind of song.
And then to go back to The Factory man. Our first actual show that was more than two songs at a talent show, that would have been in June of 2001 at The Factory. That was the first place we played in. We hadn't really debuted our music to anybody and to have the lady who still owns it all these years later and letting us come back in and shoot that video, was just amazing man. It was so much fun.
I know you've got Warren Haynes on this playing with you as well, a hero of yours. Can you talk a little bit about what he does on this album. What it's been like to play a little bit in the jam band scene.
Well, we haven't toured with them yet, we have met them several times. The way this all got started was Ben went to see Gov'f Mule and Blackberry Smoke in Nashville last summer. We've known the Blackberry Smoke guys since early 2000s when they were first starting to break out of their regional scene around Georgia and coming on around a lot of other places. We played a lot with them and stuff coming up through the years.
But we were always great friends and they kind of hooked us up at the Asheville show, man. We went down and at the end of the night we went back and Warren was walking around. I was like, "Hey man what's going on?" We mentioned how we'd love to tour together and Warren loved that idea, whether it be here in The States or over across the Atlantic, either way. Warren was all about it, they really love what we do and obviously, we've been heavily influenced by Gov't Mule over the years.
We've been into everything Warren has ever done. Allman Brothers, [his] solo stuff - we've been influenced by it all because of the soul and the musicianship in that stuff is second to none. We got talk to him about touring and stuff. We had a good conversation and then a couple of weeks later we're in the studio recording this record and I had already done the guitar solos and sang the second verse of this song called "Dancin' in the Rain," the song was finished. We were like "Just for the hell of it, let's reach out and see if Warren would be interested."
We had our management company reach out to his people and he got back to us almost instantly saying, "I love the song. I'm honored you asked me and I'd love to be a part of your record." So we get on the phone with Warren the next day and ... first of all, it's surreal to be on the phone with Warren Haynes. Just to pick up the phone and call him or have him call us. Warren asked, "What do you want me to do here?" Basically, we want Warren Haynes. We don't want you to do anything like us. We want you to, if you were the fifth member of the band, what you would bring. Just like you would to a Gov't Mule song.
So we had him play guitar and sing on a song called "Dancin' in the Rain" and it's amazing when you can send someone files for a song and they're in a completely different studio but when you get the song back and you plug their parts back into the mix, it sounds like they were in the room with you and you recorded the track live. I think it goes to show how good Warren is. Being able to, not only as a player and a singer but as a musician as a whole where he can play along with something that sounds like he was there when it was recorded and it doesn't matter when or where it was recorded. He's so good - he fits in so perfectly.
There's another guest. Your son does some backing vocals on here. What does he think of dad's job and does the kid have a future in rock?
Man, that was something that was really cool for me. It's one of those things, God willing I'll live long enough to see his children and we can talk to my grandkids and tell the story to his kids about how he came in the studio with his papa and got to sing on a song. It's just something we'll always have. No matter what - man, it just changed my life. And he's been singing along to the demo here at the house before we did the record. And I'm just like, "Man, I'm gonna get him and have him sing this line." So now when he starts the song, he's on one side and I'm on the other singing the blues.
It's just so cool, man. He loves it when it comes on. He's so into music, man. He loves it. I go play music with my dad a lot when we're home. They're just four-hour cover band sets where they play four different sets. I'll get up and play with him and the one time he's been able to come was at a bar or something, he's like dad, when you go to the stage can you play "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" for me? Will you play "Bad to the Bone"? I said, "Absolutely."
It's funny he doesn't want to listen to anything other than George Thorogood, Jim Croce or Black Stone Cherry, which is amazing to me. What more could I really ask for?
That's a nice variety.
Yeah man, you've got acoustic, you've got blues and you got hard rock band - it's awesome.
Keeping it in the family, "My Last Breath," man, what a personal song that is. Talk about the muse for that song and what they thought of what you put on the record.
That whole song came about on the bus one night. I had bought an old '73 Strat. I was just setting up one night after the show playing it through a little portable amp I've got. I played that chorus part, started singing and it was the chorus. Everybody was really digging it and the next day, all the lyrics came together with the rest of the music. The whole idea behind that song was death. In my final days when everything that you want to be said has been said, what would that be -- between me and my son?
That's why that song kind of starts from me meeting his mom when we were 15 years old and the love we still share to this day, and how much I love him. My grandpa passing away after his second birthday. And then just professing my undying love to the kid. On my deathbed, the thing I want him to know is just how much I love him and his mama. That's kind of the whole basis of that song. Then we brought in the lady to sing on that one and we got some nice Rhodes Piano, and a horn section on there.
It's possibly my favorite song we've ever written and recorded and possibly my favorite recording we've ever done of all time. It's a special song and it's one that I'm very proud to have been a part of writing.
I know you're playing some dates with Shaman's Harvest, Blacktop Mojo as well. Your thoughts on the bands that are playing along with you on the tour?
It's gonna be awesome, man. Like you said, there's the guys in Blacktop Mojo who are great. Shaman's Harvest we've known for years. We've been really good friends with those guys for a long time. Bishop Gunn doing some shows with us, who I've just heard about recently and are fantastic. We've also got a band called Otis who are doing some shows with us. They're dudes from our area. Basically, the same county as us, and they're like blues meets jazz meets hard rock. They remind me a lot of Gov't Mule but there are also some differences between them and Gov't Mule. They're just one of those bands that ooze soul and good music. We're super proud of those dudes and to have them come out with us on some of these shows - all the bands.
We're thankful that the bands think we're cool enough to go play music with [laughs]. We're becoming dinosaurs, man. We've been doing this thing now for 17 years. We're not the young guys in the rock and roll scene anymore. We're the guys that when we started touring, man I was 20 years old. I was - my girlfriend at the time, she's my wife now, I was staying with her and her mom. I didn't have a driver's license. None of us had any kind of real-life experience. And here we are now, 17 years later, 12 years of touring and putting out records later, and it's mortgages and making sure the kids get to school on time.
It's funny, a lot of times when you talk to younger bands, and they're like, "Man, you guys want to party?" We're like, "Nah I think I'm gonna go to bed. I'm tired." You're still in dad mode. It's funny, man - just to see how it changes over a decade like it has. We're very thankful that we still get to do this. What's amazing, is the crowds have gotten bigger and bigger. Especially over the last couple of years. It's just that more people are showing up to see us play live. Everything keeps getting better. It's a beautiful feeling to go out and spread some positivity through the power of music, and especially rock and roll. A lot of rock has gotten angry over the last few years and that was one of the things we wanted to do with this record was to make a record that people could smile and dance to. Put it on and forget the world exists. That's what we went for, man. It's a lot of fun and I hope everyone enjoys it as much as we did making it.
Thanks for your time today. I love the album.
Man, we've always been huge blues fans. A lot of times in previous years we've had people tell us, "Well the blues don't really sell anymore. We need you to be a little more contemporary." We've been trying to do records like this for a long time, man. We got with Mascot right before the Kentucky record. They told us, "Go make a record that you believe in. Make us a record that you believe in because if you believe in it, someone else will." Then we made the Kentucky record, and we love that record. It's obviously one of our darker records we've made, but I look at it like every record is a snapshot of your existence from the end of the previous record before until that record being recorded.
We were still kind of pissed off from getting let go from our record label previously and all kinds of stuff. That came through on the songs. But on the new record, we're all in the best place and headspace. Best overall vibe we've ever had in our band and you can hear it in the music, man. You can hear that we were having fun making this music. That's the coolest thing about it to me.
Our thanks to Black Stone Cherry's Chris Robertson for the interview. The band's 'Family Tree' album drops this Friday (April 20) and you can order the disc right here. The group is currently on tour with Gov't Mule, with their Shaman's Harvest and Blacktop Mojo dates starting shortly. See all of the stops here.
Black Stone Cherry, "Bad Habit"