It’s often said that the music you first loved never, ever leaves you… and that’s certainly the case for Black Stone Cherry in 2018. The Kentucky quartet’s forthcoming album, aptly named Family Tree, digs deep into the band’s Southern roots. Sure, the band made its name as a heavy outfit, often lumped in with the metal fraternity, but Family Tree – due April 20 – shows a richer bloodline. Heavy riffs abound, but they’re enlivened by boogie-ish tempos, dual lead guitars, and a swagger that comes from teenage years riffing on swampy rock, Skynyrd, and deep blues legends in their local music store. Lead single “Burnin’” even comes with BFG-saluting ZZ Top-like tones.

Today, rhythm guitarist and riff maestro Ben Wells is at Gibson’s London HQ, checking out some more of the Gibson Les Paul Classics he’s come to rely on, and is happy that Black Stone Cherry’s future sees them going back in time…

Black Stone Cherry

People won’t even need to read an interview or press release to realize: Family Tree is clearly an album that sees you revisiting some of your roots?

“Absolutely. We’ve always been influenced by the blues, because that’s what we started out playing together as a band. With this album, when we started writing for it we’d just done our Black to Blues EP. So organically, naturally, we just found the new songs just came out more bluesy, more Southern… It was more about the roll and not just the rock, if that makes sense?

“We’re pleased because that’s how we see ourselves. We’ve never really seen ourselves as a heavy, heavy band y’know? So how this album took shape was just really pleasing to us.

“We grew up listening to blues like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, all that good stuff, and that’s where the Black to Blues EP was from. But we also loved the Allman Brothers, ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, all those usual influences! We love The Black Crowes as well… it was just another step in being the band that we honestly are.”

You’ve recorded again at your hometown studios, Barrick Studios in Glasgow, Kentucky, right?

“Yeah, the way David Barrick works us, he just has a great chemistry. I think he has a way to question us or just push us, respectfully, like maybe no-one else does. Bottom line, why would we want to go to California or wherever and spend a whole bunch of money to record just to get the same as we can get in or backyard? If not better. It’s kind of a no-brainer. And our singer Chris Robertson mixed this album, too, so this record is 100% in house – from the recording to the artwork to the mixing. That’s cool.”

It is cool, but not too many bands do this: Barrick Studios is in an old music store that you visited as a kid right?

“It used to be. It’s moved location across town now, but when we recorded Kentucky it was in an old music store called Backstage Music. It has been there for years, as long as I can remember. We used to buy our guitar strings there, so we already thought it was great. It was the only place in our town where we could go and buy anything musical. I remember going in there as a kid and my mouth just watering over the Les Pauls they had on the wall. Customs, Flying Vs, Explorers… it felt like I was in there every day playing those guitars! It was the coolest thing.

“But even though David [Barrick] has moved the studio now, it still felt right, and it’s still a phenomenal studio. It’s got a great drum room, the sound reverberates for days. We were worried when it moved at first – we loved being in the old music store! – but it’s still great.”

Does recording in a relatively modest studio affect what comes out as the final album?

“Well, we basically knew the songs we were planing to record, but they were just demo’d on the road. They were just little computer demos, maybe some fake drums on there just so we could hear it back. So when we came into the studio, we’d maybe played these songs together as a band only once or twice.”

So the actual album has more of a rehearsal-studio vibe about it: is that the idea?

“Most bands will do pre-production before they go into the studio but we made the collective decision not to do that. We didn’t want to sound over-rehearsed or forced. As long as everyone knew the changes - and the right notes – we were good. If we make a mistake? Well, it could be a beautiful mistake. And there’s some songs like that. It’s off the cuff, it’s recorded live together, but I really think that’s what’s good about Family Tree.”

There’s some huge fat tones on this album: are Gibson Les Paul Classics still your go-to guitars?

“Yes! I got my first one at Backstage Music, actually. My first was a Classic in Heritage Cherry Burst, and I’ve still got that one – it’s still my main Les Paul to record with everything.

“I just love the Classic. I mean, it’s an odd name sometimes – putting a 120th Anniversary inlay on the fretboard or a +15dB boost isn’t exactly classic to me, but that’s not why I like them. One of the reasons, I think, was the neck profile, I love a skinny neck.

“But the main reason was the pickup configuration, those 496R and 500T humbuckers in the older Les Paul Classics. I love that. For a long time now, I’ve been trying to find as many Les Paul Classics I can with those same pickups.”

But you’ve got a 2018 P-90 loaded Les Paul Classic now too: how do you like that?

“I just got one of the Goldtops of those and, man, that is stunning. I wasn’t sure about the P-90s, I guessed that they were an acquired sound and an acquired taste – it’s only recently I’ve got into them. I love that P-90 tone now.”

Black Stone Cherry

A man who is seemingly everywhere, Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes, guests on Family Tree. That must have been a thrill?

“Of course! We met Warren many years ago – it was 2004 I think, when we did our first label showcase. John Fred Young, our drummer, his dad is Richard Young who plays with the Kentucky Headhunters. And, of course, the Headhunters had known Warren for many years.

“Anyway, back in 2004 we were up in New York at a place called The Mercury Lounge doing this showcase. Outside, we heard someone hollerin’ out Richard’s name from across the street and it was Warren Haynes! Warren asks: ‘what’s happening? The Kentucky Headhunters playin’ here tonight?’ Richard says: ‘No, I’m actually here with my son’s band, they’re playing a showcase tonight.’ Of course, we were just thrilled to even meet Warren. And years and years later, here’s Warren playing on a Black Stone Cherry album. Full circle!”

“It’s amazing. Back then, we were literally a nobody band… and we’re even now going on tour with Gov’t Mule [from April]. Warren’s a phenomenal player, a phenomenal person. On the track, ‘Dancin’ in the Rain’, he was so open to whatever we wanted him to do. But we're just like: here’s the words to the song, we just want you to be you. He just nailed it.”

And when you do play support to Gov’t Mule, are you going to be hustling for an onstage jam sessions?

“Well, I may have to practice, you got to be prepared… but I would love it!”
 

Black Stone Cherry’s Family Tree is out April 20.