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Black Stone Cherry – Small Town, Big World

Black Stone Cherry released their heaviest album yet, “Screamin At The Sky”.  We spoke to guitarist Ben Wells about the new record, working with new bassist Steve Jewell Jr, the early days of a small town band breaking through in the huge USA, and how they went from playing high school gymnasiums to performing at the Royal Albert Hall.

Black Stone Cherry released their heaviest album yet, “Screamin At The Sky”.  We spoke to guitarist Ben Wells about the new record, working with new bassist Steve Jewell Jr, the early days of a small town band breaking through in the huge USA, and how they went from playing high school gymnasiums to performing at the Royal Albert Hall.

Text and live photography: Anne-Marie Forker
Photography: Jimmy Fontaine

Hi Ben, greetings from Norway! Congratulations on the new album. It seems to be your heaviest – I don’t know if you’ve had that kind of feedback. If you agree with that, I wondered why you thought that was.

So far, everyone that’s heard it has definitely said that they think it’s probably our most aggressive and heaviest album that we’ve put out. I don’t know if it was a conscious thing, it’s just where we were when it came time to write the new album – that was just the stuff we were putting out. Also, we were on tour while we were writing the whole album. So, we would go and play these shows and then come back to the bus and we still had all that energy from playing live, and I think that really played into the liveliness of the sound of the album, into the energy of it.

Yeah, absolutely, I can hear that. The new bassist, Steve, what did he bring to the table for you?

He is just an amazing musician. He can play guitar, bass, drums, piano, he can sing, and he brought another level of musicality to the band. For example, although he played bass on the record, he played slide guitar on the song «Nervous». So, he’s just one of those guys who is multi-talented, and he just brings a different energy to the band that really brought it up another level.

Is he involved in the writing as well?

Yes. For us, if he’s in the band, and this is his first album with us, we wanted him very much to be a part of it. So, yeah, everybody was putting in ideas and coming up with stuff creatively and it was really good to have his side of things and his energy into the writing room as well – it was a different breath of air, I guess you could say.

You mentioned you were writing on tour – was that literally on the tour bus?

Yeah. We’ve done that a lot before, but I’d think about 95% of this album was all written in the back of the tour bus or a in dressing room somewhere.

I’d wondered if it was «oh, we’ll get to the hotel and do it there» but all in the back of the tour bus and improvised –

At a soundcheck we might come up with an idea, and we’ll take that and put it on a phone. If we have a riff at a soundcheck and we’re like «oh, that’s kinda cool», we’ll get out our iPhone, record it, then go back to the bus and listen to it, we’ll make a little demo of it. So, that’s the way we’ve been doing it lately just because we’re always usually on tour.

It’s impressive that you can exercise that creative muscle at the same time as doing a live tour. I know a lot of bands want to focus on just the tour and don’t want to do anything else when they’re in that kind of bubble – that’s really impressive. So, you said you did it before, but for this album you’ve done it more than before.

Before, we would be at home or something and take time off to write – and we still do that – but we knew because we were touring most of last summer and we knew we wanted to be in the studio before the year was over last year. So, we knew we had our work cut out for us. And luckily, we hit a creative stride. Sometimes you get in a lull, where you’re really not coming up with anything. Luckily last summer we were able to really just start turning out idea after idea after idea. and we rode that wave out until we had an album of songs.

I know you tracked the album at The Plaza Theatre in Kentucky. Why that place? I know it’s old – it was built in the ’30s or something. What appealed to you about that place?

It was built in 1934 and it’s out little, local, hometown theatre. It’s a piece of local history here and we usually play there every two years. We do our Christmas show around there, and we’ll give back to some charities. So, we have a special place in our heart with that theatre anyway, and when it came time to record the album, we knew we wanted some place really big and open to record all the drums. So, instead of setting up in a studio somewhere or travelling somewhere to another studio, we had the idea of doing it at the theatre. We didn’t know what it was going to sound like – it was trial and error. Luckily it sounded so big and massive in there. We put all our recording gear in the dressing room, which is in the basement of the theatre and ran a bunch of cables upstairs, and John Fred tracked all his drums right there, to an empty big theatre and it was just really cool.

Speaking of locations, I thought the video for «Nervous» looked cool. Where was it filmed?

It was a really cool place, that was a place in Nashville, Tennessee. It used to be an old paint factory that they turned into a production studio. So, there are different rooms there where people come in and film things for TV shows, commercials, music videos. There’s a lot of rooms that are set up for different looks, and it was a perfect space for us to go in and get the vibe of the video, so to speak, because it had a lot of stuff we could use and utilise in one building.

Another track on the album, «Smile, World» feels a little lighter than the others. What was the inspiration for that song?

We were on tour last year – getting ready to start the tour, and we were going out to Montana. We all live in Kentucky, so the drive to Montana is quite far away. Our tour bus broke down about four, five hours away from the first gig, the night before. So, we were pretty bummed out about that. So we had to go to a hotel while we were waiting to see if our bus was going to get fixed, and we’re sitting outside the hotel the night before the show, and everyone’s bummed out because we’re thinking «man, we’re going to miss the first show of this big tour, we’re not going to get there in time» and Steve, our bass player had said «hey guys, it’s okay. Sometimes you’ve just got to smile, world», kinda of saying it’s all good, let’s just take a breather here and relax. And I was like «oh, that would be a great idea for a song title». I put it in my phone and we didn’t let it go. So that was the inspiration. It was just a fun song to write, it really balances the album out because the album has, for the most part, a very serious subject matter, talking about a lot of serious things and then you have that song which is a good breath of fresh air. It’s all about perspective, you know – it’s not as bad as it seems sometimes.

You’re one of two guitarists in the band. I’ve seen you live several times, and I always wondered, when you’re writing, how you decide who’s playing what.

Chris and I have been playing guitar together since 2001, so I think we just know each other’s strengths – and I guess weaknesses too – but we know what the other guy does better. Chris is the lead guitar player in the band. There are certain songs I’ll play a solo on, but I’ll usually just let Chris had that because he does it excellently. There are things that I do that Chris will be like «you do that better than me, you do this» So, we’re all playing the whole song, but if there’s a picking part or an acoustic part, something like that, that’s usually my bag and Chris has always been the solo guy. So, there’s no egos with us, it’s just something we’re always understood about each other.

It really works. I know you have a Les Paul – I was wondering, do you have any other guitars that you like?

Yeah, the Les Paul’s always been the main guitar but there’s a company called Lucky Dog, an independent builder, out of Tennesse, a guy called Anthony Sims who builds really great guitars, and Chris and I both use his stuff. There’s another builder called Nash, he’s another independent builder, and we use his stuff. And then I love Gretsch guitars. You know, there’s so many guitars out there that I love, and I think certain songs call for a certain guitar but the main guitar is the Les Paul.

So, what kind of song would you turn to the Gretsch for?

Okay, so now we’re doing a song called «Things My Father Said» which is more of a ballad, most days I’ll play a Gretsch on that, or «Peace Is Free» which is another ballad. Gretsch guitars are really great clean guitars, and I use that sound on those songs. They sound great dirty as well but with the clean they sound fantastic, so I usually gravitate towards that guitar for that song.

On your Les Paul, I was just wondering do you have a ’50s or a ’60s neck?

’60s necks! I grew up playing the ’60s Classic, the Les Paul Classic, which has a ’60s slim, tapered neck, and that’s just what I’ve always been used to. It just feels more comfortable to me the ’50s baseball bat necks. But, you know, a lot of guys like the bigger necks, but for me, my hand feels more comfortable on the slim neck

One more gear question! I wondered what pedals you used on the latest album.

Let’s see – we used some octave effects, I think. We use Line 6, the Helix. Everything is built into that, which is really great. I know there are a couple of overdrive pedals we use, but we try not to get too crazy with too many effects. Sometimes, if you do that in the studio – you want to be able to replicate that live. Using an effect you don’t have on your board or in Helix, it might sound different. There are some different phaser effects we use. Mainly, we try to keep it as raw as possible.

So, who are your main influences both as an artist and specifically as a guitarist?

My biggest influence of all time is Elvis Prestley. That’s what got me into music and still is to this day my biggest. Then, growing up I love Aerosmith, that was my favourite band at a young age, so I loved that. And I love Jimmy Buffett and Bob Marley, and I love Brian Setzer’s guitar player stuff. I love that kind of sound, Of course, Jimi Hendrix and Joe Perry and Brad Whitford from Aerosmith. Those are the guys that inspired me the most when it came to the guitar

Do you have a preference for which Aerosmith era, «Nine Lives» or the ’70s?

Yeah, that’s really hard. I think it depends on what mood I’m in. ‘Cause I love it all, I really do love it all. I love listening to the ’70s stuff – «Rocks» and «Toys in the Attic», «Get Your Wings», all that stuff is classic. But then again, it’s hard to beat some of that ’90s Aerosmith. Like, «Get a Grip» is one of my favourite albums, «Nine Lives» is a great album. It’s just a band I can listen to any era of.

The United States is massive. But you’re from a very small town. What was it like in the early days trying to break though, because if it was twenty-something years ago, it was before social media was around to help. How did you manage?

It was definitely a task. Chris and John Fred live in a town called Edmonton, which is where we based the band out of, and that’s a town that has maybe 1200 people. I live in a town called Glasgow, which is about fifteen minutes from Edmonton. But it’s all in one place, there’s just one road that separates the two. Glasgow is a little bigger, Glasgow is fourteen, fifteen thousand people, maybe a little bigger now, I’m not sure – still a relatively small town. Even so, when we first started, there was nowhere for us to play – our town didn’t even serve alcohol. You couldn’t buy alcohol at a restaurant or a store. That happened maybe not even ten years ago.


Pretty crazy. So, we would have to make it up. We would play in high school gymnasiums, a Mexican restaurant, anywhere we could set up and play, we played. The way we would advertise was we would draw a flier on a piece of paper and go to our local school and use the copy machine, and we’d copy those fliers off and go and put them on everybody’s cars and try to get them to come to a show. Yeah, it was before social media, so that was the only way to advertise.

From there, from playing Mexican restaurants, you’ve played at the iconic Royal Albert Hall, and you have a brilliantly titled live DVD «Live From The Royal Albert Hall… Y’All». What are your memories from that night?

That was such a special moment for us. We have been wanting to play that venue for a long, long time. And we finally got it. It was truly a surreal experience to walk in that building that morning, and think «Wow, I’m here because our band is here». I wasn’t here for anything else, and it was really special. My family was there, my wife was there to get to experience it, so that was really cool. I loved being able to share that moment with them. It’s something we’ll never forget and that’s why we wanted to record it, so we can always have it.

Have you watched it again since or is it too soon?

Yeah, I’ve watched it. It doesn’t get old, you know. It’s not like you’re watching it to watch yourself, you’re watching it to go «wow, I can’t believe we really did that.»

Now, I can’t let you go without asking you about your charity – the Henry and Clark Foundation. What kind of work does it do?

So, the charity was started in 2019. It’s named after two of our beagles, Henry and Clark. We wanted to do something to help animals, not just pets – all animals. We have a really big passion for marine life, and of course pets and wildlife of that nature. And we also like to help out families that might be in need, kids that might be underprivileged. So, it was something that was put in our hearts to do, use it as something of a platform to give back in any way we can.

You were here in Norway in November, quite recently. Are you planning on coming back soon or can’t you say yet?

Yeah, I think we’ll definitely plan to come back next year, for sure, and do a big tour. Norway is beautiful so hopefully we’ll get back there sooner rather than later.

Fantastic! Well, we look forward to it and we’ll see you next year. Thank you Ma’am!