Black Stone Cherry, above all a bunch of great friends. That’s the secret of the band’s longevity according to bassist Jon Lawhon, who is the older guy and the only one who wasn’t born in Edmonton, Kentucky. Our talk revolves around the most common subject nowadays, Covid19, the new album, “The Human Condition”, the band’s lineup, the legendary Kentucky Headhunters rehearsal space where the band cut its teeth and their most important moment so far. His answers are long and exhausting. He is direct and honest. He may be having a rough time, just like most of us and most particularly musicians, but as long as he has his brothers in the band by his side he’s undaunted. Interview: Yiannis Dolas
Rockpages.gr: It’s weird times for the world all over, some people are in lockdown, some in quarantine. How did this affected you?
Jon Lawhon: Eehmm, more financially than anything. I think that’s what the whole world is going to discover. The economic fallout is going to be ten times worse than the pandemic itself. Nobody knows enough about this virus so he can discuss it. It’s all a learning process. They learn new things about it all the time. All you know is that you can chose either to be afraid and let it affect your life, or move forward and live your life realizing that it’s an inevitable thing and we are all going to get it eventually.
You cannot outrun a virus, unless you put yourself in quarantine in your life for all eternity. You can’t avoid illness, it’s just a part of life. Unfortunately, it is. I personally chose to live my life and not to live in fear of it.
Rockpages.gr: What do you think it will happen when this thing is over? Not in the world in general, but in music.
Jon Lawhon: You know I really don’t know. You say “when it’s over”. There is a lot of people who says “when the election happens it will all disappear”… of course not! It’s going to be different the way that it is handled. If the democrats get voted in the US, then it’s going to be handled differently, than it has been by then republicans. That’s the only difference.
Rockpages.gr: Your new album sounds heavier than any other you’ve done before. How did that happen?
Jon Lawhon: Extremely intentionally! We were coming back in the studio after the “Family Tree” touring cycle… on “Family Tree” we wanted to make a more jam-band Southern rock anthem album, something that you could sing along in every song, and have more a little more time for us to stretch our legs a little bit, it was more about feelgood music, than being heavy. On this album, when we went into the studio we spent days just developing the sound for this record. Because, we wanted to be sonically skull-crashing. That was the entire intent. I think we nailed it, because I don’t care what comes on before, but when our new single “Again” comes on, when you are listening to Octane, or SiriousXM Hard rock channel, if you are listening to Octane and it can be anything before… when “Again” come on it’s an eye-opener, because it sounds heavier. And then whatever comes on next sounds immediately softer. Just because we put so much into this record sonically speaking. We wanted to be the loudest and most aggressive sounding thing you ever heard.
Rockpages.gr: I also think that it’s your most solid one. Every song sounds like a part of the previous song, or the next song. I don’t mean that they all sound the same, but there is a unity in the material. It’d very very solid. I don’t know if this happens because you get more mature as writers and as players, since is your seventh album. Or… I don’t know… you tell me!
Jon Lawhon: I don’t think it’s because of writers… because, the song “Ride” for example… we wrote that song before we even recorded our first studio album. “Again”, our first single, was totally written in the studio, but the first bridge’s section was in an older song. That’s the only thing that we kept from it, the bridge. Then, you’ve got “Keep On Keepin’ On”… we wrote for the third album, “Between The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea” album. There were songs that were overlooked by our label, but loved by the band for years and years and years. Most of them were. There is only a handful of new songs in there. Like “Push Down & Turn” is a newer track… “When Angels Learn To Fly” is a newer track… even “Ringin’ In My Head” was something that was written two, or three, or even four years ago… originally.
There is all kinds of material in this record that is 2-years old, 5-years old, 20-years old… so, I guess the reason it flows so well is because all of these songs ultimately, I guess miraculously you could say, really and truly suit the times that we are in right now perfectly. And it was not the intention by any means.
The first song on the record is “Ringin’ In My Head” and the first line says: “People, people your attention please, I need to tell you all about a new disease”… People listen to it and they think we talk about the Corona virus… NO! because we wrote this long before the Covid19 issue… long before! It’s just so it happens to be perfect for it. And then, “Again” is like the story of the human phoenix. No matter how many times we get kicked down to your knees, you’re gonna stand back up and keep moving forward. It’s just a positive song. It wasn’t necessarily written for the Coronavirus…
The album title, “The Human Condition”, we as society, we as people, we push forward. We try our best, we stand back up and dust ourselves off and move forward, regardless of how difficult, or how hard times might be. But, every song in this record has such a suiting nature about it, it really suits the day and age that we live in today. I think that’s the reason they float so well together. The reason why they are such a great collection of work. It’s just so happens to be that way.
Rockpages.gr: When I listened to “I’m In Love With The Pain”, I thought that both Aerosmith and Bon Jovi would kill to have it in an album of theirs.
Jon Lawhon: Awesome, I really appreciate that! I am a big fan of both those bands. So, John Fred (Young) and Ben (Wells) had written a song called “In Love With The Pain” in Nashville with a couple of country song writers. Then, they had that chorus. We had another song that… I am blanking on what that song was called right now… we had another song we’ve written long before that we had – that was a great song- that the chorus was a little wacky… and it just so happens that these two songs married together perfectly to create our version of “In Love With The Pain”. We completely scrapped the verses, the bridge, the music and all that to the song that John Fred and Ben had written in Nashville. The only thing we kept was the chorus. We kept the chorus and that was it, everything else got completely canned. And we took this other old songs that we had from back in 2007? Maybe… it might have been even earlier than that, took this old song and we shoved these two together. And created that. It’s one of my favourite songs that’s on the album, I’ll be honest with you.
Rockpages.gr: How come you recorded a cover, “Don’t Bring Me Down” by E.L.O.? Did you think that the album needed one?
Jon Lawhon: No, honestly, it was meant to be a B’side. That was the whole point of it that labels always want you to have B’side tracks for a special edition, a special version for a specific market or store whatever… we always try to lean on covers for that. That way we are not giving our own original music. But, we cut the song… you know we’ve always been big E.L.O. fans and we cut it and it turned out so good that the label begged us to put it on the actual album. So, that was the only reason it made it on the record. We loved how it turned out and both the manager and the label agreed to put it on the album.
Rockpages.gr: I think that it’s interesting that you are recording a song that is different than your influences, or your style of playing. It’s very different from your EP’s where you cover blues songs, so why don’t you make a new EP with totally off the wall choices of song covers?
Jon Lawhon: I mean yeah, absolutely! We are not opposed to that. We are obviously a blues rock band, we are labeled Southern rock, we are labeled hard rock, we are even labeled metal in some areas. But, at our core we are a blues rock band. That’s what we are. Everything else is just the stuff that we evolved into all these years of playing music. But, we go back and we do the blues covers, the blues EP’s, more like as a return to our roots. To kind of get ourselves back to where we were when we were kids. Learning to play music and starting playing music together and all that. Honestly, it’s more of a thing for us to have fun and we decided to record the stuff and put it out, so people could have something to enjoy between the two original records. But, no, I am not opposed to do it. No one of us is opposed to do it… like a tribute EP to any particular artist, or a genre EP specific to maybe early British rock, or 50’s American rock… whatever! We are not opposed to doing that. I would love to do a gospel record.
Rockpages.gr: You have the same lineup from the beginning. How does this work for you guys? Is it important? Are you a company, a bunch of guys, a united team… best friends?
Jon Lawhon: Absolutely… we’ve been focusing more on our internal friendship over the last twenty plus years, than the band, the music or the business. And that’s the reason we are still here today. John Fred and Chris (Robertson) have been friends since they were 5 or 6 years old. So, you are looking at a 30-year relationship there. I have been friends with John Fred and Chris… I moved to Kentucky in 1998. I was originally born in West Palm Beach, Florida, I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida… moved to Kentucky when I was 15. John Fred and Chris were like 12-13 years old, I am a couple of years older than they are. And we met because of the school band. The band director found out that I have been in a marching band in my previous school, which was a big school and I was good at it. So, he kind of headhunted me and begged me to join the drumline. So, I did and met John Fred and Chris, ‘cause they were on the drumline as well. We didn’t hit it off right away, but the music surely brought us together, because we discovered pretty quickly that we were all like-minded to the style of rock’n’roll that we have developed now playing for a number of years, but I mean I’ve been playing music with John Fred and Chris since ’98, so we’re talking 20 years almost. And then Ben came into the picture… just a couple of weeks… I guess the day before the band started technically… he came down at a practice, like a hang out party thing the three of us put on one night at the practice and he picks up a guitar and started jamming. And you know we played a couple of songs together and started making stuff up as you run along and we asked him if he wanted to come back the next day to jam and maybe write just the four of us and he did. We wrote a song at that time called “Walking”, which later on turned into “The Key”, which was on the “Folklore And Superstition” record. But, that was the very first riff that we wrote together as a four piece band. But, ever since then we started the band on that day, June 4th 2001… we started the band that day, but we always focused on our friendship and our relationship more so than the music.
For example, we are going through these hard times right now, right? We are all in a hard spot. Chris and Ben have wives that are nurses, so their families are still earning a pretty good wage right now. John Fred and I are both single income households. His wife doesn’t work, my wife doesn’t work. My wife is a home school mum and all that jazz. So, we don’t have anywhere near as much money coming in as these two other guys do. When Chris caught wind the day before yesterday that I was broke… literally. I was -151,5 in my bank account. And by the time I made it at home, because we were on rehearsal he sent me a message saying “hey man, I sent you some cigarette money” and I checked my bank account and he sent me $500. Just because he knew I needed it. That’s the kind of people that we are. Because, we take care of each other. And it takes that kind of focus and dedication to each other to last 20 plus years.
Rockpages.gr: What do you remember from those first days when you put the band together and you started rehearsing. I think you were playing in the Kentucky Headhunters’ place is that correct?
Jon Lawhon: Yeah, we cut our teeth at the practice house, where Richard (Young) and Fred (Young), Doug (Phelps), Greg (Martin)… they all grew up writing and playing music. When we were teenagers, Richard tried to keep us out of trouble. So, he told us we could use the house. So, by the time the band started we had gotten into a routine, where every day after school, and I mean every day, we would leave high school and get to the practice house and we would be there from 6 to 8 hours… Every day! Monday to Friday. Friday nights we used to go to John Fred’s house, who used to live down the street. On Saturdays we’d go down probably by 9 or 10 in the morning and we would be down there are 10, 11 o’clock Sunday morning at the practice house writing and working on covers and all that jazz…
Rockpages.gr: I was trying to imagine what this place looks like, because we’ve heard about it in other interviews, so I wanted to make an image of you guys playing there, using the Kentucky Headhunters’ room, an older and legendary band. What posters could have been on the walls, what stuff you were looking at while you were playing, what stuff you were thinking… that maybe one day you’d begun as big as them…
Jon Lawhon: Oh man… like when we were 15 years old? When we were walking through that practice room door for the first time, picking our instruments and shaping our career and our lives we were staring into the faces of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, BB King, Freddie King, Albert King… the King trilogy… you name it! Blue Cheer, Mott The Hoople… Stiff Little Fingers… the list goes on and it’s honestly very English…
The practice house has no installation, so there is no way to stay warm in the winter months. And the walls were all like wood plank walls, it’s an old old farm house. So, there are literally cracks on the wall, where the wind blew through and freeze you to death. So, to cover those cracks up the Headhunters, when they were teenagers and in their early 20s, every time they were buying a new LP, or got a poster, or whatever, they would hang it over the cracks on the walls. So, the walls are really just graffiti with old rock’n’roll, blues, jazz, pop… you name it! All this old memorabilia from the ‘60s and on. There is even some stuff from back before that hanging up in there.
When you walk in it’s one open room, which is the music space. There are stairs in front of you that are very very steep and there’s a door on the left. The door on your left goes to Richard’s office. The stairs go up and at the top of the stairs there is a room on your left and a room on your right. Those rooms are full of vintage drum kits that belong to Fred (Young), John Fred’s uncle. And when I say full, I mean stacked to the ceiling… full! You can hardly walk in there. Then, the only room that we really use is the main music room!
Rockpages.gr: What’s been your most important moment so far?
Jon Lawhon: Oh man… honestly, yesterday was a very iconic moment for us. It’s been 242 days since the four of us stood on a stage and played live music. And then, yesterday we filmed a live performance for our “Live From The Sky” broadcast, that’s going to air on the 30th of October. It was surreal to say the least, to be able to stand on the stage with my brothers again and playing music after… again it’s been 242 days since the last time we played a show. It felt like I was a kid again, it’s a moment I will never forget!