John Fred Young Of Black Stone Cherry Plays Loud & Proud
Black Stone Cherry did something earlier this year that every band wishes could happen to them: put out a new album that is better than all the others they’ve done in the past. Every band strives for that goal, to put out material that keeps getting better with each record they produce. With Kentucky, BSC have hit the bulls-eye. Not that their previous albums have been chopped liver. Starting with their self-titled 2006 debut, they have taken their fiery live energy and planted it firmly on the master tapes. But there’s something about Kentucky, something about the power, the vibrations, the kinetics that hits between the eyes and keeps drilling in till the very last song. Maybe it’s because they’ve matured, maybe it’s because they’ve spent over a decade honing their sound via the live stage, or maybe it’s as simple as they finally got to do things their way. With a new label and complete artistic control, BSC made the record they wanted to make and it came out like a cannonball.
Currently on the Carnival Of Madness tour with Shinedown, Halestorm and Whiskey Myers, Glide sat down with BSC drummer John Fred Young before their set to talk about Kentucky, their new freedom as a band and of course, the drums, which came naturally to Young. His father is Kentucky Headhunters guitar player Richard Young and his uncle is the band’s drummer, Fred Young. There was always music around and the band came together out in the woods at what is affectionately known as the Practice House. “We grew up practicing in my dad and uncle’s old farmhouse,” Young told me in an interview last year. “I mean, we didn’t have to worry about cops, we didn’t have to worry about noise, anything. We would sit out there and we still do it.”
The UK caught on early to Black Stone Cherry and when they went to make a live DVD in 2015 they picked Birmingham, England, in which to record it. “That was the first place we ever played in England,” remembered Young. “Over there, our style of music is embraced because it’s different, it’s unique, it’s rare over there.” And their fanbase has only gotten bigger since then, with every album after their debut going to the top of the UK Rock charts, including their latest, Kentucky, with songs like “Shakin’ My Cage,” “Feelin’ Fuzzy,” “Soul Machine,” “Cheaper To Drink Alone” and a cover of Edwin Starr’s “War.”
For Young, his drumming style has always been Tasmanian Devil wild. “I play drums hard and I’ve always kind of been a basher but I don’t think I knew how to entertain really until we got out there,” Young explained. Young first met singer/guitar player Chris Robertson when they were kids. In Junior High, they started to play music together. Florida transplant Jon Lawhon soon became friends with them, despite the other two being just a wee bit envious of the guitar player turned bassist. “We hated him,” Young said with a laugh. “Oh my God, all the girls liked him and we were like, who is this surfer dude?” Two years later they met guitar player Ben Wells. “June the 4th, 2001, we started the band, on Chris’ sixteenth birthday, with the four members and we’ve been the four ever since.”
They have about another two weeks left on the Carnival Of Madness tour and they have just announced dates for a European tour starting in November.
How has the Carnival Of Madness tour been going so far?
I think it’s been two weeks that we’ve been out here and it’s been really nice. It’s going great. We did Little Rock and it was wonderful and Kansas City was just amazing and it was hot, just so hot. We had to take off one of the dates, right after Kansas City, and we flew to England to do a headline show over there, for Rambling Man Festival. That was good, it was a fun festival. But yeah, the tour is going great. Four really good bands and we’re just happy to be on it.
You just announced some new European dates.
Yeah we did. We’re going back in November so we’re going to be there for some really cool shows. It’s called Experience Kentucky, the tour is, and we’re going to make it really neat for a lot of the people that are going. A little different but I can’t really divulge what we’re doing yet.
Your set is shorter than normal on this current tour. How do you know which new songs to put in?
We don’t. It’s really hard. Tonight we’re doing a song called “Cheaper To Drink” that’s off the album. We’re doing about seven songs, playing like forty minutes, so it’s hard to do all those songs that you want to play off the album, you know, the new songs. But you also have to play the songs you had on the previous records. So it’s really tough doing a forty minute set. Doing a thirty minute set is just ridiculous. We just don’t even do those anymore because we’ve been touring for over a decade now and now it’s like you’ve got to try to fit everything into a forty and that’s impossible, even fifty minutes is hard. We really like those two hour sets. We can do two or three songs from each record and then obviously do covers and jams and stuff. Our setlists, there’s a skeleton to them, you know, but it doesn’t always end up like that. Sometimes someone will just call a song out from the audience and if we’re in that tuning it happens sometimes.
Cool. We really like “Feelin’ Fuzzy” too. We were writing that song about fifteen minutes before we went onstage one night somewhere last year. I can’t remember where we were at but it’s a cool tune so thanks for mentioning that.
I think Kentucky is your best CD to date. Did you feel something like that going into it? Did you know this was going to be that good?
No, we didn’t. But I think the reason a lot of people are having the same feeling, affecting them kind of the same way you’re saying now is, this record actually was the first record we got to produce by ourselves. We parted ways with our previous record label at the beginning of last year and went through the summer not knowing really what we were going to do just yet. We were writing and it was like the greatest feeling of being free. It’s the first time we were ever artistically free to do whatever we wanted to do sonically with our music, with our merchandise and the first time we’ve had the opportunity to just breathe and not have somebody over your shoulder trying to get you to sound like every rock band on the radio. And it was incredibly nice.
It was scary too because we knew that we were either going to have to get a distribution deal or sign with another label. So we went to England last year during the summertime and a lot of labels started expressing interest early on to sign us and we just had some really, really high standards and expectations of what a label would have to offer for us to be able to sign with them and it wasn’t going to be on any crazy 360 deal terms. It was going to be like, look, we’re not having A&R, we’re going to produce our own record and we just need somebody to leave us the hell alone so we can do what we do. And it worked out great.
We were very honored to have so many people wanting to bite at the band. But Mascot out of Holland signed the band. We signed with them and it felt like the greatest match. They let us do what we want to do and it’s great to work with them. We have a great working relationship and it’s the first time, like I said, in the studio we got in there and we could actually just be who we are and write and not have A&R over our shoulder and in our ears. But yeah, it’s good being home and recording. It was comfortable, it was nice to be able to have friends and family over and everything like that. It turned out great.
When the songs came in bare bones, did you know they were going to end up being this intense and aggressive?
Some of the heavier stuff, like “In Our Dreams,” was actually written pre-Devil record in 2010. What happened was, we got to where we were writing constantly for Between The Devil & The Deep Blue Seacause the previous label wanted us to really write and co-write and we’d never done that before. So we went out and wrote that song with a friend of ours, Bob Marlette, and he actually produced the second record for us. So it was cool to get to write with him and yeah, that song the label just thought it was too heavy. It was always somebody with an opinion that was sitting in an office writing checks. They didn’t really know anything about what our band was about, what our fans thought of us. When we got free we were like, we’re going to use that song on this record and it really was a great addition to the record.
Why did you do “War”?
We were looking for a B-side cause they wanted more songs for an exclusive album and we were going through a bunch of Motown songs and we were like, we need to find something that somebody hasn’t done a version of. And all this great stuff came up – Percy Sledge and Otis, a lot of funk stuff – and that song came up and everybody was just, “Yeah, we should do this!” I remember I had been out, I had gone and got a bite to eat, and I came back and the guys were like, “We’re thinking about ‘War.’” And as soon as they said that to me I was like, that’s it. We got to do that. In my head I was already going, that is going to be really heavy. We started working on it in mind that it was going to be a B-side. Then halfway getting the drums and everything first take down, we started putting the guitars on there and we knew we wanted it on the album; especially with the times and the world. It was not meant for that but it was perfect. So we’re glad to have that song on the actual record.
It’s very aggressive, especially Chris’ vocals
Oh yeah, he definitely went for it. I mean, you got to with that song. You can’t just sing that song, you’ve got to have some passion, emotion, and intent to sing that song. You’ve got to have conviction. You know, we’re kind of in the same place those cats were when Vietnam was going on to a point where we’re kind of living that through our lives now. I think it was very appropriate for the album.
What do you see as the biggest change you guys have gone through since the beginning?
Now, the biggest change has been that we are at a place where we have for the first time the artistic control, the full artistic input of everything. Of course, we work with our label now and they are just awesome. They’re not like a record label. They’re like an extended family of ours that are really genuinely into music. It’s not a corporate thing. Mascot is really hands-on and they only sign about two bands a year, maybe three bands, so they don’t have a bunch of corporate backers and things like that. It’s a real music label. Joe Bonamassa, Beth Hart, they have Warren Haynes, they have a great band from America called Shaman’s Harvest, and they have the first three Volbeat records. They have tons of stuff, Walter Trout, the list goes on.
So where we’re at now is we’re growing up, and when we first started this we were kids, we were nineteen, twenty, twenty-one years old, and now we’re thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two. But what’s cool about it is the fact that our fans stuck by us. We’re a grass roots band. We’re not an overnight success, not a hit single band. We’ve never been like that and that’s why we’re still around cause we took that seventies path of not blowing up on radio and just having these fans over and over and over come see us and it’s been wonderful.
As a drummer, for as hard as you play and as intense as you play, your drum kit is not that big.
You know what, I actually just down-sized some more. I was playing a 13 Tom and a 16/18 and I went to a 12 inch, 14/16. When I was probably twenty, going on twenty-one, I ordered my first kit of drums for our tour and my Uncle Fred from the Headhunters got me hooked up with the Ludwig guys. I love Bonham so I just ordered the big, huge rack Tom, big floor Toms. It’s like you want to be like your idols. Like my Uncle Fred, he has huge drums, John Bonham did too, then over time you go, man, I’m evolving as a player and I don’t want to just be a carbon copy of somebody. Sometimes you don’t even intentionally do that, you just kind of grow as a player and you go, wait a minute, man, this works better for me.
I remember, there’s been so many weird changes with drums. I went to like a real deep rack tom 14×14 and bigger Toms. Then I switched drum companies and went to DW and then took one of my floor Toms and put it over here, which nobody was doing that in our circles, but I’m sure people were doing that, but not where we were all touring. So I had a Tom here and a Tom here and I would hit here and I was really weak with my left hand switching over here cause I’m a right handed player. So it was cool to be able to do that and that made me open the Hi-Hat up with this hand cause normally I play here. I had that for years and years and then I went down a bass drum size, went down a Tom size, and then we went to Europe and I toured like that for probably two or three years.
2014, I finally got a double bass kit, with two bass drums, two Toms, but I never played double bass on any record, I never played double bass on any live stuff. It was always single pedal. I had a fear that having two bass drums out, people would go, “He always played double bass,” but I never did. I’m decent at double bass but I’m a single bass drum player so I went back to that. This kit I’ve got now, Nick Jonas had it out for a while and they brought it back into DW and it was at the drum workshop and they brought it in and cleaned it up. I called and said I need to go to a smaller kit, a 12, 14/16, and they were like, “We just got this kit that came in,” and I bought this kit from them. They made me a hell of a deal on it and I couldn’t pass it up.
Who are your three favorite drummers, the ones that inspire you the most?
Honestly, the drummers who inspired me the most would be #1 my Uncle Fred. He is one of the most underrated, amazing drummers in the world. We would sit at the practice house for hours and hours and jam and Fred would show me beats and stuff. When I was little, I remember he’d show me rudiments on your hands, and he said I had to really watch my timing, “because your timing was just immaculate as a child.” Of course I rush now on any song I don’t have a metronome. But he got me a drum set when I was five years old and I just beat the BS out of that thing, beat it to death.
Was it a real drum set?
It was a Junior Pro kit by Remo. I’ve still got it. But Fred taught me a lot. Fred is my #1 and my #2 most influential is John Bonham. Fred turned me onto John Bonham and I love everything he’s ever done. But three is really hard because I could list you right now thirty. Not that I have to hunt for them, I could tell you thirty right off the bat. But you know, the third, it would be so hard to not list Ginger Baker and Bernard Purdie. I remember the Hot Licks video from Ginger Baker and the Hot Licks video from Bernard Purdie and those two, I mean, Purdie played on everything, the shuffle.
I think that gets lost nowadays
It does but you can hear it. I mean, that is where Bonham got “The Ocean” from and that’s where Jeff Porcaro got “Rosanna” from, that Purdie shuffle.
Is it true you chose drums over a car?
Yes, yes. My dad was like, “Hey look, for your sixteenth birthday, do you want to get a vehicle or do you want to get a drum set?” And I was like, man, I want a drum set. I never forgot that. My dad actually sold a really, really rare guitar to fund getting that drum set.
When did you finally get the car?
I just drove my dad’s farm truck a lot. In high school I would borrow his truck and stuff but driving, actually I was scared to death to drive. I didn’t want to drive. I was terrified of it. I remember getting my license like the first day of high school and I was just so terrified to drive. But we started the band and we needed to haul our equipment so I was like, I got to man up. My dad had like a 1999 Sierra extended cab that I would drive a lot and it was like a boat to turn but it had a bed on it so we hauled a lot of equipment. And Ben had an Explorer and hell, Chris didn’t have his license until probably he was twenty-five cause his girlfriend at the time, his wife now, drove him everywhere. And he’s probably the best driver out of all of us now. But we were so focused, so focused on music as kids growing up. It was like we just didn’t give a care about anything except being at that practice house and just doing it. And we’d stay down there at that house for hours and hours. We’d come into school late having just been up all night and I think that’s why we’re still around doing this because we’re family, really family.
You don’t hate each other yet
Yeah, we hate each other (laughs) but it’s brotherly hate. It’s not a hate you can’t get over with in fifteen minutes. But it’s very tight. Our crew guys have been with us for a long time, like Joe our tour manager.
I met him back on the Bad Company tour
Oh yeah, that tour didn’t suck. That was awesome. I remember I went out and bought a juicer and I left it in the dadgum dressing room that night.
That is so rock & roll
I know, right (laughs). If that was the eighties it would have been a bag of cocaine but I went and bought a juicer. I used it twice. It was only like sixty bucks but it still sucked. But yeah, we’ve stuck together a long time. We went through a lot of stuff, we’ve had our ups and downs, but I think that the cool thing is that we’re like a cockroach, like a coyote – you cannot kill us. And it’s the truth, we’ve been through some crazy stuff and it’s a testament to a true group of brothers that want to keep doing it.