There's little doubt that hard rock continues to be one of music's most popular genres. But despite staking its claim on the charts and on modern rock radio, the music itself seems to suffer from homogeny. There might be more hard-rock bands than ever, but good luck telling one group's sound from the next.
This is where a band like the Kentucky quartet Black Stone Cherry has an advantage. And if you ask lead guitarist Ben Wells, the band's bond with the Bluegrass State has played a sizable role.
"I think it probably has the majority (to do) with the way our band sounds," Lee said. "I think that's why it's hard for people to pinpoint just what style we are."
In addition to geography, a bit of musical lineage certainly played its part in the band's development. Black Stone Cherry formed in Edmonton in 2001 with Wells, singer/guitarist Chris Robertson, bassist Jon Lawhon and drummer John Fred Young, whose father, Richard Young, and uncle, Fred Young, are part of Edmonton's biggest musical export: the country-rock group the Kentucky Headhunters.
Wells recalled that he and his fellow band members grew up on a steady diet of various genres that Kentucky is known to produce (country, bluegrass, gospel) along with a healthy dose of rock, both classic and Southern.
The band's sound falls somewhere between metal and Southern rock, with Wells' scorching leads and Lawhon and Young's skilled and powerful rhythmic lock-step taking occasional flashy but welcome detours. That emphasis on musicianship is something Wells hopes people will notice — to an extent.
"We don't want to go over people's heads too much. We'll leave that to Rush," Wells said jokingly. "We want to show people that we practiced our asses off growing up."
That proficiency gets some added color from sounds and styles the band incorporates. It's impossible not to hear the Southern-fried soul that sneaks into Robertson's vocal runs, metal brooding and whiskey growls. On the group's 2008 self-titled debut album, it sneaked in some Hammond B-3 organ on the tracks Tired of the Rain and Rollin' On. On the band's follow-up, Folklore and Superstition, you'll hear bits of slide guitar in some of the album's stadium-ready numbers, and a little reggae dabbling on Sunrise.
In a way, Wells said, those choices are all just ways to distance themselves from the hard-rock crowd.
"There's a part of you that kind of has to play the game to be successful, but not so much that we want to sound like everybody else," Wells said. "We always want to throw curveballs at people."
That success has certainly come in the States, with Top 20 rock singles Lonely Train and Blind Man and tours supporting Nickelback and Motörhead, but the success has been even greater in the United Kingdom, where the band has consistently toured and where Folklore and Superstition debuted at No. 1 on the rock chart.
"It kind of caught us by surprise when we started figuring out that, wow, we're really something over there," Wells said. British listeners "are not as 'what's popular this week is not popular next week.' If they like you there, they like you forever."
Black Stone Cherry hopes to win over U.S. rock audiences fully with its latest release, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. The band hired producer Howard Benson (Three Days Grace, Daughtry) and detached itself from life on the road to spend a year writing and recording in California. In addition to producing tracks with thick riffs, soaring choruses and party- starting anthems — including the band's biggest hit, the brash, Hemi- fueled rocker White Trash Millionaire — Wells said the sessions away from touring produced one of the band's best and most vulnerable songs. Namely, In My Blood, which chronicles the addictive draw of the road despite having to leave loved ones behind.
Wells credits the band's attention to the songs and Benson's direction to helping this young band step further into maturity.
"He just wanted us to be happy with what we were doing," Wells said. "He really just brought a lot of great stuff out of us and to keep on writing ... not just settling for OK."
But as Black Stone Cherry continues to develop, it refuses to stray far from its origins. Whether it's the decision to feature a cover of the Marshall Tucker Band's classic Can't You See or the stripped-down, back-porch feel of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea's closing track, All I'm Dreamin' Of, Black Stone Cherry seems determined to be wear its roots on its sleeve.
"You don't find a lot of rock bands coming out of Kentucky," Wells said. "I think we're bringing back an element of Southern rock that's missing in modern music."