The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson never cared for southern rock

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By Steve Newton

Chris Robinson, of Atlanta, Georgia, was nine years old when southern-rock heroes Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded the historic live album One More from the Road at that city’s Fox Theatre. Robinson was a little young for concerts at the time, but even if he’d been of age, he surely would have passed on the show. You see, he’s one of that rare breed: a rocker from the south who never cared for southern rock.

“I couldn’t stand Lynyrd Sknynyrd when I was a kid,” says Robinson, “and I never liked the Allmans. I was more influenced by the blues and R&B and English bands, actually.”

Downplaying a band as revered in redneck territory as Skynyrd might not be a particularly healthy move for an Atlantan, but you could say that he’s earned the right to spout off a tad. At 23, the singer for the Black Crowes has already seen his band’s debut album go gold in Canada and sell 350,000 copies in the States. And the group has just finished a two-month tour with Aerosmith. You could say that the band—which plays Club Soda this Sunday (August 12)—is on its way up.

But it was only five years ago that Robinson and his brother, Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson, played their first paying gig. It took place in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the band was paid 50 bucks. The cheque bounced, but Robinson was not swayed.

“It was still like the greatest rush, the greatest high I ever had,” he says. “I was 18 years old and playing in a club—my first gig out of town. Kinda cool, you know.”

Three years after that gig the current Black Crowes line-up was solidified, and the band took to playing Georgia clubs and writing new material, usually with Chris penning the lyrics and Rich the music. The sound the band came up with—as featured on the LP Shake Your Moneymaker—has more in common with early ’70s Faces than with any southern-rock bands, but that wasn’t a handicap for the group.

“I guess people who haven’t done what we’ve done would think it’s been difficult,” says Robinson, “but how difficult was it? I mean, I never sent a tape anywhere. Basically, we always knew that when it’s time to make a record, someone’s gonna find us and we’re gonna make a record.”

That someone turned out to be producer George Drakoulias, who saw the band in New York and got them signed to Def American, the Geffen-distributed label whose stable includes such uncompromising acts as thrash-metal kings Slayer and controversial comic Andrew Dice Clay. “We just wanted to go with the label that would give us the freedom to do whatever we wanted in the studio,” says Robinson. “We could have signed with a lot of different labels, but we knew to avoid the hassles.”

The band also took the path less travelled when it decided to have first-timer Drakoulias helm the album, rather than a better-known, proven producer.

“Big-name producers are basically about making their name even bigger,” says Robinson, “which sometimes gets in the way of a band wanting to be a band. I mean, I’m not here to make Bruce Fairbairn or Bob Rock famous, I’m here to make me famous.”

While Robinson does come off as somewhat of a brash know-it-all, a heavy dose of confidence never hurt a new band that’s out to make it. He claims that the Black Crowes’ motive is to stir things up a bit in today’s too-safe music biz.

“I don’t think something that safe is healthy,” he says. “There’s no room for anything weird to happen, so what good is it? But thing’s are looking up—there’s some new bands out there that are really good. Like Lenny Kravitz is amazing, and there’s a band in L.A. called Burning Tree that is great.”

To help out its own cause, the Black Crowes recruited keyboard whiz Chuck Leavell (Allmans, Stones) to play piano and organ on most of Shake Your Moneymaker‘s tracks.

The Robinson brothers wrote all but one of the album’s tunes, the exception being Otis Redding’s ’68 number, “Hard to Handle”. “We just decided to work up a couple of soul classics and see how they went, and that one turned out real good. Plus we’re all huge Otis fans anyway.”

One of the most memorable tracks on the album is “Thick ’n’ Thin”, a rollicking boogier that opens with the sound of a car colliding with a dumpster. The idea for the intro came from drummer Steve Groman’s habit of crashing his ’66 Dodge Dart into garbage cans whenever he pulled into a parking lot. The band took a portable recorder and taped Gorman, the old fogie of the band at 24, as he rammed his car into the dumpster out behind the studio. Lucky there were no cops around, ’cause he had to do it seven times to get it right.

“That was basically just five guys in their early 20s getting bored,” says Robinson. “It’s a good way to break the monotony for about an hour.”

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