Advertisement

The Black Crowes Are Ready to Fly Again

e
The Black Crowes Are Ready to Fly AgainROSS HALFIN (BLACK CROWES PORTRAIT). JASON KEMPIN (CONCERT). COURTESY PUBLISHERS (BOOKS).

It started, as so many great tales do, with a random encounter in a hotel lobby.


Chris Robinson (the singer) and Rich Robinson (the guitarist) started the Black Crowes more than forty years ago. They went on to sell millions of records, share stages with music’s greatest legends, and generally kick rock ‘n’ roll in the ass with their greasy, Faces/Humble Pie-style swagger. They became at least as well known, though, for their nonstop battles—physical, verbal, and emotional. The band officially broke up in 2015 (when Chris demanded a bigger cut of the profits), but by then, the brothers hadn’t been speaking for years. Some of their children had never even met.

“My kids would ask, ‘Do we have an uncle? Why don't we ever talk to him?’ ” says Rich, age 54.

So, it was truly unexpected when the Robinsons ran into each other in New York’s Bowery Hotel in 2018. “The kids were like, ‘Oh, by the way, are you guys related to us?,’ ” says Chris, 57. But the chance meeting was civil, and it turned out that the Robinsons had recently been on each other’s minds.

“I had called a friend of ours and said, ‘Man, I really wish I could hear Chris sing on this song I wrote’,” recalls Rich. “And our friend was like, ‘He just called me yesterday and said the exact same thing.’ So it was like we were both kind of circling around something.”

e
Chris Robinson on stage during the Shake Your Money Maker anniversary tour. Jason Kempin

With the ice broken, Chris and Rich stayed in contact, and by the spring of 2019, they were ready to give the band another shot. That November, they announced that the Black Crowes would be going back on the road to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their five-times-platinum debut album, Shake Your Money Maker. There was no talk—yet—of making new music.

“We haven't even discussed it,” said Chris at the time. “I think one thing at a time is easiest for us. Not too many shiny objects in the room.” But then, of course, a spring 2020 tour was not to be. As Rich puts it, “the big turd of COVID had other plans.”

Stuck at home like the rest of us (Chris in Los Angeles, Rich in Nashville), they went to work. “When they shut the world down, I just did what I always do—I write,” says Rich. “I have a studio in my house, and I started doing stuff and sending it to Chris. Chris was living next to a guy with a studio, so he could go over there and sing and send it back. It was really just to keep things going during that time where we couldn't keep things going.”

The Robinsons claim it wasn’t a big deal to get the wheels turning again, but it did take some attitude adjustment. “When we got back together,” says Chris, “we didn't get on the phone and talk about it—‘I love you, man. I'm sorry.’ We're not like that. But at the same time, we have to be more like that. I'm learning, still, about communication, about empathy, about not falling into old habits in terms of how we deal with each other emotionally.” (Our two rounds of Zoom interviews were done with each brother separately, back-to-back, rather than sharing a screen with both of them.)

united states january 01 hollywood photo of black crowes, at the sunset marquis hotel photo by ian dicksonredferns
The Black Crowes in Los Angeles, 1991. Ian Dickson

When lockdown finally lifted, they restarted the delayed Money Maker tour in July 2021 (it would extend all the way into the fall of 2023) but continued writing songs. “Eventually,” says Rich, “we were like, well, let's go do a record.”

The result is Happiness Bastards, the first new Black Crowes album in fifteen years and a return to their signature hard-charging riffs with echoes of Memphis soul and old-school barroom boogie. Out now, the record was produced by Grammy winner Jay Joyce, who came up in the rock world but is best known for his country work with Carrie Underwood, Eric Church, and Miranda Lambert.

Joyce was well aware of the brothers’ reputation when he was first approached about the gig. “I definitely thought, this can be cool, but is it going to be worth the drama?” he says. “But we did a couple of Zoom calls and talked extensively about songs and whatnot. Right away, I could tell that they were on fire about doing it, and it wasn't just, ‘let's get together and make a buck or some shit.’ Chris was like, ‘We want to listen to somebody, we haven't done that, and we're used to getting our own way.’ And I'm like, Whoa, cool—the Black Crowes are gonna listen to me?”

It was a long road to get back to a dynamic that Joyce describes as “push-pull, but good collaborative.” Chris credits his wife of four years, Camille (he was famously married to Kate Hudson in the 2000s), with helping to alter his mentality. “To have someone give you a different perspective of your family is important,” he says, “and she didn't have any agenda. My wife's the kind of person to take something at face value, like, ‘I'll make my opinions about Rich when I meet him.’ The most amazing thing to me is it's the simplest change—‘Let's talk about it,’ instead of just barreling through with defensiveness and resentment and some sort of destructive egotism.”

Rich also acknowledges Camille’s role in helping the brothers find common ground. “She has definitely been a good force in his life for being able to calm him down,” he says. “She's helped him go, ‘Hold on, there's another perspective here.’ But I will give him credit all day. He's been amazing at not flying off the handle and coming out guns blazing.”

The guitarist also recognizes necessary changes and insight of his own. “I have my mental issues,” he says, “obsessive compulsive and possibly even on the spectrum a little bit, things I can't help. I never knew why the constant energy of the world was really stressful for me, so I was always in this protective mode. I think Chris finally understood that, with her help, to be like, ‘Oh, shit, there's something going on here. It's not that he's being a dick, he's fucking freaked out.’ ”

franklin, tennessee september 23 l r chris robinson and rich robinson of the black crowes perform during pilgrimage music cultural festival at the park at harlinsdale farm on september 23, 2023 in franklin, tennessee photo by erika goldringgetty images
Chris and Rich on stage in 2023. Erika Goldring

Meantime, leading their own solo projects during the Crowes’ hiatus opened both of their eyes to their own problematic behavior. “I could see things in band members that maybe I did, and I'm like, wow, that's really annoying,” says Rich. “Now I understand a lot more my role in what happened. It lets you realize that it's not just the other asshole’s fault.”

“The stage had to be set,” says Chris, “for the Shakespearean drama to play itself out to its inevitable conclusion.”


Growing up outside Atlanta, Chris and Rich were the only children of Nancy and Stan Robinson; their father, a singer and actor, had a minor hit single called “Boom-a-Dip Dip” in 1958. “If this was Victorian time, we would be considered eccentrics,” says Chris. “On paper, our upbringing looks very normal. My parents chose to live in suburbia, we went to school, we had a fairly normal life. But within that, my parents were weirdos, in their more subtle ways.”

They inhaled everything from funk to blues to R.E.M.’s nascent “modern rock,” and a few months after persuading their parents to buy them guitars in their early teens, the brothers started a band called Mr. Crowe’s Garden, playing their first show in Chattanooga in 1984. Rich was only 17 when he wrote “She Talks to Angels,” perhaps the band’s best-loved ballad, after someone showed him open E tuning on a guitar for the first time.

By 1989, they had renamed themselves the Black Crowes and were signed to Rick Rubin’s Def American Recordings; for a fleeting moment, Rubin—a big pro wrestling fan—suggested they change their name to Kobb Kounty Krows, or (gulp) KKK, to play up their Southern heritage.

The next year, Shake Your Money Maker came out, and it exploded, reaching number 4 on the album charts, powered by an amped-up cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” which was a number 1 rock hit and in constant MTV rotation.

“We were still in the midst of the hair band era, and still a year away from grunge,” says music executive Rick Krim, who was MTV’s Vice President of Talent and Artist Relations at the time. “There was starting to be a little fatigue of a certain genre, a sense that we can’t just be this one thing.” With Poison and Warrant on one side of them and MC Hammer and New Kids on the Block on the other, the Crowes’ throwback vibes felt bracing and overdue. Says Krim: “We all became fans pretty quickly because they were everything we loved, a great rock ‘n’ roll band without any pretense and without any hairspray.”

“We put out the record,” says Rich, “and within a year and a half, we went from playing to 12 people, opening for a band called Junkyard in Salt Lake City to playing in front of 800,000 people in Moscow with AC/DC and Metallica.”

The tour stories are, quite simply, unbelievable—opening for the Rolling Stones in England and, on off days, driving to Scotland to open for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, or Aerosmith’s Joe Perry dropping Rich’s riff from “Twice As Hard” into his guitar solo every night while the Crowes were touring with them.

“Part of that was not just what we were doing or what we represented, but how much we had in common,” says Chris. “Because we love Led Zeppelin, but we also love the records that Jimmy Page loved. We had a lot of the same influences, and we were so involved in the record collecting and the history. I think that was always the bond—OK, these kids aren't just playing dress-up, they're really into this.”

Almost immediately, though, the Robinsons also became part of another long musical tradition as battling brothers, a dysfunctional chain that winds back through the Everly Brothers and the Kinks. But these guys definitely cranked things up a notch; when they toured with Oasis, even Liam and Noel Gallagher—the textbook example of sibling toxicity—were freaked out by the intensity of their fights.

“They have a beautiful blend of sibling blood harmony and blood relationship on stage,” says Nancy Wilson, co-founder with her sister, Ann, of Heart—another Hall of Fame band the Black Crowes toured with early in their career. She calls Chris “one of the best singers in rock, with a John Lennon-meets-Rod Stewart tonality,” and recalls him borrowing black eyeliner from Ann, something Freddie Mercury had also done when Heart opened for Queen.

“They fought, like these other brothers in bands, and we’d think ‘Get over it, figure it out!’ ” says Wilson. “I understand it, of course—when you’re a sibling with someone and work with them and you’re leaders of a ship that you’re steering together, drama just goes with it.”

Looking back, Rich emphasizes their youth and the velocity of their success out of the gate. “People are taught to deal with failure, but they're never taught to deal with success,” he says. “And I don’t know any 20-year-old that would be equipped to deal with all that.” He adds, though, that while the sibling relationship was obviously a complication, it was also an opportunity for those around them to exploit.

franklin, tennessee september 23 rich robinson of the black crowes performs onstage for day one of the 2023 pilgrimage music cultural festival at the park at harlinsdale farm on september 23, 2023 in franklin, tennessee photo by jason kempingetty images for pilgrimage music cultural festival
Rich on stage in 2023. Jason Kempin

“It's tough for people to be in a band with brothers,” he says, “and there was tension, regardless of the band, between Chris and I. But maybe the reason that a lot of bands with brothers in them tend to go off the rails is because of people preying on the vulnerabilities of brother dynamics and seeing ways to manipulate and exacerbate long-standing issues, whatever childhood trauma that may be.”

Rich claims the real problem came from others in their orbit who wanted to “wind things up” for their own agenda, relaying messages of one brother talking smack about the other. He adds, “People in the band said that it would terrify them when Chris and I would get along, because no one could stop us. Well, why do you want to stop it? What does that mean? We’re not like MI-5 or Bond villains. Band dynamics are another family dynamic, and you add that on top of Chris and my family dynamic, and it gets really weird.”

Somehow, in the midst of the chaos, the Crowes’ second album, 1992’s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, was even better than the debut—more ambitious and soulful, less derivative. (“It was the golden hour,” says Chris. “It felt amazing, and we felt very in tune with everything.”) But then they started cycling through band members—by some counts, there have been more than two dozen Black Crowes over the years—and Chris’s drug use accelerated.

More and more time passed between albums, to less and less impact. Nor did they make things easy for themselves, getting thrown off a ZZ Top tour for badmouthing the tour sponsor, Miller Lite, or using a close-up image of a woman’s swimsuit area, complete with protruding pubic hair, as the cover of the 1994 album Amorica.

“We're famous for the times we haven't been together,” says Chris, “but we were together a lot. We made a lot of fucking records and we did a lot of shows. Of course, the dramatic pauses of our relationship are going to demand more attention than the reality of the things that we did; the mistakes are always more interesting than the other storyline. I recognize that, and I also think that's played into our advantage in some ways, to keep our story interesting to people.”

The split in 2015 sure felt final. It had been six years since the Crowes had put out an album of original material, and the brothers had stopped communicating on tour. But after the stars realigned following the fateful hotel lobby meeting, they remembered that they got along best when they were creating together.

“Every time Chris and I would get in the room and write, it was a safe space,” says Rich. “There was none of the horseshit that used to plague us when we were younger. And that's what brings us together more than anything, writing a fucking song that we're happy with.”

Both Robinsons, however, insist that no matter how bad things got, they have no regrets. “I would never go back and change anything,” says Chris. “There's not a second of it that could ever be any different, because we could never be here if we had deviated. I've almost gone about it with a writer's mentality. I'll take this for what it is and put it in with all the other stimuli and hopefully come out the other side wiser—I mean, you don't want to step in the same pile of shit more than a couple times.”

Which brings us back to Happiness Bastards, a return to form which, by all accounts, was a shockingly smooth recording process, knocked out in about two weeks. “There's a focus to this record that we haven’t had in a long time,” says Rich. “I think there's more sophistication in the songwriting. Like ‘Flesh Wound’ is kind of a tribute to X, one of our favorite bands. There's a punk rock element to it with a freaky bridge.”

One notable track is “Wilted Rose,” a moody ballad featuring current Nashville darling Lainey Wilson. “I’ve had many different country influences growing up,” says Wilson, “but I was also raised on rock ‘n’ roll, and the Black Crowes’ energy has always caught my attention. They are a once-in-a-generation iconic group, and their ability to dance around different genres inspires me.”

“What most surprised me was how full of ideas they were,” says Joyce. “I would be like, ‘I need something else right here, give me a hook,’ and Rich would give me five different options, right off the top of his head. Chris, too. It seemed like they've been doing that forever, like they've just got an encyclopedia of hooks.”

This article appeared in the March 2024 issue of Esquire
subscribe

The Robinsons are wary of making predictions about the future, but with the band back in business (a tour starts at the Grand Ole Opry in April and takes them through the U.S. and Europe this summer), all signs point to the Black Crowes sticking around for a while. “Being apart from each other for so long really put into perspective that we wanted to do this right,” says Rich. “We don't want this to be a one-off thing. No one wants to wind this whole thing back up, and then break it down again.”

Characteristically, Chris offers a more supernatural interpretation. “The whole thing shows how interconnected we are,” he says. “Not just as family, but as songwriters and people that dreamed up this band, and the pursuit of keeping the music in a place that we're excited about, and that we feel has an authenticity and some sort of mystical revelation in the cosmic sphere of what we fucking really believe is rock ‘n’ roll. No one can beat that out of us. No one can tell us we're naive or adolescent or anything.”

He's just getting warmed up. “Plenty of experience in the world has lost its magical luster,” he continues, “but we would never allow music to become that. And you can think that I'm bullshitting, you can call that whatever you want, but it would never fucking change a thing to me and Rich. And that's really, fundamentally, what drives us still.”

You Might Also Like