Black Crowes' Rich Robinson Sings the Praises of the Gospel

Rich Robinson is scurrying around his Atlanta home cooking chili, consulting with a plumber, picking up after his toddler son and modestly discussing his latest labor of love, the new Black Crowes album, By Your Side. Off the road for just two days, the twenty-nine-year-old guitarist is making up for lost time. And yawning a lot.

"He just called his toy shark a 'silly billy,'" Robinson chuckles while juggling the phone and feeding two-year-old Taylor, who recently joined his dad for a soundcheck backstage at the Cajun House in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he proudly sported an enormous -- and undoubtedly darling -- set of hearing-protective headphones. Born around the time 1996's Three Snakes and One Charm was released, Taylor has reined in his father's rock & roll lifestyle somewhat, but he's done nothing to soften the Robinson family wild streak.

On Dec. 14, brothers Rich and Chris Robinson (vocals, mayhem) tied up the winter leg of the Crowes' on-again, off-again Sho 'Nuff tour, which supported their entire back-catalog box set. On Jan. 12, the commotion will resume with the release of By Your Side, and yet another open-ended tour that may see the Crowes headlining next year's H.O.R.D.E., Robinson says.

Not ones to bide their time with lost tracks and studio outtakes, the Black Crowes are returning a mere five months after Sho 'Nuff with eleven new songs that shake and shimmy with a familiar Southern spirit. From the gritty rock standard "Kicking My Heart Around" to the gospel-tinged love song "Diamond Ring," By Your Side demonstrates what the Black Crowes do best: rock & roll.

"The gospel has always been there," Robinson says of the Crowes' current sound. "There were more spiritual and gospel undertones on Three Snakes, and I think that is an element we brought back over to this album."

"Diamond Ring," which Robinson calls a "really cool Al Green song," and the guitar-rock tune "Go Tell the Congregation" were tacked on to the album at the eleventh hour, pushing its release date back into the new year. The Black Crowes wrapped up the first draft of By Your Side last May, but then created a host of marketing department headaches by continuing to create and experiment on the road while supporting Sho 'Nuff. Robinson says he returned home for a break in September, wrote two more songs, handed them off to Chris for lyrics and promptly returned to the studio.

"I don't question why I write songs or how I write songs. I always get scared that if I do that I will jinx myself," he says. "But this shows that just one or two songs can change the entire outlook of the record -- they can turn it into something completely different."

Born and bred on the same Dixie influences as its predecessors, By Your Side lays claim to at least one distinct calling card: producer Kevin Shirley. The man behind Silverchair's Frogstomp and Aerosmith's Nine Lives, Shirley was recommended to the Crowes by Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry.

"Kevin brought out a lot of energy that we haven't had for a while," Robinson says. "He said, 'Forget everything that you have learned in the last ten years and just play the songs. Quit being so dramatic.' We sometimes get caught up in making everything perfect, but he said 'fuck it and play the songs.'"

And his word became gospel. The Black Crowes played with a new excitement and enthusiasm, spurred on by the band's two new members, bassist Sven Pipien (Mary My Hope) and guitarist Audley Freed (Cry of Love). "We were a little worried at first," Robinson says. "But Audley and Sven really love music -- not in some really weird industry compartmentalized way ... they really love music, and that's rare."

Sounds like the rookies are in good company.