BlackHawk burst onto the country music airways in late ’93 with their self-titled debut album. Thrilling three-part harmonies, a unique sonic sensibility with traditional instruments that rocked, and songs that were simply different were part of BlackHawk’s identity. Almost a decade later – a decade filled with the triumphs of hit singles, platinum albums and huge tours and the tragedy of losing one of its founding members – the band comes full-circle on their Columbia Nashville debut Spirit Dancer to focus on one simple thing – the music. Recognition of where they had come from was central in a new beginning.
More than getting back to who they were, Spirit Dancer embodies the musical spirit of a new BlackHawk; of a wiser, more mature Dave Robbins and Henry Paul. “This record tells you who we’ve become,” says Paul. “At this time in our lives, we want to address some of the issues that go into making us better people; people trying to make some progress as individuals in the business of living.” A spiritual thread runs throughout Spirit Dancer like the string in a strand of pearls. It’s a collection of uplifting music that speaks to both our humanity and spirituality with plenty of room for personal interpretation.
It has been a few years of soul searching for Robbins and lead singer, Henry Paul, the creative core of BlackHawk. First, in late 1998 their partner and close friend, Van Stephenson, was diagnosed with cancer, which later claimed his life. Professionally, the trio had begun to admit they were creatively unfulfilled. And then, when BMG absorbed Arista, their record deal ended. When it became clear that Stephenson would have to leave the band, there was never a question about whether BlackHawk would continue. “We knew there was no replacing Van,” says Robbins. “We weren’t even going to try. Fortunately for us we had within our band guys who could step up and pull off the vocal task at hand. Though the third part harmony in their trademark harmony was given voice, the fundamental questions about the band’s direction still loomed. By late 1999, a new beginning for BlackHawk was underway.
“Henry and I sat and had a long talk and asked, what are we going to do and where are we going to go?” says Robbins. “One of the main things that has always separated us from a lot of other artists,” says Robbins, “especially groups, probably begins with our songwriting background – being songwriters, and actually having made a living being songwriters.” Stephenson and Robbins were a successful songwriting team and between them had cuts by Poco, Kenny Rogers, Eric Clapton, Dan Seals, Restless Heart and others. Paul’s history as founder and singer of the 70’s southern rock group The Outlaws brought both band experience and songwriter’s sensibility. “The Outlaws were a typical band during that rock era,” continues Robbins, “so they sat in a room and wrote their albums as a band. There wasn’t a lot of going out and finding outside songs.”
Both in combining their composition talents and using that same sense to find unique gems from other writers, BlackHawk came out of the chute in late 1993 soaring. With their revved-up acoustic-based music, the signature harmony vocals and energized stage shows, their debut single, “Goodbye Says It All” shot straight to the top ten. The group scored three more top ten hits from that record – “I Sure Can Smell The Rain,” “That’s Just About Right,” and “Down In Flames” – and scored their first number one self-penned single with “Every Once In A While.” The album sold two million copies. Released in late 1995, album number two, Strong Enough, also hit the platinum mark and spawned five chart hits – “I’m Not Strong Enough To Say No,” “Like There Ain’t No Yesterday,” “Almost A Memory Now,” “Big Guitar” and “King of the World.”
BlackHawk brought a new, hip, aesthetically pleasing musical style with the mandolin, accordion, violin, acoustic and electric guitars. “It was a mix of sound that hadn’t really been heard in quite that way, and there was an energy to it that set it apart. There was a coolness that people who weren’t necessarily country music fans could identify with. I think we helped bring new fans to the format,” says Paul. Those new fans, along with legions of tried and true country fans, helped BlackHawk become one of the hottest entities in the genre at a time when overall sales and popularity of country music were beginning to falter.
With their third album, 1997’s Love and Gravity, they scored a major hit with “Postmarked Birmingham.” Although The Sky’s The Limit, released in 1998, produced the Top 5 hit, “There You Have It,” a rigorous touring schedule combined with the typical pitfalls inherent in stardom left BlackHawk little time to remember who they were. As Paul puts it: “We lost our way to a certain extent. We played more of a maintenance role in our career for three or four years. We couldn’t quite find the time or we never got a handle on the creative process to reinvent ourselves musically and lyrically or from the standpoint of songs or sound.” With that hard learned lesson turned to foresight, Paul and Robbins knew that any renaissance of BlackHawk would have to begin with their creative identity and expression. “We decided we would never allow the creative issue of the band’s lyrical, musical center to ever again wrest itself from our control,” says Paul, “and that we would live and die by the music we felt strongly about as songwriters and recording artists.”
That heart-to-heart talk brought a renewed commitment between Robbins and Paul. “Dave and I had to rethink our roles, and we formulated a new relationship, a partnership, based on equity. We got to work. We started writing.” The two spent literally hundreds of hours in their home studio, the Hawk’s nest, with a number of the band’s favorite co-writers, finding their creative center, figuring out what they wanted to say and how they wanted to say it. Says Paul, “Over the course of five to seven months, we reinvented ourselves, and it was all done in sort of a retrospective fashion. In other words, it didn’t become clear who we were until we stepped back to see who we had become.” Not surprisingly, who they had become was, in fact, who they had been all along.
Part of the eclectic nature of BlackHawk comes from Paul’s own cross-cultural sensibility. A native of Kingston, New York, seven-year-old Henry Paul and his mother moved south to central Florida when his parents divorced. Henry spent summers in the Catskill Mountains with his father working on the family’s three-generation sweet corn farm. The two “significantly different social backdrops” would serve him well. After high school, Paul, an avowed lover of folk music, moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village to retrace musical hero Bob Dylan’s footsteps. Paul wrote songs and played coffeehouses for tips, and worked in the famed bookstore, The Strand, to help pay the bills. He was also touched by the budding California country rock scene and by the early ’70s was enticed back to Florida where he met the core of musicians with whom he would form The Outlaws. That band would become the first rock band signed to Clive Davis’s fledgling Arista Records. In 1977, Paul left to form the Henry Paul Band and recorded four notable albums for Atlantic.
Robbins’ songwriter sensibilities and broad musical base also provide texture in the BlackHawk fabric. He grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Forest Park and started playing piano at age six. Though he let it fall by the wayside during adolescent years, the piano suddenly became cool again when Robbins entered high school and took up with musicians. In addition to playing in garage bands, Robbins became a serious student of piano and worked on technique through classical music. After his junior college music professor saw Robbins’ talent on keys and for songwriting, he encouraged Robbins to move to Nashville. He majored in music at Belmont University and ultimately met his friend and professional partner, Van Stephenson. At age 21, Robbins got a writing deal at House of Gold Music and began penning a string of hits that would pave his way to a successful songwriting career.
When Stephenson and Robbins met Henry Paul in the early –90s, the three began writing together and performing in songwriter venues around Nashville. The musical alliance was natural and comfortable and their unique harmonies and creative synergy quickly started a buzz. BlackHawk was born. When Paul and Robbins went looking for a new record deal in early 2000, they met with Sony Nashville CEO Allen Butler, who had been with Arista when the trio signed there. “Allen was actually very instrumental in A&R on our first album,” says Robbins. “We thought, wouldn’t it be cool to end up at Sony with him?”
They did just that. Butler’s faith in BlackHawk was manifested in his encouragement for them to be themselves, echoing their own mandate of creative honesty. “BlackHawk played a huge role in our Arista success,” says Butler, who has high praise for his friends. “They are consummate professionals and ultimate performers. They’re great and significant songwriters. And above all that,” he adds, “they are big supporters of the country music format.” “They get what we do and they’re not afraid of it,” says Robbins. “Allen encouraged us to not back off. He said, ‘Do what you do; don’t go in there and try to be safe. Go be yourself.” And so they did. Producing the record with their good friend Mike Clute, Paul and Robbins have made a record that is both personal and universal, both organic and progressive. “What we realized with this record,” says Robbins, “is that we wrote some really good, meaningful, rootsy songs. And then as we got into the recording process, what became very apparent to us was, the squeezebox was prevalent, the fiddle was prevalent, the acoustic guitars and mandolin were there and it’s like, hey guys, guess what? This is what we did on our first record! How did we get away from that?”
“Days of America” was written by Paul, Robbins and Lee Miller in April 2001, not so much as a patriotic song, but as a testament to the spirit of the American working people. When they recorded the song the following August, they had no idea how timely and important that rousing anthem to the common man would become the next month. The light moment on Spirit Dancer is the funky and infectious “One Night In New Orleans.” Written by Rick Giles, Tim Nichols and Gilles Goddard, “One Night” is a joyful Cajun-flavored swirl about the international language of love and desire. Full of squeezebox and fiddle color, it transports you into the song, and you’ll be dancing around, at least in your mind, with your own objet l’amour. “One Love” is one of those rare, astonishingly wise and deeply affecting songs about love in its highest form; it will surely become a classic to transcend genres. With the line: “A star made a wish on us tonight/hanging out in heaven/inspired by our light/cause he knows how it feels/to shine on all the world/and last forever,” Paul, Robbins and Billy Montana have created an incredible moment in song. “I Will,” written by Bonnie Baker and Carol Ann Brown, is full of clever juxtapositions, and addressed the dichotomies inherent in any real relationship; it’s a beautiful and soaring anthem to unconditional love.
“Brothers of the Southland” is a tribute to Paul’s fallen compatriots in the Southern Rock genre, with reminiscent guitar licks that evoke the spirits of Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Duane Allman. “I’ll Always Love You” showcases Dave Robbins’ warm vocal lead, and is a gorgeous homage to finding your soul mate. The heartland rock-inspired “Gloryland” invokes remembrance of our best youthful intentions; “Leavin’ the Land” is an anthem about breaking out of the status quo; “Faith Is The Light” is a positive, uptempo testament that means just what it says.
A special moment on Spirit Dancer is “Forgiveness,” written by Paul and Montana. It’s a very personal testament to coming clean within one’s self and relationships. Almost shocking in its honesty, its sonically sparse admission of wrongdoing in verse gives way to a full string arrangement behind the simple chorus line: “All I need is forgiveness.” The effect is stunning. Perhaps the most personal song on Spirit Dancer is the title track, a tribute to their lost brother Van Stephenson. Its decidedly Native American sound emanated from the title, and expressed their love for the man and professes a deep belief that he’s still there, guiding them every mile down the road.
Now, with a new album and a new band – Randy Threet on bass and high harmony, Mike Radovsky on drums, and Chris Anderson on guitar – BlackHawk is ready for the road. Fully a band, they are united in a common goal: to make great music. Says Paul: “The musicians who work with us do not perform in a backup role, they perform in an interactive, highly visible and accessible role in the group. These people are part of the show.” “We all are very close,” says Robbins, “and we make an effort to not diminish what anybody’s part is. We are all in it together, and we all make it work – together.” “I don’t honestly think anyone truly can appreciate the elevated level of musical endeavor and commitment that the band has committed itself to,” says Paul. “No one outside the group itself – I don’t think anyone is fully prepared for what they’re going to get from the band and from the album. And we can’t wait to get out there and give it.”