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
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
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.
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
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
"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."