“If Blackhawk never makes another album,” says Blackhawk’s frontman Henry Paul, “I’m okay with that.” Some artists say something like that about every album they release but not many have a record like Blackhawk’s Blue Highway, a record crafted from original songwriting demos and tracks the original trio of Henry Paul, Van Stephenson and Dave Robbins created to showcase to labels after the immediate chemistry between the trio became obvious.
By 1992, all three members of Blackhawk had established careers within various parts of industry, Henry was a longtime member of the first artist signed to Arista Records, The Outlaws while Van had been a popular solo artist with three Billboard Top 100 hits to go along with a massively successful songwriting career writing hits for the likes of Crystal Gayle, Kenny Rogers, Dan Seals and, later, he partnered with Dave Robbins where they co-wrote many Restless Heart hits. Robbins, also a gifted musician, had written hits for artists like Kenny Rogers in addition to his work writing with Stephenson. So, when the trio sat down to write together, the sparks, “were immediate,” says Henry Paul.
It was, in many ways, an unexpected rocket ship as BlackHawk showcased the tight vocal blend of Henry Paul and Van Stephenson, where their voices — along with Dave Robbins — was something both unique and classic at the same time.
“We got together and it was pretty instant,” says Henry Paul. “With Van’s (and Dave's) voice blending so well with my own (unique) singing style. We really complimented each other well.”
To say the least.
The band also offered something different from what was popular on the mainstream country radio dials. They weren’t really a hat act (even though Dave Robbins has often wore a cowboy hat). “We were different, and it wasn’t an easy sell (with country radio), but we also were fortunate to find great songs,” says Henry.
One song, in particular, was “Goodbye Says It All,” the band’s debut single. Signed to Arista Nashville by songwriter and executive Tim DuBois, the band didn’t really consider recording any of the songs that now make up Blue Highway. Not because they were bad songs but because that’s not how making country music albums worked in 1993. “We found great songs” to go along with other ones we had written,” Paul recalled. “Goodbye Says It All,” finds a rock-leaning sound but it’s those vocals in the chorus, a wall of sound, that immediately stood out.
The band would continue to release memorable songs that weren’t about drinking beer, living out in the country, sawdust or other familiar tropes of the 1990s and country music in general. It’s a reason the music has continued to sound fresh decades later. Indeed, they would go on, in a rarity for the 1990s, to release five singles from their self-titled (and later Multi-Platinum) debut album, including “Every Once In A While,” “I Sure Can Smell The Rain,” “Down In Flames” and “That’s Just About Right,” the latter song, a song that is as relevant now as it was then, with lyrics about celebrating everything which makes us unique as humans.
As the band went through the 1990s, the hits were harder to come by but the band continued to build their audience and have survived the kind of catastrophic events that would derail many bands, including the loss of founding member Van Stephenson in 2001 to cancer.
“Van is a part of everything we do,” says Henry. “He’s as much a part of BlackHawk now as he ever was.”
Indeed, you take a listen to Blue Highway and Van Stephenson is all over the record. You also hear all of the hallmarks of what became the signature BlackHawk sound, that signature which still finds the band gaining new fans.
“We have some younger fans coming to the shows that definitely weren’t around when the band was on the radio,” says Henry Paul. When prompted to figure out why they’re coming out to the shows he says “it’s always has been the songs.” And while that’s certainly true, BlackHawk remains a strong concert draw because the band still remains strong, particularly the 72 year old Henry Paul, who has been blessed with a voice that remains as pure as it was decades ago and Paul is rightly proud of that fact, “I still sing everything in the same key it was originally recorded in.”
This fact is showcased by Blue Highway, a record which feels like a full circle moment for the band as they celebrate 30 years recording and on the road. Henry Paul still likes making new records so he’s not sure about the opening statement above but he stands by it. He truly would be happy to ride off in the sunset but doesn’t have any plans to do so any time soon and we're all thankful for that.
Look for our review of Blue Highway from BlackHawk soon on these pages! In the meantime, you can listen to the album via Apple below or through any other DSP, or places like Amazon where you can get the CD.