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For the band BlackHawk, returning to Medina is like a homecoming

October 27, 2008

Photo by Ryan Gueningsman
BlackHawk lead singer Henry Paul performed last year at The Medina Entertainment Center. Again this year, Paul and BlackHawk are hosting the third annual Van Stephenson Memorial Cancer Research Fund benefit dinner/auction Friday, Nov. 14 prior to their concert.

By Ryan Gueningsman
Managing Editor

MEDINA, MN – In the mid-to-late 1990s, BlackHawk was synonymous with the words “country music.”

The trio, comprised of lead singer Henry Paul, guitarist Van Stephenson, and keyboardist Dave Robbins, featured three musicians with diverse songwriting and musical backgrounds coming together as one. For just one moment, they were kings of the world.

Their record deal with Arista Nashville was signed in the early 1990s, and the group’s first single, “Goodbye Says It All” made its way up the charts to number 11. Follow-up hits like “Every Once In a While,” “That’s Just About Right,” “I Sure Can Smell the Rain,” “I’m Not Strong Enough to Say No” and “Like There Ain’t No Yesterday” also fared well for the band, giving them a solid base on which to build.

Just when everything seemed to be going in the right direction, the group’s next few singles released to radio didn’t fare so well, including the song “King of the World,” which failed to break into the top 40. A rebound came with one of the band’s best-known hits “There You Have It,” which was released in 1998, and followed up with “Your Own Little Corner of My Heart.”

Hitting 2000, a greatest hits album was released, but BlackHawk found itself facing one of its toughest fights to date – not fighting to get a song to the top of the charts, but rather, fighting for one of their own. Stephenson, who was diagnosed with skin cancer, left the group, and died in 2001.

“Losing Van was a wake-up call for me, and learning the value of the truth, and the difference between right and wrong,” Paul said. “It’s just like, OK, BlackHawk is not the most popular musical entity out there these days, from a standpoint of numbers, but we’re still one of the best. We’re still sincere and real. We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to be around and continue to do good work.

“I’ve already been fooled into thinking that having a number one record is the answer to all problems – it’s just not.”

Since the death of Stephenson, the band has gone in a number of different directions. Band member changes, record label deals falling through, and things just not going the band’s way put Paul in front of numerous roadblocks. Through it all, he has been determined to keep BlackHawk going, and also keep Stephenson’s memory alive.

“First of all, I lost Van to cancer. Second of all, I lost Dave to a solo career with songwriting aspirations,” Paul said. “What was once a trio is now me. I stand there with a reformed version of this group that has, from the standpoint of integrity, got all the elements that made it so wonderful to begin with; yet it has new energy and a new face, and a sound that is very familiar to what it was in the beginning.”

Paul’s restructuring of BlackHawk now includes Michael Randall on acoustic guitar/harmony vocals, Randy Threet on bass guitar/harmony vocals, Chris Anderson on lead guitar/harmony vocals, Jon Coleman on keyboards/harmony vocals, and Monte Yoho on drums/percussion.

In different configurations, and different groups, the members have played together in some capacity for many years. Some are Paul’s old bandmates from his other band, The Outlaws, and some are past players in BlackHawk’s success. When Robbins decided to leave for a songwriting career in early 2008, Paul already knew the direction he wanted BlackHawk to go. Giving up the band was never an option for him.

“It’s what I do,” Paul said of his music. “It’s what I’ve done my entire life, so the idea of me stopping to do what I do, I mean, what would I do? I love my line of work, so there’s no reason for me to consider stopping, but re-tooling the group and putting a group of personalities together I think would make a really significant visual offering on a regular basis – I pretty much knew where I was going with that before he (Robbins) left.

“I had already thought that through, and had enough contacts and friends that I didn’t need to look high and low for people. I already had a band put together before this change came, so it was just a matter of going to my phone book, getting it out, and calling some people and seeing if they wanted to do this or do that.

“Everybody I worked with before knew they were getting into something real and worthwhile, so it all came together rather easily. We were able to not miss much of a beat at all, and we were able to just continue to move forward.”

Paul admits the unknowns of the music industry sometimes can make things frustrating, but ultimately, said the unknowns are what makes life, in general, worth living.

“We all learn our hard way,” Paul said. “There’s no way for us to know where life is gonna lead us or which way the wind will blow. That’s the fun part of the dance. You know, the great song that Garth recorded – it’s kind of like if you know the ending, why bother going down that road? It’s the adventure of not knowing what tomorrow holds that keeps me getting up in the morning. Sounds corny, but it’s absolutely real.”

In speaking with Paul, it is not hard to notice he is a man of deep thought on not only his music, but again, life in general – and doing the right thing. It is trying to do the right things in this life that has led Paul and a devoted group of BlackHawk fans to create and continue The Van Stephenson Memorial Cancer Research Fund (VSMCRF) – and benefit dinners like the one at Medina.

“You know, we’re all going to die. We’re all lucky to be here to begin with, and we all have different qualities of life,” Paul said.

“We all have, you know, political parties,” he added with a laugh. “But, at the end of the life experience, if you’re taken out early by a horrible disease, you know, I think it’s part of what makes the human spirit such an enduring thing is to try and help one another. I have very specific ideas about how to treat people and, I want my privacy, but I want to do my part, I want to be respected, and I’m willing to work for it.

“It’s sort of an entity that goes into making a person who we are. You know, we’re not perfect, but we’re trying, and it’s sort of like trying to be the best you can be, and be as completely honest and real . . . I need to make a living, I need to feed my family, and I need to care for my children, and I need to do a little something to help the human race, so that’s all we’re up to.”

Paul said that he hopes BlackHawk’s fan base sees the reformed band and that, along with keeping the music flowing, it is also coming together to raise funds for cancer research.

“I’m not Mother Theresa, but I am somebody who’s trying really hard to do what he set out to do and do what he said he was going to,” Paul explained. “When Van died, he asked me to try and help find a cure, so that’s all I’m doing is trying to honor a dying man’s wishes. That’s a powerful thing.”

‘BlackHawk Greatest Hits Live’ – an appetizer to new music from the band

Restructuring the band hasn’t been the only hurdle Paul has overcome in keeping BlackHawk going. A number of failed record/promotion deals have also left BlackHawk fans yearning for new music for some time from the group.

However, recently, a deal did come through, and fans have embraced “BlackHawk Greatest Hits Live,” a live album that was recorded over the course of several shows in Spokane, WA.

“It feels good,” Paul said about the recent album release. “It feels good to see our record in stores for the band. We went out on tour in the Pacific Northwest, and last winter, recorded three or four shows.”

The band reviewed the recordings, and picked out the best night. Paul said 99 percent of the album “all went down live.”

“I wanted it to sound like I wanted it to sound, but it’s all played live,” Paul said. “To me, it’s sort of like an appetizer into a new studio record. You know, it raises the awareness of the group in the marketplace. It puts us into the mainstream media to a degree. Now, all the sudden, instead of being dormant and talking about it, we actually have something out, and I think the energy it took to pull that together and the vision to stick with the program is paying off now.”

Featuring all of the above-mentioned hit songs, it also features the song “Love Like This,” that has been released to radio as a single, and is already getting airplay on BOB 106.1 FM.

“Although live records historically are not radio favorites, this is pretty smooth and a pretty smokin’ track,” Paul said. “It’s an interesting offering, and I expect radio to respond in some sort of fashion.”

While “Love Like This” may be on the radio in the near future, fans can pick up the “Greatest Hits Live” album at Best Buy stores. He admits it feels good to have the record out on store shelves, and said people like Neil Freeman from BOB 106 have been supportive and helped keep things moving along.

“Neil and I have grown to know each other. And, although we don’t go out and drink beer on a regular basis – I only see him two or three times a year – I think Neil’s grown to understand and appreciate who I am, and he’s supportive of what I do, and there’s a lot of people across America that feel that way about, not just me, but about the band,” Paul explained. “So, it’s all affected on a human level and on a very personal level, and we’ll get what’s out there to have when the time comes. I’m not worried about it.”

And for the main course

Along with the release of “BlackHawk Greatest Hits Live,” Paul has also been busy with his other band, The Outlaws, and said he’s in the middle of working on a new studio record for that group. He did say, however, material for a new BlackHawk record is written.

“I’ve been in touch with some friends of mine in the music business that I’ve made over the years from different groups – Chris Hillman from The Byrds, Jeff Hanna and Jimmy Fadden from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Randy Scruggs – Earl Scruggs’ son who I know . . . I want to bring these people in to participate musically, just to play on the record with me, and maybe sing a little bit here. I have a really wonderful collection of new songs, so I think that the BlackHawk record will be appealing from a critical standpoint. I think the critics are going to recognize the value of the songs, and the participation of these people.”

Another name that has been a part of BlackHawk’s history is Anthony Crawford, who was the third member of the trio for a period after Stephenson’s passing.

“Anthony Crawford, a guy I’ve worked with in the past in BlackHawk, is coming back to work with me on the disc,” Paul said. “It’s just gonna be a really nice collection of friends and musical partners, just to make a real interesting BlackHawk record that’s gonna have marquee value over and above.”

As for the differences in voices from the original BlackHawk to now, Paul said the restructured band is very complimentary of his voice.

“I have a group of guys that sing well with me,” Paul said. “If you listen to an Alan Jackson record, who’s a solo artist who I respect and appreciate, the harmony vocals to Alan Jackson are sort of like a color. They’re not very vivid shades. With a BlackHawk record, regardless who I’m singing with, I want those other boys up there in the mix with me.

“A lot of the same things that used to drive the early BlackHawk records have lived on for the most part, with the exception of major label involvement and manipulation and control. It’s now sort of in our hands, and we get to record what we want to record.”

He said BlackHawk’s “Spirit Dancer,” which was released in 2002, was an album that really showcased the artists on it.

“It wasn’t a tremendous commercial success, but it was a blockbuster record for us as artists,” Paul said. “So, this next record that I make, and all the records that I make, are always gonna come from that very sort of inside place where it’s a window to my soul and to the group’s musical personality, and we’ll take advantage of the opportunity we’ve been given to play something that is important to us.”

Cancer benefit is more than just a charity event

A part of a select few BlackHawk shows each year is the presence of a benefit auction/dinner that happens before the band takes the stage.

The Medina Ballroom has hosted two of these events, which Paul said have been very successful in the past.

“Medina, to BlackHawk, it feels to me anyhow, sort of like a home,” Paul said. “We have been here probably no less than 10 times in the last 15 years, and Bob (Raskob – owner of the Medina) is an old supporter of the group. We always do good business for him, which is paramount. We’ve gotten to know those people and we enjoy it, so it’s sort of a logical place for us to get together with our fans in the name of this charity because they’re supportive, or have been over the years, and without that support I don’t have anything to give in December when I go to the cancer research center at Vanderbilt.”

Over the past years, Paul has gone to Vanderbilt and presented a check in the name of The Van Stephenson Memorial Cancer Research Fund (VSMCRF). Donations have been about $15,000 a year.

“We do all that we can do, and we do it for the right reasons, and at the end of the year, we go up there and stand there proudly with our contribution,” Paul said. “It’s not hundreds of thousands of dollars . . . If someone can give $20, I put the picture up on the Internet, and they look at that and say ‘I can help do that.’”

For Paul, his visits to Vanderbilt are more than a charity or celebrity appearance.

“I’ve become friends with these people,” Paul said. “The whole thing started years ago. I was part of a country music annual charity event called Country in the Rockies. There, I met the director of the research center there, and I asked him if he would mind showing me around when we got back to Nashville. I think that he was impressed with my sincerity and commitment and how, a lot of times, celebrity charity events, you go and donate your time and you’re celebrity status, but it’s really sort of a walk in the park.”

In the course of being introduced to Vanderbilt, Paul and his bandmates began dealing with Stephenson’s illness.

“Then, we had a really strong sort of connection, an emotional connection, to the event,” Paul said. He added sometimes there are a lot of wine and cheeses events or get-togethers that raise funds for various charities, but he said that isn’t his style.

“We work for this,” Paul said. “There is no corporate underwriting for this charity. We go out there every single day and we hound the BlackHawk fan base to help us get where we want to go every year, so it’s been a labor of love, and a really, really lot of hard work that goes into it.

“It’s been simple at times to take sort of a cynical view of a celebrity charity event. It’s kind of like a rich woman doing charity work. You know, it’s like, whatever. What’s really in this at the end of the day? Do you get in your Lexus and drive to the club for cocktails after you supposedly give a (explicative)? So, I just wanted to try and walk the walk, and really get in the middle of it, and get after it, and do the work.”

Paul doesn’t do it alone, however, and is quick to credit Lori Stefans, the VSMCRF events coordinator.

“She’s taken a much more elevated role in our effort, and is just an absolute whiz-kid of an administrator when it comes to putting these events together,” Paul said.

Stefans has worked with Paul and the VSMCRF since 2004, when she conducted the first dinner/auction in Kenosha, WI.

“I had the idea to bring the band members together with the fans and approached Henry with my idea,” Stefans said. “He thought it was a great idea and let me run with it. We raised over $5,000 that first night from the dinner, the auction, and a celebrity auction at the venue. I was elated. I knew we wanted to continue with the dinner/auction format, but we needed the right venue in an area with the right fan base. I went to a show at the Medina and there was a huge turnout. When I saw that a concert was planned for the next spring, I went into action.”

Stefans said the charity has raised more than $6,000 at each event, with a total of more than $15,000 raised the last three years in a row. Proceeds are presented to the Vanderbilt University Woman’s Cancer Research Department in December.

“Last year’s check presentation was followed by the band members playing guitars and singing at the bedsides of chemo patients at the facility,” Stefans said.

This year, tickets are still available for the dinner at Medina, which will feature a silent auction, band trivia, and meet and greet opportunities for each attendee.

“After a short introduction, we have a prayer, and Henry Paul usually says some words about what the charity has meant to him and the band, and how and why it was formed,” Stefans said. “Sometimes we have a short performance by a special guest such as Dennis Lee Rodgers, a Navajo Spirit Dancer and great friend of the band.”

After the dinner, the band members leave to prepare for the show, and then a live auction takes place, offering some one-of-a-kind items, as well as the “best seats in the house” for the concert that evening.

“The charity holds a special place in my heart, as I knew what a wonderful man Van Stephenson was, and was touched by his courage and dignity in facing his terminal diagnosis,” Stefens said. “I, as so many others, have been touched by cancer not only personally, but in my profession as a nurse. Doing my part to help find a cure is not only rewarding, but it is also so neat to meet so many survivors along the way.”

Tickets to the Friday, Nov. 14 event are available by e-mailing blackhawkdinner@gmail.com or by calling Stefans at (414) 430-5674. Tickets are $45, which includes the dinner, meet and greet, raffle prizes, door prizes, exclusive auction items, and cash bar. The deadline to purchase tickets is Monday Nov. 10. The doors open at 5:30 p.m., and the dinner is at 7 p.m.

Concert tickets are separate and may be purchased through the Medina Entertainment Center by calling (763) 478-6661 or online at www.medinaentertainment.com.

“I have a good, solid group of volunteers from the Minneapolis area who make it possible to run the dinner smoothly,” Stefans said. “We are really pushing to make this year’s event the best ever, and are trying to get the word out to the country music fans in the area.”

Reflecting on recent history

This is the 17th year of BlackHawk, and Paul said this is recent history to him.

“It’s gone by like a million miles an hour,” he said.

Paul also reformed The Outlaws earlier this year, and said taking the group back on the road is recent history, but said BlackHawk is the most significant commercial success that he has enjoyed in his career.

“Reforming The Outlaws this year was extremely rewarding, but so was keeping BlackHawk going,” Paul said. “It’s almost like there’s a tenacity that comes with the territory that you have to employ, and that’s if you’re not willing to quit, then you don’t lose. If you just continue to fight, then you hang around and you get what you want. If you quit, if you give in, then you’re gone.”

Not quitting is one thing Paul can control in his life, but he said most things are out of his hands.

“The fear of failure really motivates you to work hard to succeed,” he said. “You never know in anything what’s gonna happen . . . all those areas making life worthwhile are a mystery.

“I really look forward to ‘09 for BlackHawk, to have a new record to work with out there, and I look forward to the opportunity to go into the catalog and learn some new songs and bring a completely different show to the table for people,” Paul concluded. “I foresee the day where BlackHawk can get on stage for its faithful fans and play a couple hours instead of an hour and 15 minutes.”

BlackHawk will perform at The Medina Entertainment Center Friday, Nov. 14 at 8:30 p.m. The opening band is North Gone South.

For tickets or more information, visit www.medinaentertainment.com.

For more information on BlackHawk, visit www.blackhawkmusic.us.


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