Jerry Fulton Cantrell Jr. (born March 18, 1966) is an American musician, singer-songwriter and guitarist best known as the founder, lead guitarist, co-lead vocalist and main songwriter of the rock band Alice in Chains. The band rose to international fame in the early 1990s during Seattle's grunge movement, and is known for its distinctive vocal style and the harmonized vocals between Cantrell and Layne Staley (and later Cantrell and William DuVall). Cantrell started to sing lead vocals on Alice in Chains' 1992 EP Sap. After Staley's death in 2002, Cantrell took the role of Alice in Chains' lead singer on most of the songs from the band's post-Staley albums, Black Gives Way to Blue (2009), The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013) and Rainier Fog (2018), with DuVall harmonizing with him in the new songs and singing Staley's vocals in the old songs in live concerts.
Cantrell was named "Riff Lord" by British hard rock/metal magazine Metal Hammer in 2006.Guitar World Magazine ranked Cantrell as the 38th out of "100 Greatest Heavy Metal Guitarists of All Time" in 2004, and the 37th "Greatest Guitar Player of All Time" in 2012.Guitar World also ranked Cantrell's solo in "Man In The Box" at No. 77 on its list of "100 Greatest Guitar Solos" in 2008.
After Cantrell learned to write, he documented his goal on Dr. Seuss' book, My Book About Me, filling in the sentence "When I grow up I want to be a..." with the words "rock star".
Cantrell's father, Jerry Sr., is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. Jerry Jr.'s first childhood memory is meeting his father for the first time after he had returned from war when he was three years old. Due to the strain of war, his parents divorced when he was seven years old, and Cantrell was raised by his mother, Gloria, and his maternal grandmother in Tacoma. The family lived on welfare and food stamps. Jerry Sr. was the main subject of the song "Rooster", which Cantrell wrote as a tribute to his father, and his mother Gloria is also mentioned by name in the song. Father and son also appeared together on the music video for "Rooster", in which Jerry Sr. recalls the war. Cantrell would later name his music publishing company as Rooster's Son Publishing.
Cantrell moved back with his mother to Spanaway where he attended junior high. His first job was delivering newspapers.
Cantrell attended high school at Spanaway Lake High School, and, before owning his first guitar, he was a member of the high school choir which attended many state competitions. In his senior year, Cantrell became choir president, and the quartet sang the national anthem at basketball games and won competitions with the highest marks achievable. Cantrell has cited his interest in dark musical tones as dating back to this period: "In choir we performed a cappella Gregorian chants from the 14th and 15th centuries. It was scary church music." His choir teacher and drama teacher were, early on, his two greatest motivators toward a career in music. When Alice in Chains' first album went gold, Cantrell sent both teachers a gold record. He graduated from high school in 1984.
Cantrell picked up a guitar for the first time when he was in sixth grade. At that time he played clarinet, and his mother was dating a guitar player who handed his guitar to Cantrell and taught him a couple of chords. Cantrell picked it up very quickly, impressing his mother's boyfriend who suggested that she should buy her son a guitar, so she bought him an acoustic guitar. It would not be until the age of 17 that he began seriously playing an electric guitar. Cantrell learned to play guitar by ear, emulating his heroes. In his mid-teens he bought his first guitar from a swap meet, a Korean-made Fender Stratocaster.
His maternal grandmother, Dorothy Krumpos, died of cancer in October 1986, and his mother Gloria died of pancreatic cancer at age 43 in April 1987, when Cantrell was 21 years old. Friends recalled that Cantrell fell into depression and became a completely different person after losing both his mother and grandmother within a short span of time.
Jerry Cantrell playing with Alice in Chains at The Channel in Boston, Massachusetts in 1992
In 1985, Cantrell was going to winter semester of college, but he decided to quit it and moved to Dallas, Texas to join a band with a couple of friends. Cantrell worked doing asbestos abatement around the Dallas and Houston area. He also worked at the music store Arnold and Morgan Music Company. While working at the store, Cantrell bought what he described as his first "real guitar", a 1984 G&L Rampage. During that time, he had a band with Vinnie Chas (from Pretty Boy Floyd), called Sinister. Later they formed another band called Raze.
In 1985 or 1986, Cantrell moved back to Tacoma and began a band called Diamond Lie, which included singer Scott Damon, drummer Bobby Nesbitt and bassist Matt Muasau. The band started playing concerts in Tacoma and Seattle with the goal of getting a record deal. They recorded a four-song demo at London Bridge Studio.
When Cantrell was 20 years old, he was working several part-time jobs to pay his rent, one of which involved throwing boxes of frozen fish in a warehouse. He spent his time outside of work playing guitar and jamming with any band he could find.
Three weeks after his mother's death on April 11, 1987, Cantrell went to see the band Alice N' Chains perform at the Tacoma Little Theatre, and was impressed by the voice of the lead singer, Layne Staley. Diamond Lie played their last concert in July 1987.
Cantrell met Layne Staley, then Alice N' Chains' lead singer, at a party in Seattle around August 1987. He was homeless after being kicked out of his family's house, so Staley invited Cantrell to live with him at the 24-hour rehearsal studio "The Music Bank". Shortly after Cantrell moved in with Staley at the Music Bank, Alice ‘N Chains broke up.
Cantrell wanted to form a new band and Staley gave him the phone number of Melinda Starr, the girlfriend of drummer Sean Kinney, so that Cantrell could talk to him. Cantrell called the number and set up a meeting with Kinney. Kinney and his girlfriend went to the Music Bank and listened to Cantrell's demos. Cantrell mentioned that they needed a bass player to jam with them and he had someone in mind: Mike Starr, with whom Cantrell had played in a band in Burien called Gypsy Rose. Kinney pointed at his girlfriend and said: "that's weird cause that's his sister". Kinney called Starr and a few days later they started jamming with Cantrell at the Music Bank, but they didn't have a singer.
Staley was already starting up another band, but Cantrell, Starr and Kinney wanted him to be their lead singer. They started auditioning terrible lead singers in front of Staley to send a hint. The last straw for Staley was when they auditioned a male stripper – he decided to join the band after that. Staley, who was Cantrell's roommate at the time, agreed to join on the condition that Cantrell join his funk project (which ended shortly after), and Staley joined Cantrell's band on a full-time basis. The band had names like "Mothra", "Fuck" and "Diamond Lie", the latter being the name of Cantrell's previous band. Diamond Lie gained attention in the Seattle area and eventually took the name of Staley's previous band, Alice N' Chains, and was quickly renamed as Alice in Chains.
Cantrell attended a Guns N' Roses concert at the Seattle Center in 1988, and took an Alice in Chains demo tape to give to the band. He met Axl Rose after the show and gave him the tape. As he was walking away, Cantrell saw Rose throwing the demo away. Years later, Guns N' Roses chose Alice in Chains to be the opening act of their 2016 reunion tour.
Alice in Chains' final demo, The Treehouse Tapes, was completed in 1988 and found its way to the music managers Kelly Curtis and Susan Silver, who also managed the Seattle bands Mother Love Bone and Soundgarden, respectively. Curtis and Silver passed the demo on to Columbia Records. After three months of negotiations, Alice in Chains signed to Columbia Records on September 11, 1989.
Jerry Cantrell during an Alice in Chains concert in San Jose, October 2010
Layne Staley era (1987–2002)
Jerry Cantrell served as the lead guitarist, co-lyricist, co-vocalist and main composer of Alice in Chains until the group's near-permanent hiatus beginning in the late 1990s and leading through the death of lead singer Layne Staley in April 2002. Cantrell's guitar contribution gave a heavy metal edge to the band's unique grunge style. Cantrell also played bass on the track "Love Song", from the 1992 Sap EP.
Cantrell started to sing lead vocals on the 1992 acoustic EP Sap, and his role continued to grow in the following albums, making Alice in Chains a two-vocal band. Cantrell stated that it was Staley who encouraged him to sing.
Although Alice in Chains has been labeled grunge by the mainstream media, Cantrell identifies the band as primarily heavy metal. He told Guitar World in 1996, "We're a lot of different things ... I don't quite know what the mixture is, but there's definitely metal, blues, rock and roll, maybe a touch of punk. The metal part will never leave, and I never want it to".
Alice in Chains was one of the most successful bands of the 1990s, selling over 20 million records worldwide, and over 14 million records in the US alone. Their debut album, Facelift, was released in 1990 and has been certified double-platinum by the RIAA, selling over two million copies. Cantrell dedicated the album to his late mother Gloria and to his close friend Andrew Wood, lead singer of the band Mother Love Bone who died in 1990. Speaking with Spin magazine in January 1991, Cantrell confirmed that the song "Sunshine" from Facelift was written about his mother's death. "When I was a little kid, I'd always tell her, "I'll be famous and buy you a house and you'll never have to work again. I'll take care of you like you took care of me.’ When she passed away, it was a really shitty time for me. I didn't know how to deal with it then, and I still don't. But it gave me the impetus to do what I'm doing."
In February 1992, the band released the acoustic EP Sap. The EP has been certified gold, and it features guest vocals by Ann Wilson from the band Heart, who joined Cantrell for the chorus of "Brother", and Staley for the chorus of "Am I Inside". The EP also features Mark Arm of Mudhoney and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, who appeared together on the song "Right Turn", credited as "Alice Mudgarden" in the liner notes. The opening track, "Brother", featured Cantrell on lead vocals. The song was about Cantrell's relationship with his younger brother, David. Cantrell also played bass on the last track, "Love Song".
Their second full-length album, Dirt, was released in September 1992 to critical acclaim and was certified quadruple platinum. The album's lead single, "Would?", was written by Cantrell as a tribute to his late friend Andrew Wood. The song was also featured on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe's 1992 film Singles. The album's fourth single, "Rooster", was a tribute to Cantrell's father.
Alice in Chains' second acoustic EP, Jar of Flies, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in 1994, becoming the first ever EP and first Alice in Chains release to top the charts. It has been certified triple platinum by the RIAA. The album's fifth track was an instrumental song, "Whale & Wasp", described by Cantrell as "a conversation between whales and wasps".
Alice in Chains broke up for six months following the cancellation of their opening act at the Metallica tour in July 1994, citing "health problems within the band". The band's third full-length album, Alice in Chains, was released in November 1995, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, and has been certified double platinum. The singles "Grind", "Over Now", and "Heaven Beside You" feature Cantrell on lead vocals. The band did not tour in support of their self-titled album.
On April 10, 1996, Alice in Chains played their first concert in two and a half years for MTV Unplugged, a program featuring all-acoustic set lists. The show featured some of the band's highest charting singles, including "Rooster", "Down in a Hole", "Heaven Beside You", "No Excuses" and "Would?", and introduced a new song, "Killer Is Me", with Cantrell on lead vocals. Cantrell stated that he was ill during the performance as a result of food poisoning from a hot dog consumed before the gig.
Although never officially disbanding, Alice in Chains was plagued by extended inactivity from 1996 onwards due to Staley's substance abuse, which resulted in his death in 2002. The band reformed in 2005 when drummer Sean Kinney had the idea to reunite the surviving members to perform a benefit concert for the victims of the tsunami disaster that struck South Asia in 2004. On February 18, 2005, Cantrell, Mike Inez and Sean Kinney reunited to perform for the first time in 10 years as Alice in Chains at the K-Rock Tsunami Continued Care Relief Concert in Seattle. The band featured Damageplan vocalist Pat Lachman, as well as other special guests including Maynard James Keenan of Tool, Wes Scantlin from Puddle of Mudd and Ann Wilson of Heart. A few months after that concert, the band called their former manager Susan Silver and Cantrell's manager Bill Siddons and said they wanted to tour as Alice in Chains again.
Cantrell explained the band's reunion saying, "We want to celebrate what we did and the memory of our friend. We have played with some [singers] who can actually bring it and add their own thing to it without being a Layne clone. We're not interested in stepping on [Staley's] rich legacy. It's a tough thing to go through. Do you take the Led Zeppelin approach and never play again, because the guy was that important? That's the approach we've taken for a lot of years. Or, do you give it a shot, try something? We're willing to take a chance on it. It's completely a reunion because the three of us who're left are back together. But it's not about separating and forgetting — it's about remembering and moving on."
Cantrell met singer William DuVall in Los Angeles in 2000, through a mutual acquaintance who introduced him to
the first album of DuVall's band, Comes with the Fall. Cantrell started hanging out with the band and occasionally joining them onstage. Comes with the Fall was both the opening act on Cantrell's tour for his second solo album, Degradation Trip, and also the singer's backing band, with DuVall singing Staley's parts at the concerts in 2001 and 2002. DuVall joined Alice in Chains as full-time lead singer during the band's reunion tour in 2006, after making his first public appearance with the band at the VH1 concert.
William DuVall and Jerry Cantrell performing with Alice in Chains in 2006
By April 2007, Alice in Chains had been writing and demoing songs for a new album with DuVall, but the band did not show further signs of progress until October 2008, when they announced that they had begun recording with producer Nick Raskulinecz in the studio. The band didn't have a record label at the time and the album was funded by Cantrell and drummer Sean Kinney. The writing and recording process was completed on March 18, 2009 – Cantrell's 43rd birthday and also the same day that DuVall's son was born.
About the pressure being put on DuVall for replacing Staley as lead vocalist, Cantrell said, "To put all that weight on Will’s shoulders is unfair. We’re just figuring out how we work as a team. Although the band has changed, we’ve lost Layne, we’ve added Will, and there was no master plan. Playing again in 2005 felt right, so we did the next thing and toured. We did it step by step. It’s more than just making music, and it always has been. We’ve been friends a long time. We’ve been more of a family than most, and it had to be okay from here", Cantrell said pointing to his heart.
On September 29, 2009, Alice in Chains, released their first record since the death of Layne Staley, Black Gives Way to Blue, and toured in support of the album. The album includes songs which Cantrell described as "the heaviest he's ever written", and has Cantrell singing lead vocals on most of the songs and William DuVall as co-lead vocalist. The title track is a tribute to Layne Staley written and sung by Cantrell, accompanied by Elton John playing piano. In the months before writing the song, Cantrell had been suffering from an unexplained illness. Cantrell believes the mystery illness was the pain of saying goodbye to Staley. He told Guitar World, "I got deathly ill. I had these mystery migraines, intense physical pain, and I'd even gotten a spinal tap to test for certain things. They never could find anything wrong with me. I felt I was puking up all this undigested grief in losing Layne." Once Cantrell started writing the song and the rest of the album, his mystery illness disappeared. Cantrell, Mike Inez and Sean Kinney also thanked Staley in the album's liner notes. The album was certified Gold by the RIAA in May 2010,
selling over 500,000 copies in the U.S.
In June 2017, Alice in Chains returned to Seattle's Studio X to record their sixth studio album. Studio X was the same studio where the band recorded their self-titled album, Alice in Chains (1995), Recording was completed in January 2018. On June 27, 2018, the band announced the title and unveiled the cover art of the new album, Rainier Fog, released on August 24, 2018 through BMG, Alice in Chains' first release on the label. Cantrell took the album's title from the Mount Rainier in Seattle, and the title track is a tribute to the Seattle music scene.
As part of the promotion of Rainier Fog, the baseball team Seattle Mariners hosted an "Alice in Chains Night" at the Safeco Field in Seattle on August 20, 2018, and Cantrell threw out the ceremonial first pitch and delivered a strike before the Mariners vs. Houston Astros game.
As the activity of Alice in Chains slowed and the band's future came into question, Cantrell reluctantly began work on his first full-length solo record. While video footage from Cantrell's official website claimed that he wanted to work solo for some time, his comments in Guitar World stated otherwise:
It's something I never really wanted to do, but the way things have played out, it's like, why not? To be honest, I'd just be happy being the lead guitarist and singer for Alice In Chains. It's always been my first love, and always will be, but the situation being what it is... we've been together for a long time, and right now it's kinda played out. It's time to let it be. Now I've got to step up to the plate and take a few swings.
Cantrell's debut solo album, Boggy Depot, was released on April 7, 1998, and published by Cantrell's Boggy Bottom Publishing company. The title comes from the ghost townof the same name in Oklahoma, which is the area that Cantrell's father grew up in. The album cover shows Cantrell covered in mud standing waist-deep in a branch of the Boggy River. Besides singing, Cantrell also played guitar, piano, clavinet, organ, and steel drums on the album. The tracks "Cut You In", "My Song" and "Dickeye" were released as singles to promote the album. Cantrell's father played the sheriff in the music video for "Cut You In".
His touring band for the album included Alice in Chains bandmates Inez and Kinney, and Cantrell expressed hope to have a second album released by the following year. Cantrell opened for Metallica and Van Halen on their 1998 summer tour. The same year of Boggy Depot, Cantrell began writing a follow-up album. He also departed from Columbia Records during this time and had trouble finding a new label. Cantrell said of the writing experience:
In '98, I locked myself in my house, went out of my mind and wrote 25 songs. I rarely bathed during that period of writing; I sent out for food, I didn't really venture out of my house in three or four months. It was a hell of an experience. The album is an overview of birth to now.
Cantrell onstage in 2006
In 1998, Layne Staley almost performed live again since Alice in Chains' last concert in July 1996, when Cantrell went to Seattle on his solo tour for Boggy Depot. It was Halloween night and Staley was backstage as a guest. Cantrell reportedly asked Staley to join him onstage, but Staley declined.
Degradation Trip has sold 100,000 copies in the U.S. as of December 2002. The live show was well received by audiences on a national tour that helped build upon the solo album's success. Degradation Trip was re-released in November 2002 as a double album, featuring eleven additional tracks that were made for the album as Cantrell originally intended. In the Spring of 2004, Cantrell opened a slate of shows on Kid Rock's U.S. tour.
Cantrell has been rumored to be working on his third full-length solo album for several years, for a supposedly planned release in 2006. However, this album still has not been released. Subsequent work with the revamped Alice in Chains may have stalled this release. When asked about releasing another solo album, he issued this statement in 2010:
Not for a while. My first and foremost love has been this band and always has been. The only reason I did those two records is because we weren’t working as a band. But being a part of this band is a full time job. Some guys can do multiple things and maybe when I was younger I could do that, but not now.
In November 2014, during an interview on radio 95.5 KLOS, Cantrell was asked if he had any plans on doing more solo work, to which he replied: "I don't know. Maybe somewhere down the road. The only reason I ever did anything by my own was because my band wasn't really doing anything. My band has been doing things lately, so I don't really have time to do anything. I kinda focus my energy there [in the band]. Of course, you know, possibilities..." Cantrell expressed the same sentiment when asked about a new solo album during an interview with Trunk Nation in August 2017, stating that Alice in Chains has always been his number one concern, but that he would not rule out a new solo album in the future.