The Georgia outfit’s new Southern rock blends sass with style.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Blackberry Smoke is a group that adhere to past precepts, and if their sound recalls some standard bearers like AC/DC or Lynyrd Skynyrd, or, dare we say, the Rolling Stones, then it’s proof positive that they’ve learned their lessons well. The Atlanta-based band’s new album, and first for a major label, the Brendan O’Brien-produced Holding all the Roses (Rounder) sometimes seems like a game of name that influence, thanks not only to the familiarity factor but the ageless song overall.
Now nearly fifteen years into their career, the Atlanta-based band (vocalist/guitarist Charlie Starr, keyboard player Brandon Still, guitarist/vocalist Paul Jackson, drummer Brit Turner and bassist/vocalist Richard Turner) proudly touts its southern pedigree, even while becoming worldwide attractions. They play more than 250 gigs a year and garnered major kudos from critics, fans and some star supporters, among them, Dierks Bentley, Greg Allman, Billy Gibbons, Jamey Johnson, and Grace Potter—and speaking of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackberry Smoke even released a split record with the Southern Rock stalwarts. Their three previous studio albums, two EPs and pair of live DVDs have bolstered their track record and placed them on many a critic’s one’s to watch list.
BLURT recently caught up with Starr and asked him to share the band’s backstory.
BLURT: For starters, give us your back story. How did the group form? What brought the band together originally?
STARR: We formed in Atlanta back in 2001. Brit, Richard and I had been in a band together since ’97 or so. That situation kinda fell apart, so I called Paul Jackson who I’d known for years and years to be second guitarist, and together with the Turner brothers, we formed Blackberry Smoke. We bought a van and a trailer and started tearing up the U.S., playing any place that would book us.
How about an idea of your earliest influences?
My earliest influence was my father. He plays and sings bluegrass and gospel music. My mother, on the other hand, loved the Stones, Beatles and Dylan. To me, there was no distinction between any of it. I loved it all simply because it was good. Later came the Allman Bros, Skynyrd, the Faces, Cheap Trick, Little Feat, the Dead, NRBQ, Tom Waits, and Led Zeppelin. At some point in there I got deeply into Son House, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, and Blind Blake.
How did you come up with your name? What’s the hidden meaning?
Chris Robinson gave us that name. We couldn’t think of a good one, and when we were out drinking with him one night, he said, “I’ll name your band”… and he did.
How do you see yourselves fitting into the Southern Rock tradition? Do you feel that you fit that Southern Rock pedigree?
If that tradition or pedigree means that we can enjoy the same musical freedom that those great Southern bands enjoyed, then it’s an honor. If it’s a pigeonhole, then it’s a bummer. We love the music those bands created very much, but we never set out to sound like anyone. We just play and sing in a way that makes us feel comfortable. If it sounds like Southern Rock, well, I guess that’s what it is.
You’re a band that likes to rock and seems to stick to the basics, including riff-ready three minute songs and lots of obvious hooks. Do you consider yourselves retro in any way? Throwbacks to another era perhaps?
I don’t even think about something like that. We’re just two guitars, bass, drums, keys and vocals. Sometimes I write short songs, sometimes long songs. Whatever feels right when we play it, ya know?
How were you able to attract such a loyal fan following?
We’ve toured incessantly for 14 years. The people that like our music keep coming back. It really is a great feeling and we appreciate our fans very much. They’ve given us a reason to keep working… so we do.
How do you think your earlier experience working the clubs prepared you for the bigger venues you play these days?
All those years of playing bars were the dues we paid. We learned how to entertain an audience. …sometimes drunk, sometimes hostile, sometimes apathetic. I wouldn’t trade all of those nights for ten radio hits. Those are the times when you earn your keep.
Is it a challenge to capture that live energy when you’re in a studio situation? Does it get frustrating trying to represent your live dynamic?
We’ve learned over the years that working in the studio is a different animal, altogether different from a live show, and should be treated as such. You could beat your head against the wall trying to capture live energy or the vibe and never get it. You have to capitalize on whatever kind of magic happens in a studio situation and go where that takes you. Sometimes it will change a song completely. But if you let it happen naturally, and don’t over think it, it will work.
How did your signing to Rounder come about?
Our previous label, Southern Ground Records, was gonna close their doors. We knew we were gonna need a new label, so Rounder stepped up at the perfect time. We felt like it would be a good fit and they were ready to roll, so we all hugged and shook hands and here we are. Haha.
I read that George Jones made a guest appearance on one of your recordings? What was that like and how did it come about?
We went into the studio to record a one-off track with a friend, Jamey Johnson. It was “Yesterday’s Wine,” written by Willie Nelson and recorded by George and Merle Haggard back in 1981 or so. A good friend of ours knew George and asked him if he’d come by and sing on it. He came over and spent the day with us – it was pretty incredible. Never has there been a better country singer.
How do overseas audiences react to your southern style of rock? Is there any kind of culture clash?
They love it. No clash whatsoever.
On the subject of the new album, what did Brendan bring to the table?
Brendan brought his magic. Years and years of experience and know-how in regards to vintage recording gear and techniques. He makes great records. Plus, he’s a fabulous musician, to boot.
How were the songs selected for the new disc?
I sent Brendan a whole bunch of new song demos and together we whittled it down to about 14 songs to record. We wound up recording 13 of them.
How does this album mark any sort of change or progression from your previous albums?
I think it’s our “biggest” sounding album. Big drums, big guitars, big vocals. We really wanted to make an album that’s a definite listening experience. Our last album, The Whippoorwill, was us just playing live really. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves and make the same record twice. This album has more to listen to.
Do people who are unfamiliar with the band ever get the wrong impression about who you are or what you do based on the way you look or the way you sound?
They probably do. It doesn’t seem to matter much. A lot of people tend to listen with their eyes. There’s nothing we can do to change that though. Oh well…
What’s next for the band?
More touring, more records!
Below, watch a complete concert filmed not long ago in North Carolina. Blackberry Smoke will be touring pretty much all spring and well into the summer. Tour dates can be found at their official website.