by Jane Roser
“Brothers and Sisters! On behalf of Blackberry Smoke, we love you very much.” Lead singer Charlie Starr shouted this adoration to fans at The Fillmore in Silver Spring, Maryland last month and honestly, what’s not to love about this Southern rock band from Georgia? Their live shows are a phenomenon to experience, their songs are bad ass, genuine and lyrically poetic, not to mention they are super cool, down-to-earth guys to boot. Am I a super fan? You betcha peach cobbler I am.
Drummer Brit Turner creates most of the graphics that you see on the band’s merchandise. Whatever he doesn’t design himself, he commissions other great artists to make, so their merch booth is filled with nifty t-shirts emblazoned with monster trucks and winged skulls that note Blackberry Smoke’s hard-to-define genre: “Too rock for country/Too country for rock.” But that’s just what makes them unique and endears them to their fans; they can’t be categorized into just one specific genre, they’re too good for that. L.A. singer-songwriter Jason Charles Miller puts it this way, “the first time I saw them play was at NOON at the CMA Experience in Las Vegas and man was I hooked. Can a band be retro and new at the same time? Yes they can!” When I asked Jason if he meant to capitalize the word “noon” he said “yes…because who plays at NOON?!” I had to crack a smile at that good point.
Blackberry Smoke play up to 250 shows a year and have toured with and befriended such iconic bands as ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynrd (whom they will do The Simple Man Cruise with this November) and The Marshall Tucker Band. Combining elements of gospel, bluegrass, rock, blues, soul and outlaw country, this ain’t your mama’s rock n’ roll.
Starr split time between his parents, who divorced when he was a kid, and remembers his dad playing guitar and singing a lot, “he loves bluegrass and traditional country music, nothing with drums even, it has to be pure, acoustically-driven music. He would sit down, grab his guitar and sing songs. I loved it and I definitely had the desire to learn how to play the guitar from him. Then his mother, my grandmother, played the mandolin and piano and sang gospel songs, so between the two of them, it was a very musical [household]. My mother was a rocker-she loved the Stones and The Beatles and Bob Dylan, so those were the formative years for me to find out what lit my fire.”
Starr’s dad bought him a guitar and he started learning country tunes. When he was 11 years old, Starr was out riding bikes with a friend “down at this place where people would take their trucks and all-terrain vehicles and play in the mud. I found this Aerosmith cassette tape on the ground and took it home. It was called Rocks and it’s still a favorite to this day, it’s just one of the greatest rock and roll records ever recorded. Right around that time I was really starting to get into Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Lynyrd Skynrd-all the good stuff,” Starr laughs, “then I HAD to get an electric guitar!”
Together for over a decade, the members of Blackberry Smoke (Brit Turner on drums, Richard Turner on bass, Paul Jackson on guitar and Brandon Still on keyboard) share a passion for the same type of music and work ethic. “The brothers Turner and I wound up together playing in a band with another singer,” recalls Starr, “it didn’t really work out, but we liked playing together. I had some songs and said how about we find a second guitar player and keep it going, so that’s what we did.”
Naming their current tour the “Fire In The Hole Tour”, Blackberry Smoke are set to play huge festivals such as Bonnaroo and Scranton’s Peach Festival, plus a behemoth of fabulous venues around the country before heading off to Europe. The Black Crowes’ Rich Robinson joined them on stage at their recent L.A. gig, thrilling fans.
“He and his brother [Chris] are good friends, they’re Atlanta guys and we’ve just been around them for years; Chris actually gave us our name,” says Starr. “Around 2001 or so, when we were just beginning, we began booking some local shows in Atlanta and we couldn’t think of a good band name. Chris and The Black Crowes were sharing a rehearsal space with us at that time, so we were all hanging around late one night doing what rock and roll people do and Brit was like, ‘man, we need a name for the band.’ We were kind of joking around about it, but Chris said, ‘I think you should call yourself The Blackberry Smoke’ and we were like, perfect! So we dropped the “The” and there you have it.”
Blackberry Smoke’s music is emphatically embraced overseas, especially in the U.K. and I asked Starr why he believed that their music, which truly defines our culture in the American South perfectly, resonates so well with audiences across the pond. “I think it’s the genuine nature of it because [the songs] are not pretentious and they feel comfortable, so it translates easily,” he says. Another theory Starr holds is that a lot of the mountain music that came out of Appalachia is mostly Celtic in origin and today’s country music evolved from that.
The band’s third full-length album, The Whippoorwill, was released in 2012 on Zac Brown’s Southern Ground label to critical acclaim: “…one of the best and most inventive Southern Rock outfits in the business” (Times Record News) and Starr says it was recorded in a short, allotted period of time. “We only had five days to track it. Previously, both of our full-length studio albums were piecemeal-we’d record a couple of songs, then we’d go on tour, then we’d come home and record some more. This was the first album where we really had a set goal and a window of time and that’s all we had, so we did it. It was do it or not.”
Blackberry Smoke had been playing most of these songs on tour for a long time, so they had the arrangements down. “There was no experimenting, really,” says Starr. “This is what we sound like when we play live. We finished 17 songs total, we put 13 on the record and we’ve got four left over. We had 25 songs going on in, but some may not go on the next album.” I asked if a new song they played at the Fillmore (“she make me want to roll again, put the swagger back into my soul again, my baby make me want to rock and roll again, put the dirty back in my mind again”…I think I got the lyrics right) will make the cut and Starr thinks it should, “it’s a good rock and roll song.”
The 13 tracks on The Whippoorwill are both carefree: “when I die put my bones in the Dixie dirt/look down on me smilin’ I don’t want no feelins’ hurt/all I leave behind me is a ragged old guitar/I may not change the world but I’m gonna leave a scar” and nostalgic: “I dreamed I heard that whippoorwill sing/she sang my song and called me by name.” The latter song, “The Whippoorwill”, is inspired by Starr’s grandma who he calls a “great woman, very genuine and very religious. I spent a lot of time with her and this song is about capturing some memories, basically, as well as her influence over me as far as the way I think about things and the way I see religion and the world. When I was little, I remember a specific memory where I heard a bird sing and she told me ‘that’s a whippoorwill’ or ‘that’s a robin and that’s a mockingbird.'”
If you’ve never been to a Blackberry Smoke live show, then you are missing out on a little piece of heaven on earth. I love how they get the audience so involved and truly connect with them on a personal level. I’m sure their fans would agree since, like Deadheads did in years past, they travel from far and wide to attend several shows in a row and everyone you meet is your new best friend. Starr explains his connection with his audience as, “you find what’s comfortable and I’m definitely not comfortable doing a cartwheel,” he chuckles, “just play your music and be honest and people will make up their mind pretty quickly whether they like you or not. If I weren’t up on the stage playing music, I’d be down in the audience watching it.”
One of the cool things Blackberry Smoke does at their shows is to pay homage to country greats Ernest Tubb and Porter Wagoner who performed amusing gags on stage. Tubb had “Thanks” written on the back of his guitar and he’d flip it around during a show, so Starr had the words “Hey Ya’ll” and “Smoke One” put on the back of two of his guitars years ago as a “nod of the hat to them.”
After a show, there is a meet and greet for fans who purchase a ticket to get an item signed and a photo with the band. Blackberry Smoke has been offering this for awhile and it’s all for a good cause. “We gave last year’s meet and greet’s money to the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. We all have children, aside from Brandon. Well, he doesn’t have any that we know about,” jokes Starr, “but it’s very dear to our hearts and it hits close to home, so it’s a very worthy cause. We’re also all from military families, so we are involved with the Boot Ride campaign and Wounded Warriors. When people give so much to us, it’s always the right thing to do to give back when you can.”
With their new live album and accompanying DVD recently released, next up may be a new studio album. “We hope to go back into the studio to make a new album in July,” says Starr, “and I hope we can get that finished and out before the end of the year-that’d be great. Besides that…just keep on making the music.”
I had to ask Starr who he was listening to these days and he tells me he loves Sturgill Simpson’s new album. “I’ve been listening to him and he’s fabulous. I just met him, actually because I was reading an article about his new album and it caught my attention that a song on it was by Buford Abner, who is my grandmother’s brother. He was the lead singer and main songwriter of a gospel group called the Swanee River Boys that formed in 1939 and stayed together until 1971; they made tons of records and toured the world and they’re my family’s superstars. When I saw that, I thought-wow-there can only be one songwriter named Buford Abner and I knew he wrote secular songs, as well as gospel, so I contacted his widow, my great aunt, and asked if Uncle Buford wrote this song called “Long White Line” and she said he did. So I bought the album and reached out to Sturgill and told him I was Buford’s great nephew and he was like, ‘wow! No kidding!’ He (Abner) just passed away a few years ago, but he lived to be 94 and he’d have been proud if he heard it.”
The two constants I almost always hear when I ask artists who they’re currently listening to are “Tom Waits” and “Blackberry Smoke.” When I asked a band I previously interviewed why Blackberry Smoke was so inspirational to them, Dave Benson (bassist for The Morrison Brothers Band) says, “they’re honestly the whole package. Entertainers, writers, musicians…these are things that are rarely found together in the same arena anymore. I don’t think anyone is doing it better right now than Charlie and the gang-they’re keeping rock and roll alive and doing one hell of a job at it.”
So give Whippoorwill a whirl and be sure to catch a live show to see these guys shine. In the meantime, they’ll keep on keepin’ on being up in smoke, down in flames and will shake your magnolia because they’re lucky as a seven and while they may not change the world, they sure as heck are gonna leave a scar.