In 2020, Blackberry Smoke released an EP recorded at the storied Capricorn Studios, including covers of well-worn Southern rock classics from the likes of The Allman Brothers Band, The Marshall Tucker Band, and Wet Willie. (A delightful bonus was two truly fantastic vocal performances from Wet Willie vocalist and Southern rock legend Jimmy Hall.) The big surprise, however, was “Southern Child,” a cover of a relatively obscure Little Richard song. It was the EP’s best and most revealing moment, and it surely paved the way for their Dave Cobb-produced follow-up, You Hear Georgia.
Cobb, himself a Georgia native, and Blackberry Smoke are a perfect match, and it’s a shock that it’s taken this long for their paths to cross. They’re all are students of classic rock (or album rock, as it used to be known), and rock of the Southern kind in particular. Of course, the guitars and attitude of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the jazzy jams of the Allmans, and the adventurous travels of The Marshall Tucker Band are never far away from Blackberry Smoke’s wheelhouse, but the band is also heavily informed by latter-day, albeit reluctant, torchbearers The Georgia Satellites, Gov’t Mule, and The Black Crowes. (In fact, it was Crowes frontman Chris Robinson who named the band after a long, thoughtful toke.)
All of these influences converge on Blackberry Smoke’s most cohesive, consistent, and enjoyable collection since The Whippoorwill (2012). From the Little Feat beat of “Hey Delilah” to the firm-ground-standing defiance of the title track (featuring backing vocals from The Black Bettys), You Hear Georgia swaggers, grooves, drawls, and shimmies through its 10 tracks with the confidence of a bantam rooster. It’s not all stomp and holler, however. The stone-cold country of “Lonesome for a Livin’” reunites Blackberry Smoke with Jamey Johnson for the first time since their cover of “Yesterday’s Wine” with George Jones, which closed out 2009’s A Little Piece of Dixie. Johnson’s immaculate phrasing is a welcome addition to the proceedings, proving how strongly he’s been missed in the last several years as we wait for new material.
Before his gruff vocals and peerless slide guitar even enter the mix, you can feel the presence of Warren Haynes at the very start of “All Rise Again,” a song that has added significance as America opens up again following well over a year of lockdowns and quarantine living. It’s as much a theme song as a post-COVID world can hope for.
The gentle Prine-esque “Old Enough to Know” includes such gems as “never trust a grown man with a nickname,” and “nothing worth a damn happens after 2 a.m.” It’s representative of another side of Blackberry Smoke that’s sometimes overlooked: They’re as much students of singer-songwriter-folk and outlaw country as they are of jam-based, chest-pumping rock.
After 20 years together, Blackberry Smoke has had time enough to step out of the shadows of their forebears and shine brightly on their own. You Hear Georgia is their strongest moment in the sun yet.