Blackberry Smoke: Southern Rock Will Rise Again
Last year, the members of Blackberry Smoke, armed with 20 fully arranged acoustic demos, descended on The Quarry Studio in Kennesaw, Georgia. There, they met up with veteran Atlanta producer Brendan O’Brien (Neil Young, Pearl Jam, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen), and for the next eight days proceeded to lay down the 12 tracks that would become their latest album, Holding All the Roses. It is, without exaggeration, a transformative album that signals the next step in the evolution of Southern rock music.
First, a bit of history.
The South. Land of light and dark, black and white, a landscape of contradictions. A place with a history of trouble, violence, and bloodshed that still bubbles just beneath the surface. Wander around any Civil War battlefield, any historical marker, any old grist mill, and you can feel it. This rich soil has also spawned artists who’ve produced some of the world’s most important works of literature. From William Faulkner’s Mississippi, Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans, and Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia to Zora Neale Hurston’s Florida and beyond, the region has always been a source of inspiration for creative souls – a place where stories matter, regardless of who’s telling them. The South is a place where we look ahead while glancing back. It’s the same with music.
The American South and rock and roll are forever linked. The music came out of 1940s R&B, which sprang from the blues, which can be traced back to spirituals and even further back to slaves’ work songs, and finally to Africa. Country, folk, and bluegrass are also included in the mix, stemming from a close European branch of influence. The birth of the sound that’s come to be known as Southern rock, however, can be traced to one moment in time: Duane Allman and Wilson Pickett in the FAME studio, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
They were messing around in the studio while the clean-cut, white local session musicians, collectively known as The Swampers, were out at lunch. Pickett and Allman – a black R&B singer and a long-haired white hippie, respectively, both out-of-towners – dared not go, for fear of stirring up trouble. Instead, Allman suggested they record a cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Skeptical at first, Pickett finally agreed and the track was recorded on the first take. It went so well they decided to record an entire album of covers.
Let the Mobius strip of irony sink in: A white blues guitarist convinces an African-American soul singer to cover an original song by a British rock band who started out covering songs by R&B, blues, and rock and roll musicians. With that, two outwardly disparate musicians who shared a love and passion for music built on what had come before by virtue of their own unique interpretations.
It’s almost biblical, the long line of begats that followed – the common thread stretches back nearly a half century: the Allman Brothers to The Band to ZZ Top to Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Charlie Daniels Band to Black Oak Arkansas to Wet Willie to Outlaws to the Marshall Tucker Band (and then darkness fell over the earth when Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crashed and disco arrived) to .38 Special to Molly Hatchet to Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ to Georgia Satellites to Black Crowes to Kid Rock, and ultimately to Blackberry Smoke.
Patience and Soul
So this is where their story begins, or where the music begins to change. Actually, it’s a transformation within a transformation – the simultaneous evolution of a genre and a band. After all, there is a definite progression with Blackberry Smoke. Their 2004 debut, Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime, is raw, rough around the edges. It’s the sonic equivalent of putting the reckless drunk guy at the party in charge of the fireworks. The album rocks, but it’s a frenetic mix of AC/DC power chords, alt-country thinkers, and one song that sounds vaguely and rather oddly like something off a Blind Lemon album. Bad Luck is a solid enough album, it just doesn’t have the mature flow of the band’s work since.
Frontman/guitarist Charlie Starr is even quoted in the band’s bio as saying, “When we started, we were young and impatient, playing everything too fast and with everything always turned up to 10. But eventually you calm down and settle into the music, and you learn to play with patience and soul.”
The 2008 EP, New Honky Tonk Bootlegs, is pretty much as the name implies, a short collection of Hank Williams-style country tunes, both acoustic and electric, with some truly inspired pedal steel. “Livin’ Hell” – a revamped, retooled cover of an old Buck O’ Five tune by Philip Buchanan – is one of the most hilarious down-and-out songs ever. You’ll never look at a Taco Bell in quite the same way after hearing it.
Little Piece of Dixie from 2009 finds the band in sharper focus. The sound is slinkier, sleazier, a party album soaked with ready-made live-show anthems like “Up in Smoke,” “Sanctified Woman,” and “Good One Comin’ On.” It seems to be the band’s best-of-the-worst-of-the-road chronicle, exuding a laid-back yet weary attitude, leaving the listener with a combination of aural contact high and echoes of wheels on the highway.
Eventually, Blackberry Smoke did achieve patience and soul, and they gave both to us in spades with The Whippoorwill in 2012. That record sounds almost completely different from their previous work. There are fewer straight-ahead rockers, but those that appear are impressively tight. There are also more country-blues numbers and a greater emphasis on gospel-funk keyboards. It feels like a band discovering what they can do very well and sharing it with anyone who will listen. There are hidden gems everywhere: a reference to box wine on “Pretty Little Lie” and a lone harmonium that opens “One Horse Town.” Starr’s vocals are more controlled than before, but strong and confident, and at times his voice is comparable to Levon Helm’s, when Helm was at his best.
Blackberry Smoke has relied heavily on touring, playing upwards of 250 shows a year for a decade. That’s where they truly shine, taking their studio material to another level by stretching out with inspired and raucous solos. We hear some of this on the debut, which ends with three live numbers (“Scare the Devil Outta You,” “Muscadine,” and “Freeborn Man”) recorded at The Full Throttle Saloon in Sturgis, South Dakota.
“We took an RV,” Starr says of the Sturgis shows, “parked it behind the stage and just lived there for a week. We opened for everyone who came through. It’s outdoors and the weather was beautiful. What that audience sounded like – we couldn’t have asked for better live recordings. Technically, there are some warts, but the energy was so high that we didn’t care. We aren’t brain surgeons.”
A fully realized live album was released in the summer of 2014 with Leave a Scar: Live in North Carolina, which gives fans who have missed seeing the band in concert a taste of their live experience. The 22 songs show a solid and confident band, sure of itself while stretching out straight-ahead rockers and blues numbers. Highlights are the ten-minute-plus “Sleeping Dogs” featuring an homage to the Allman Brothers, an inspired version of “The Whippoorwill,” and an early, funky version of “Payback’s a Bitch,” which shows up on Roses with a much heavier sound.
Caught Between Bluegrass and Rock and Roll
Talking to Charlie Starr on the phone is like talking to a neighbor – your exponentially talented guitarist/singer/songwriter neighbor. He seems to genuinely appreciate the interest in discussing his music, both past and present, especially his early exposure to bluegrass and rock. Those influences from his childhood and teenage years are clearly evident in his songwriting and the band’s recording vibe, and even in their touring mindset. “My dad was, and still is, a hardcore bluegrass troubadour,” he says. “Somebody likened bluegrass fans to jazz fans: that’s all they listen to. So did I. Those were the first songs I heard, and I think the first one I ever learned how to play was ‘Wreck of the Old 97.’ ”
Starr’s parents divorced when he was young, so splitting time between his parents’ houses meant he got bluegrass at one house and rock and roll at the other. “My mother loved the Stones, the Beatles, Bob Dylan. I made no distinction between any of it when I was a kid. It was all just music. And then later, when I was a teenager, I got an electric guitar because I didn’t have any friends who knew who Bill Monroe was. So, I was like ‘No, I don’t know who he is either.’ ”
Early on, Starr knew music would be his career choice. He was playing around small-town Alabama in cover bands at 17. He played in a band with brothers Brit and Richard Turner – Blackberry Smoke’s drummer and bassist, respectively – in ’97, but he knew things wouldn’t work as a power trio, so he asked guitarist Paul Jackson to join.
“We knew one another but hadn’t played together,” he says of Jackson. “When I would go home, I’d see Paul from time to time. He was in a cover band with his brother. By the time we were putting the band together I knew that we needed not only a second guitarist but someone with good vocal harmonies.”
Early videos of their performances at Star Bar in Atlanta, circa 2002, attest to the band’s early chemistry, with particular focus on Starr’s extensive guitar range, mastery, and finesse. These amateur videos, shot by patrons on a Wednesday night with very few in attendance, show a bar band working through their original material to a smattering of applause. It’s fascinating to watch, because only a few short years later the band was selling out multi-thousand-seat shows worldwide to a rabidly loyal fan base.
But, this increased interest didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen without constant touring behind each album, and even between albums. It’s taken time and patience, building their following one fan at a time, and people seem to have responded, eager to see which classic rock songs they’ll cover in concert or which new influence they’ll pull out of their collective hats on record. Fans seem to respect the band’s willingness to explore, to dig deep, to offer fans something new while remaining true to their roots. They don’t make the same record every time, a fact made very clear on Holding All the Roses which jumps right out of the gate on the opener, “Let Me Help You (Find the Door)”:
Why’s it got to be the same damn thing,
Same damn song that everybody wants to sing.
Same sons of bitches still rigging the game,
They sell the same old faces with a brand new name.
Standing in the back with a shit-eating grin,
They were buying it once, I bet they’ll buy it again.
The album is a rollercoaster ride in the spirit of Led Zeppelin III, which Starr and producer O’Brien had in mind during pre-production. It bounces from rockers that are power-driven, bluegrass-tinged, and countrified to an acoustic instrumental that acts as a sort of palate cleanser to Beatles-influenced introspection. There’s a very brief guitar riff about three minutes into the beautiful “Woman in the Moon” that is very Beatles-esque, with the surprisingly spiritual lyrics of a seeker:
The day will come when I’ll understand it,
Everything will be pure and clear.
Until that day comes, I guess I’ll keep searching
Everywhere between there and here.
The Beatles comparison isn’t accidental. Starr admits, “A lot of that stuff just builds into a recording, when a vibe starts or when you record the song and a vibe is created. It’s funny how the Beatles always creep into it, because they were the kings of recording in rock and roll music. We’re always like ‘We should have a guitar effect there or a mellotron here’ [and] they always sneak into it. God bless ’em.”
Other flashes of influence include The Cult, Guns ‘n’ Roses, AC/DC and the Amazing Rhythm Aces. This is not to say Blackberry Smoke is recycling or copying songs note-for-note; far from it. They’re taking the best of what came before and making it their own with a superb mix of rock, bluegrass, blues, and country.
That kind of diversity doesn’t just show up in their blending of styles by happenstance. In addition to being the frontman, Starr is a guitarist, a musician’s musician, and a gifted songwriter. Paul Jackson is an excellent guitarist and handles harmony vocals extremely well. The Turner brothers are one of the finest rhythm sections in the business, and Brandon Still’s keyboards range from gospel-funk, jazz, and honky-tonk to soulful blues. Interestingly enough, there exists a yin and yang twist: Brit Turner’s savvy business sense more than compensates for Starr’s lack of it.
“He’s the go-getter,” says Starr. “He booked the band in the beginning before we had a booking agent. He mapped out our routes. Back then I drank a lot – it was just wild. Everybody else, except him, followed suit. At the end of the night he would be like, ‘Okay everybody, get into the van.’ No time for him to party, he was too busy wrangling our crazy asses. He’s also a collector. He saved all our laminates and tour posters – he loves that sort of stuff. I collect the wrong kind of stuff. [But] he can pull out a tour poster from ten years ago, and I don’t even remember playing that show. He’s an archivist. My job is writing the songs, creating, and he’s a great businessman.”
Indeed, Starr shines brightest when writing, creating, and performing these songs. The man was obviously made for this, and there seems to be much more to him than just the fact that he’s the frontman for a Southern rock band. The penultimate song on Roses, “No Way Back to Eden,” is so mature and spiritually centered, so brutally honest with clear bluegrass roots, that its simple beauty is almost too much to bear. You get the feeling that the band’s introspective, deep songs are at the heart of Starr’s being.
Oh this life
Is dragging us, one and all, out of paradise.
Oh this time
Is over that hill and rolling down the other side.
There is no shame ’til you know
There’s right and wrong.
We dipped ourselves in the river
But we never get clean.
There’s no way back to Eden
From what I’ve seen.
Spiritual introspection is only part of Starr’s repertoire. He’s such a dynamic singer and guitarist, and he so genuinely respects those that have come before him, that the band has had the unique fortune of sharing stages with the likes of ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Marshall Tucker Band. In addition, Starr and Jamey Johnson were privileged enough to join George Jones in a new recording of Willie Nelson’s “Yesterday’s Wine,” which appeared as a bonus track on Little Piece of Dixie.
“He was so gracious and funny,” Starr says of Jones. “Initially, we were just going to record the song, us with Jamey as a guest. As the date approached to record in Nashville, the label asked if we wanted George to come. I said, ‘Yeah. Bring Merle Haggard while you’re at it.’ We didn’t know if George would come in or not, so Jamey and I recorded it as a duo. And then George came in and listened to it and he was floored. I don’t think he expected the sound coming out of the speakers to be applied to our band. He said, ‘This is real country music.’ That gave me goosebumps. The producer asked George what he wanted to do, and George said ‘Well hell, let’s go sing it together, the three of us.’ I was having a real hard time concentrating, standing right next to him.”
Watching Blackberry Smoke perform onstage and in the studio with their idols of a previous generation, there is a feeling that the torch is being passed, and with it a sort of sadness at the passage of time itself. But that comes amid joyous excitement for the future of this music in the hands of such capable torchbearers. Now, nearly 50 years since Duane Allman and Wilson Pickett melded R&B, soul, blues, and rock to form a new genre of music, and after countless others made their own contributions, the pot of Southern rock is being stirred again. Once more it is the influence of the South that has brought new life born of old traditions – looking ahead while glancing back.