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Blackberry Smoke’s New Album Offers a Crunchy Continuation of String Band Traditions

Feb 21, 2024

Blackberry Smoke's New Album Offers a Crunchy Continuation of String Band Traditions

With 23 years behind them, Blackberry Smoke are still one of the best examples of Southern rock in the modern era – but what does that even mean, right?

Led by singer, guitarist, and primary songwriter Charlie Starr, the band does indeed have roots pointing straight to hard-driving ‘70s icons like Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band, and more. That’s true, but they also pull inspirations from farther back. And to Starr, Southern rock, at its core, is a continuation of the Appalachian tradition: “String band music and storytelling.”

With their latest album, Be Right Here, some of that old-time tradition shines through the cracks of a warm, distorted wall of sound, with heartfelt song craft and acoustic-guitar melodies front and center. Meanwhile, the band continue to prove crunchy, doubled guitar solos, thundering drums, and anthemic vocals never go out of style.

BGS spoke with Starr before Be Right Here was released, to see what has changed (and what will always stay the same) for one of the most dynamic Southern rock bands in history – a history they know all too well.

I thought I’d kind of start just seeing how you’re feeling at this point. You’ve been burning up the road for over two decades now, which seems crazy to me. How do you feel about where you’ve have been, and where you are now?

Charlie Starr: I mean, I’m tired. [Laughs] No, I feel good. We all do. It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. It’s surreal to think it’s been 23 years. I don’t feel like I’m old enough to say that I’ve been doing anything for 23 years other than breathing, but I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. It feels good.

Blackberry Smoke is one of the best pieces of evidence that Southern rock is still alive and well. But I was just wondering, do you think there’s still more to say in that? Is the form still inspiring to you?

Totally. Just listen to any song from those amazing early Skynyrd records or Allman Brothers or Marshall Tucker Band records, Blackfoot – all those bands are so different, and it really was just geography that tied ‘em all together. They all had their own fingerprint. And I think that we do, too.

I was listening to Patty Loveless in an interview and she was talking about bluegrass – which I grew up playing and I dearly love also – and she was talking about how those first generation bluegrass bands, like Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers, they came from this rich musical heritage of the mountains where they grew up in Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina. And what they were drawing from was acoustic string band music and storytelling.

Well, now, fast forward all this time, and modern bluegrass musicians not only have that, but they also have Led Zeppelin and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and all this. There’s so much more. So I kind of look at it in a similar fashion with “Southern rock” bands, because those guys were listening to not only what I just mentioned, with the hillbilly country music and string band music, but also the British invasion and then traditional country and the Beach Boys. As time moves along, there’s just more and more that gets poured into the soup. So to answer your question in a very long-winded way, I think that it can go on forever.

So you’re kind of the third wave of popular Southern music, taking all that was done before and adding in the new influence, too.

Yeah, if we were a tribute band that just dressed up like some old ‘70s band and played their songs, then it would suck. But since we have the freedom to explore our own musicality, it can never end.

The new album is called Be Right Here. What was the spark that got this one going?

In my case, it’ll usually be a little explosion of songs. I’ll know that album time is coming, and so I’ll get to work on writing a batch of songs. It doesn’t always come quickly but it usually seems to work out, which I’m happy to say, because it kind of falls on me – which I don’t complain about that at all. I dearly love to write songs and I’m glad that it’s my job. There are worse jobs to have. Writing songs for Blackberry Smoke is much easier than working in a body shop, which I did for years.

At this point, 23 years on, are you still writing about the same stuff?

Well, I guess stories can all be new, stories of love and loss and frustration and women and men and drinking – or not – whatever. But if you look at popular music as a whole, there are new subjects that enter our culture, like cell phones and the internet and Facebook. I don’t know if I’ve ever used the word Facebook in a song. I probably won’t. But no matter what comes along technology wise, time stays the same. It’s still moving at 60 seconds per minute, and that’s not going to ever change. And human beings behave really the same way.

That said, the internet’s changed everything really. Not entirely, but it’s added a new accent to everything we do. I think John Mellencamp said it best, he goes, “I’m not sure if we’re supposed to hear this many voices at all at once.” That complicates life, really. It might push me back into my hermit hole a little more. As a songwriter even, it pushes me to the old ways more, melodically and musically. I don’t think anything really new can be said. We’re just trying to find an interesting slant on the way we say it.

You teamed up with Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb for the second time, and he’s famous for live recording and loving first takes. Does that work well for a band like you guys, who are very live-show oriented?

It does. And in this case, it’s very interesting. We went back to RCA Studio A again, and he said, “This time I’m going to put the drums and amps and you guys all in the big room, so we’re all going to be in a little cluster.” And I was like, “Really?” As soon as we started playing together, it was like, “Oh man, okay, this is working. We don’t necessarily need all the separation.”

Some producers would be like, “Hell no. There’s no way I’d ever make a record like that.” It can be too sloppy. But Dave was like, “Well, we’re capturing this one sound. Let’s capture it all in the room, like a ‘60s record or even a ‘50s record.” So that’s what we did.

Tell me a little bit about “Dig a Hole.” It was the first track written, the first track on the album and the first one released, with a theme of choosing your own path – for better or worse. Is that kind of what you have done as a band?

We have. It’s been our only choice, really, because nobody’s ever come around with a different idea. [Laughs] It’s funny, I put together a [track list] and sent it to Dave, and I had “Hammer at the Nail” first. And Dave goes, “Are you insane? ‘Dig a Hole’ is first. Why would you think that ‘Hammer at the Nail’ should be first?” I said, “Because it’s faster.” And he said, “I don’t give a shit about fast. ‘Dig a Hole’ is like you guys are winding up to kick somebody’s ass!”

Azalea” leans more into the folky aspect of what Blackberry Smoke does. It’s got that acoustic shimmer of a classic-rock ballad. Where does that come from for you?

Man, I just love that kind of acoustic music. Again, that kind of stuff was my upbringing, and I’ll never turn it loose. That song lyrically was about fatherhood, because here we are now, our children are all growing up. I’ve already seen one go to college, graduate, now get married, so it’s like, “Well you hold on tight, but you don’t want to smother ‘em.” They have their own path to forge, so all you can do is try to be there for ‘em.

I’ll leave you with the big picture. After 23 years, what you hope people take away from this particular record?

I just hope they dig it. I mean, I don’t know if I expect people to experience it in a different way than I do or not. I don’t know. But I do get a lot of enjoyment right now listening to it.

Photo Credit: Andy Sapp

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Blackberry Smoke's New Album Offers a Crunchy Continuation of String Band Traditions
Blackberry Smoke's New Album Offers a Crunchy Continuation of String Band Traditions