Looking like the lost love children of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band–in a good way–Blackberry Smoke rocks a country tune. Charlie Starr brings his father’s appreciation for old time bluegrass gospel together with his mother’s love for Elton John, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan, and his own early rock influences of the Rolling Stones and Guns N Roses to create one kick-donkey record. The brothers Turner, Starr, Paul Jackson, and Brandon Still comprise Blackberry Smoke. They’ve finally gotten recognition for their straight up Southern Rock from a label that can offer support like Bocephus’ mid 1980s tour bus. Good karma there… (see note at end)
Listening to their current release, Little Piece of Dixie, one can picture bike week bankers, Nascar infielders, and long-neck loving lawyers all giving a resounding “He!! yeah!” when “Good One Comin’ On” cranks up. Don’t let the long hair and extraordinary mutton chops fool you; Charlie Starr is intelligent, insightful, and intriguing. He knows exactly what influences him musically and lyrically, and writes songs with the band that speak to a broad range of fans.
Starr reflected on Bill Monroe, who he calls the “Bluegrass Sheriff,” and true bluegrass music, “Lean your head back and bellow it out with a high lonesome singing voice, on top of a powerhouse of music, way ahead of the beat, just chuggin’. That was the only way they knew how to sing. Journey ruined bluegrass; most of it today is just a weird folky song with a banjo on it.” As we’ve heard from several musicians, “What is bluegrass?” can be fighting words for some people. Bringing the bluegrass and rock influences full circle, we chatted about the outtakes from Exile on Main Street, where Starr quotes Keith Richards, “Don’t $%^ with the bible,” and a Southern favorite, “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.” (Fellow Stones fans may commence fisticuffs now…)
Members of Blackberry Smoke worked together as the backup guys for another artist, and as that fell apart, the core trio brought their own songs to the emerging group and realized that they needed two more players to create the sound they wanted. As they demoed with various studios in Atlanta, the invitation to work with songwriters in Nashville brought a new structure to their creative process, which seemed daunting at first, but developed into several comfortable creative relationships with writers that the band continues to forge. Despite their rock-style performance persona, the guys enjoy an occasional acoustic performance for the right crowd, since it is much more like the process where songs are written, like friends picking on a back porch. Even Ray Wylie Hubbard, the writer of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Up Against the Wall“–(referenced in their song “Good One Comin’ On,” and celebrated musician especially of late) caught their acoustic act in Austin.
UPDATE: Since Charlie and I first chatted in 2010, Blackberry Smoke has signed with Zac Brown’s new Southern Ground Records.
Songs in Episode 1170 include:
- Three from Blackberry Smoke’s record, Little Piece of Dixie
- The oldest known recording of “Wreck of the Old 97” by Velbert Dalhart
- The Black Crowes, “Sometimes Salvation”
- Ray Wylie Hubbard, “Pots and Pan”
- A studio bluegrass version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”
- The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street, “Shine a Light”
- Jamey Johnson, “Playing the Part”