Blackberry Smoke: Letting It Fly

Rob Slater on November 7, 2016

“We’ve felt like the underdog for most of our career,” Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr confirms as he checks in following a few weeks on the road with Gov’t Mule in August. “It’s an uphill battle,” he admits, “which it is for all bands—unless you’re the Stones.”

But while Blackberry Smoke’s rise through the ranks has been fraught with obstacles, the Atlanta-based quintet is on much firmer footing as the enter their 16th year as a band with their dynamic new record, Like an Arrow.

A band’s journey often begins with a name and, in this case, that process can be traced back to their formative days in Atlanta and an inspired idea from Chris Robinson.

“Chris Robinson did name the band, yes,” Starr confirms when asked if that story was true. “My drummer, Brit Turner, has known Chris for years. We all have.” Starr recounts one particular booze-soaked night hanging around Robinson and his Black Crowes bandmates when they were kicking around ideas for their moniker.

“Naming a band is fucking hard,” Starr jokes. “All the good ones are taken. “So Chris was over for about a 24-hour period—there was some partying going on, and he kept coming up with these silly suggestions,” he continues. “Finally, he said, ‘What about The Blackberry Smoke?’ All of a sudden, that didn’t seem so silly.”

Dropping “The” from Robinson’s not-so-silly suggestion, the ragtag group— which also includes Richard Turner (bass), Paul Jackson (guitar) and Brandon Still (keyboards)—got started down a decidedly blue-collar path. The band earned its stripes by gigging hard in the early years and working toward its first record, which arrived in 2004 in the form of Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime.

It’s a fitting title, looking back, as Starr and Blackberry Smoke wouldn’t experience a surplus of good fortune initially, bouncing from label to label for their first three albums. First it was Cock of the Walk, then BamaJam (for 2009’s Little Piece of Dixie) and Zac Brown’s Southern Ground (for 2012’s The Whippoorwill).

“We’ve been involved with these labels that have fallen apart,” Starr reflects. But landing with Brown’s budding organization and Southern Ground brand felt like a new start for the band.

“Any time someone who is successful shows interest in working with us, it’s exciting,” Starr explains as he talks about joining up with Brown’s operation, and even hopping on a tour with Zac Brown Band. “At the time, we had no home, so it was perfect timing.”

The Whippoorwill offered Blackberry Smoke their first extended taste of success. The record peaked at No. 8 on the country charts and moved over 50,000 units, introducing the band to the world of country music. With The Whippoorwill, Blackberry Smoke got some help from Brown (who earned a writing credit on “Crimson Moon”) as well as ZBB associate Clay Cook (who infamously ditched Berklee College of Music with John Mayer to move to Atlanta and start a band). “The fans let you know which [record] is their favorite and that has long been our touchstone,” Starr also notes. “And that’s fin .”

However, despite those achievements, the record label curse followed the band to Southern Ground, which dissolved in 2015.

“The Beatles couldn’t even make it work, you know?” Starr quips about artists starting their own labels. “Zac’s a great guy and he’s a great friend, but he saw how hard it could be. He had his hands full being Zac Brown, and I think the last thing that he could find himself doing would be micromanaging a label while he’s busy touring the world and selling millions of records. Far be it from me to know how to make something like that work.”

He sums it up with an understandable amount of resignation: “We had a good time there. We made a good record and went on a couple long jaunts with Zac. It was good.”

While Blackberry Smoke may have been without a home for their next record, which wouldn’t come out until 2015, the group experienced expansive musical growth in this time, stretching into the jamband realm and firmly planting their feet in the country-rock world, thanks to the success of The Whippoorwill.

One of those jamband connections came about during a 2013 visit to Bob Weir’s TRI Studios in San Rafael, Calif., where they got a chance to play with the Grateful Dead guitarist. A self-admitted “huge Dead fan,” Starr was thrilled to be invited to play Weir’s high-tech studio.

“We asked Bob if he wanted to jam with us, so we just went down a list of songs and threw together a jam,” he says of the impromptu musical meeting that turned into much more than the group had anticipated. “It was a marathon. I think we wound up playing for sixteen hours.”

Starr, who notes that his wife saw about 38 Dead shows while attending the University of Georgia, welcomed Weir to join Blackberry Smoke for tunes like “Ramble on Rose,” “Deep Elem Blues” and The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek.” The guitarist vows that the performance will eventually see the light of day. (Weir and Blackberry Smoke revisited their collaboration at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, Calif., in April of 2014.)

While the performance itself was a clear career highlight, what Starr remembers most about his time at TRI was the conversation afterward with Weir and longtime Dead roadie Steve Parish.

“[They] told stories about touring the South, playing Atlanta and playing shows with [the Allman] Brothers in the early ‘70s, and the whole Watkins Glen thing,” he remembers. “I had a buddy who took some photos of them at RFK Stadium when the Brothers and the Dead played. I showed Bob a couple of those photos and he was like, ‘Oh, my God, it was so hot that day and I was so glad the Brothers went on in the sunshine because you couldn’t keep an instrument in tune.’”

Between The Whippoorwill and their fourth record, 2015’s Holding All the Roses, Blackberry Smoke continued to build on their Grateful Dead, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers influence while also embracing their newfound popularity on the other side of the country divide. That formula proved to be successful: The band teamed with producer Brendan O’Brien, known for producing six of Pearl Jam’s studio albums and earning credits for his work with Springsteen, AC/DC, Dylan, Neil Young and the band who gave Blackberry Smoke their name, The Black Crowes. Holding All the Roses went to No. 1 on the country charts and No. 7 on the rock charts.

“He is an old Atlanta guy and we shared a lot of the same friends,” Starr says of the decision to work with O’Brien. “He was on our short list every time we made a record, and we were never able to get him. He came to a show at the House of Blues in Los Angeles and he said, ‘Man, I know your band. I’m in your band. Hell, this is the kind of music I’ve played my entire life.’”

The initial burst of chemistry led to a recording process that Starr calls “a great experience,” and ultimately culminated in a crossover country smash at a time when Nashville’s Music Row controls the charts. Blackberry Smoke, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson have bucked that trend, however, bouncing back with their own respective chart-toppers.

“I don’t think we’re a country band,” Starr admits when he digs into just what makes Blackberry Smoke appealing to country fans. “I’ve always thought of us as a rock-and-roll band. You could say there are elements of our music that might remind people of Lynyrd Skynyrd, which, if you look at those first two or three records now, those songs wouldn’t be played on rock-and-roll radio. They’d be more likely to be played on country radio now.” He laughs and quickly corrects himself.

“Actually, that’s not true. Country radio wouldn’t touch Skynyrd these days.”

The current landscape of country music isn’t conducive to a rugged, rough-and-tumble band like Blackberry Smoke, opting instead for the manufactured, aesthetically pleasing product of Music Row that will churn out hits. Yet, there they were, sitting atop the charts with Holding All the Roses.

“I love it with my whole heart,” Starr says of what he calls “traditional” country music. “It’s a very important part of my musical fabric. I grew up playing bluegrass and traditional country music before I discovered Black Sabbath and Aerosmith. There’s a distinction between what is considered country music now and what we consider to be country music,” he explains, adding that he doesn’t want to sound like “an old man that keeps railing against new country music. But there’s a lot of horrible shit out there. We don’t want to be lumped in with some of that garbage.

“I’ve always thought that we were hacks when it came to being a country band because we’re rock-and-roll guys,” he says candidly. “But my favorite rock-and-roll bands did the same thing—the Stones were a great country band and the Dead could be a country band on a dime—sort of their version of it. It’s all relative to music.”

Starr describes Blackberry Smoke’s story as a patchwork of “tiny, little victories,” adding: “Then a certain situation we might be in might turn sour and that feels not so great.”

Their latest “tiny, little victory” comes in the form of Like an Arrow, which will be released in mid-October. It also marks their debut on 3 Legged Records via Thirty Tigers.

Starr beams with pride when speaking about the new project. “With each record, we get a little closer to really saying who we are musically. Each record shows a little more maturity, as far as the band’s playing together, and I’m just proud of the progress that we’ve had making records. It feels like such an accomplishment, and I feel like, now, we’re really planting our flag. This is the record I’d like us to be remembered for.”

The guitarist says all of that with immense pride before pausing and adding with a laugh, “But that’ll probably change with the next one.”

Like an Arrow is highlighted by another point of pride for him and for Blackberry Smoke: a duet with Gregg Allman on “Free on the Wing.”

“Are you kidding—Gregg Allman?” Starr says with a fair amount of astonishment as he reflects on the collaboration.

“My only regret is that we couldn’t be there the day he recorded his vocals. We were in Spain. Gregg’s a very gracious fellow. He’s a sweet guy,” he explains, sounding nearly choked up.

Starr gets nostalgic as he recalls his initial encounter with the Southern-music giant. “He’s an intimidating presence. When I first met him, I was intimidated because he casts a very big shadow. But he’s a nice man and was interested in what we were doing—very cool of him to lend a hand.”

Blackberry Smoke’s collaboration with Allman certainly brings their connection with the region’s most iconic band back home. Starr recalls the first time he saw Warren Haynes perform with Gov’t Mule, at a New Year’s Eve show in 1995. “I was knocked out the first time I saw them because, obviously, it was very different than what he was doing in the Brothers,” Starr says. “It was a little more ferocious.”

The band got a full dose of that intensity earlier this year, when they embarked on a long jaunt with Gov’t Mule dubbed the “Smokin’ Mule” tour that saw a collaboration every night. “We wound up playing about 38 songs together in different formations—no repeats,” Starr boasts. “Everything from Al Green to Neil Young, Funkadelic and, of course, the Grateful Dead.”

Starr is also not shy about his affection for another former Brothers guitarist, Derek Trucks. “I think Derek is the best guitar player I’ve ever heard. Honestly. Ever.”

He lights up, adding: “[Trucks] has incorporated this amazing voice into his playing. No one I’ve heard does that. I don’t even know how I’d describe it. It’s an incredible style that he’s developed.”

This praise quickly leads into a story about the last time he saw the Tedeschi Trucks Band onstage, at Byron Bay Bluesfest in Australia. “[Trucks] had stitches in his left index finger, his fretting hand. He was laughing about it backstage, nervously, but he said, ‘I gotta figure out if I can do this.’ He’s playing the guitar with his index finger hanging free, and then I watched him bring 10,000 people to their feet with this long, beautiful solo on ‘The Sky Is Crying.’ I was just bowled over. Obviously, he can usually do that… but now, he can do it with one finger missing!”

Starr doesn’t stop there. “[Trucks] was fantastic in the Brothers, but Tedeschi Trucks Band is probably the best band I’ve ever seen—not only powerful but very dynamic as well. Everything in its place; it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

Blackberry Smoke’s humility and reverence for their peers is certainly a beautiful thing as well. For a band that has taken its fair share of lumps, Blackberry Smoke have remained consistent and steadfast, constantly churning out records and continuing to hone their craft onstage. Now, Blackberry Smoke find themselves staring a headlining tour in the face, only breaking to join Allman onstage at the upcoming Laid Back Festival in Atlanta around Halloween.

Despite their success across multiple genres, Starr isn’t much for putting a label on Blackberry Smoke. “We’re not necessarily a country band or a rock-and-roll band or a jamband or a Southern-rock band or whatever people like to call it. We really are just fi e guys from Atlanta playing music together.”