Blackberry Smoke: The Road Goes On Forever
When Blackberry Smoke frontman Charlie Starr wanted Gregg Allman to sing on the band’s 2016 record Like an Arrow, he knew he had to ask in person.
Allman was playing at the former Cox Capitol Theatre in Macon, Ga., and Starr managed to make his way backstage before the show. It was a pretty casual meeting, Starr recalls. He and Allman chatted about “typical musician things”— where they had just come from, where they were going. But then, as Allman was about to take the stage, he turned back to Starr and asked, “Do you wanna play one with us?” Starr was shocked and honored. “I’d love to,” he answered. For the encore, he joined Allman on the Eat a Peach classic “One Way Out.”
“I get goosebumps thinking about it,” Starr says from his home in Atlanta. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
The icing on the cake was that Allman also agreed to lend vocals on Blackberry Smoke’s “Free on the Wing.” Starr says the entire experience was one of many “pinch-me moments” in Blackberry Smoke’s long, winding career.
With years of touring and five studio albums under their belt, Starr and his bandmates have hit their stride on their sixth LP, Find a Light, striking a commercial and creative balance by releasing it on their own label, 3 Legged Records. The band had partnered with labels in the past with mixed results, so for Find a Light and the aforementioned Like an Arrow, they chose to follow their own instincts. Objectively, it was a smart decision. Like An Arrow hit No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Country and Americana/Folk charts, and without any suits to answer to, the band is able to play their country-gospel-tinged rock- and-roll however, wherever and whenever they want.
“Doing it this way, we have complete control,” Starr explains. “We can make the music that we want to make, have our hair cut the way we want to have it cut and not have to answer to anyone who thinks, ‘Oh, if you did this, then you would be more successful.’ At this point, we’re too old to hear something like that.”
Find a Light also gave Blackberry Smoke the opportunity to bring in a friend, Robert Randolph. The sacred-steel guitarist is featured on one of the LP’s strongest tracks “I’ll Keep Ramblin’,” which Randolph originally wrote as an instrumental. As the soul singer/guitarist explains, his interest in Blackberry Smoke was piqued a number of years ago.
“A bunch of people in Atlanta started telling me about them around 2011,” he recalls. “They were still playing small venues at the time. I found out they were cool young cats, adding something new to the music scene. It was great to see.”
Starr and Randolph played an early version of “I’ll Keep Ramblin’” last May at a collective Guitar Greats concert in Nashville, and both musicians quickly realized the song’s potential. “Instantly that night, after playing that with him, I thought, ‘We have to record this. This really feels good,’” Starr says.
Randolph flew to Atlanta on a rare day off to lay down his part. “We played the song and were able to get some great footage of us jamming and improvising,” he says. “It was a fun and beautiful day in Atlanta.”
Starr described it as a “jaw-on-the-floor” recording session, and there’s no doubt that this summer, the raucous, high-energy gospel rock of “I’ll Keep Ramblin’” will be a staple of Blackberry Smoke’s ever- updated live repertoire.
Starr took a step outside of his comfort zone on Find a Light, fleshing out several cuts with longtime friend Keith Nelson of Buckcherry. Usually, he prefers to write alone. “That’s something we had not done before—worked together musically,” Starr remembers. “We are just guitar nerd buddies. So we did it long distance and we wrote six or eight songs and they were really good.” The two friends traded phone calls and GarageBand files, and four of those songs (“Runaway From It All,” “Nobody Gives a Damn,” “Let Me Down Easy” and “Best Seat in the House”) made it onto the record.
Starr penned the rest of Find a Light solo, away from the rigors of the road. “I pace the floor a lot when I’m writing,” he laughs. “It’s very enjoyable, but it is a precious process to me.” Once all 13 tracks were written, he called the rest of the band and they hit the studio. “It always blows my mind when people say that they’ve worked on a record for six months or something,” Starr says. “I think, ‘What’s takin’ so long!?’ Is somebody that much of a perfectionist that they just can’t finish it?” He also jokes that the studio allows his band to loosen up and bring out their “toys,” like vintage instruments and amps.
The key, he admits, is playing with their hearts instead of their heads, and not letting the urge to overproduce impede their inspiration. “Anybody can make a record now and you can make it perfect with technology, and that’s lame. I hate to sound like an old man, but sometimes I just feel like, ‘OK, well who cares if we speed up? It’s passion.’ Capturing those magical moments that five people create together playing instruments is way more important than staying locked to the grid.”
Find a Light is the latest stop on a 25-year journey that, in many ways, began when Starr relocated to Atlanta from Alabama after graduating from high school in 1993. He cycled through a bunch of different bands, but it wasn’t until he met the Turner Brothers (Richard on bass and Brit on drums) that the guitarist started laying down the blueprint for what would become Blackberry Smoke. According to Starr, since they’re blood-related, the Turners can find a groove better than any rhythm section he’s ever worked with. “There was something that felt so good and so right about playing together,” he recalls. By 2000, guitarist Paul Jackson and keyboardist Brandon Still had signed on, completing the Blackberry Smoke lineup. Chris Robinson, another Atlanta classic-rock troubadour, provided the group with their name.
In their early years, they bought a used van and toured the country, playing “every shithole between here and Los Angeles.” The way Starr sees it, those lean years, playing for passive, uninterested crowds, gave the band a chance to refine their live performances in a low-pressure setting. Laughing about it now, he remembers one particularly rough night in Albuquerque, N.M. After the band laid out their gear and soundchecked their set, a dodgy club owner who “just didn’t give a shit,” informed them that nobody was going to show up. He paid the band $150 just to pack up their stuff and leave. “I wouldn’t give anything to replace those memories,” Starr says. “We were learning how to tour, how to be a band, how to put together a show and how to carry ourselves.”
When their touring schedule was at its most demanding, Blackberry Smoke was regularly clocking in 250 shows a year. As Starr points out, that kind of rigorous schedule wasn’t only demanding, it was nearly impossible. And it got even more difficult when children started entering the picture. “Doing 250 shows a year is just insane,” he says. “Nobody can keep that kind of pace for very long. We just became a little more picky and choosy about how many shows we play. We try to tour a little smarter.”
Despite gearing up for a big summer tour supporting Find a Light, including marquee dates with JJ Grey & Mofro and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Starr still believes the goal is “letting the music go where it’s gonna go.” Thematically, he argues, the album isn’t political; it’s more of a broad-stroke examination of our culture. “The song, ‘Mother Mountain,’ that ends the record, is maybe the most uplifting song on the whole record,” he says. “It’s sort of, metaphorically speaking: ‘How can we get to higher ground as a culture?’ We have to find our own light.”
This article originally appears in the June 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.