Premiere: Blackberry Smoke Celebrate Two Allman Brothers Band Anniversaries with “Midnight Rider”

Jake May on March 26, 2020
Premiere: Blackberry Smoke Celebrate Two Allman Brothers Band Anniversaries with “Midnight Rider”

This coming June, Blackberry Smoke will release Live From Capricorn Studios, an EP made up of covers that the band recorded at the legendary Macon studio. Proceeds from the EP’s sales will go toward MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

For the recording session, Blackberry Smoke did not simply select a random assortment of songs; instead, they opted instead to pay tribute to the history of the room and city in which they were recording. “We chose a handful of songs that are Macon, Ga. songs,” guitarist Charlie Starr told Relix. “A couple Allman Brothers songs, a couple Wet Willie songs, a Marshall Tucker Band song that was recorded in that room at Capricorn and a Little Richard song that is not a Capricorn song, but since Little Richard is probably one of Macon, Ga.’s greatest gifts to the world, we recorded that.” Blackberry Smoke’s recording session at Capricorn marked the first time a major band has done a professional recording at the studio in over 40 years.

One of the songs Blackberry Smoke recorded was the Allman Brothers classic “Midnight Rider,” which featured Starr playing Duane Allman’s legendary gold-top Les Paul guitar. Today, we premiere the video of the band’s cover, which comes on the anniversary of the formation of The Allman Brothers Band (Mar. 26, 1969) and the anniversary of the release of “Midnight Rider” (Mar. 26, 1971).

In addition to the video and upcoming EP release, Blackberry Smoke are gearing up for their “Spirit of the South Tour: A Celebration of Southern Rock and Roll Music” this July, which will see them pay tribute to their influences alongside The Allman Betts Band, The Wild Feathers and original Allman Brothers Band member Jaimoe.

Watch the video for “Midnight Rider” below as well as an extended conversation with Charlie Starr, during which he discusses the Capricorn sessions, playing Duane Allman’s guitar, the hard work of rock and roll road crews and more.

Jake May: How did the idea to cover “Midnight Rider” at Capricorn Studios come about?

Charlie Starr: Initially, we had the idea to go down to Capricorn to set up and play live in the studio there. We wanted to get some footage for tour promotion for the Spirit of the South tour coming up this summer with the Allman Betts Band. We chose a handful of songs that are Macon, Georgia songs—A couple Allman Brothers songs, a couple Wet Willie songs, a Marshall Tucker Band song that was recorded in that room at Capricorn and a Little Richard song that is not a Capricorn song, but since Little Richard is probably one of Macon, Ga.’s greatest gifts to the world, we recorded that. I had no idea that it was going to be coming up on the anniversary of “Midnight Rider’s” initial release, so that was all kind of just happenstance. We just wanted to have some fun, but it turned out really well and we had a great time. Jimmy Hall from Wet Willie and Marus Henderson from Marshall Tucker Band came down— It was one day that we spent there. So, I think the plan initially was to release it; we were very pleased with it and it was so much fun. We wanted to take a day and just celebrate the music of those bands that influenced us so incredibly, and that’s just a few of them.

JM: I would imagine that playing those songs in that room had a bit of a special feeling. Is that safe to say?

CS: Oh, yes, very safe to say. That kept running through my mind as we would go from song to song. I kept thinking about the time we spent in that studio and how many times I’ve listened to a lot of those songs from those bands that were on that label. To be standing in that room—and now it’s functional again—was pretty overwhelming. Chuck Leavell actually stopped by that morning as we were setting up just to say hello. As I spoke with him—standing in the middle of that room—I thought, “Well, good grief! This room is partly held up by you and your DNA.” Anyway, it was a great day and we’re happy to share it with people.

JM: Speaking of special feelings, you were playing Duane’s goldtop [Les Paul guitar], is that correct?

CS: Yeah, it’s Richard Brent’s from The Big House museum. He brought that guitar down there and I played it on the two Brothers songs. I just can’t thank them enough—Richard and all The Big House folks—and also the owner of the guitar, who is a spectacular person himself. That just added to the goosebumps.

JM: Was that the first time you ever played it or had you played it before?

CS: No, I played it before. They’ve been nice enough to bring it on several occasions to shows in Atlanta and Macon, and I’m proud to have been able to play that thing quite a few times. It has a ghost in it; if you ask guitar players who have played it, it’s a really special instrument obviously.

JM: I’m a guitar hobbyist myself and I feel like if I’m playing even a random old guitar in a guitar shop, I get nervous to play. Do you feel the same way or is it like you really owe it to the guitar to rip it up?

CS: I don’t know, I’m always a little bit tentative with any ‘50s Les Paul because they’re valuable. Meaning, when they’re not mine, they’re someone else’s. But then you kind of get lost in the music, not to sound corny. You get lost in the sound that’s coming from your hand and that instrument. The first time I ever touched it was years ago at a show in Atlanta. We were opening up for the Zac Brown Band and the owner at the time brought it down himself for Zac to play. I believe it was for Zac to play, but it might have also been for Coy Bowles or Clay Cook, the other two guys that play guitar in the band. As I walked through, I took a look at it and I wanted to take a picture of it. I remember the guy handed it to me as I was standing there admiring it, and he said, “How does it feel to hold a one million dollar guitar?” I said, “It feels like I should put it down.” [Laughs]

JM: I can imagine. I think I would be afraid to even pick it up in the first place, but obviously you can do some justice to that guitar.

CS: Thank you. That guitar is not only the instrument that Duane used on the first two Allman Brother records, but it’s the Layla guitar that he played on the Derek and the Dominos Layla record. It’s the first guitar you hear on Layla [makes guitar sounds].

JM: The Allman Brothers were one of the first bands that introduced me to the world of both Southern and improvisational rock. It’s really cool to see the willingness of everybody in those communities to pass down the history to those who are carrying the torch, like Blackberry Smoke and all of your contemporaries. I think Derek [Trucks] just played it at The Brothers celebration of 50 years of the Allmans at MSG, so it’s very cool to see that it’s not locked up in a volt where nobody can touch it. Similar with Jerry Garcia’s guitars–they’re also made available to play, which is very cool.

CS: That’s a very selfless thing for the people who wind up owning those guitars. They’re such incredible pieces of history, so for them to come out and let people who care so much for this guitar music play them is huge; I can’t thank them enough.

JM: Speaking of carrying on the history, I suppose we can move on and talk about the record that you guys are going to release. Is it all songs that you recorded in the studio or are there other things that will be featured as well?

CS: This EP is just the songs that we recorded that day at Capricorn, just six covers. We’re in the middle of recording a new album, but we’re not working right now because we’re all at our houses being terrified. [Laughs] We will hopefully finish our Blackberry Smoke full record as soon as Coronavirus tells us we can get back to work.

JM: I wanted to ask a little bit about the “Spirit of the South” tour. How did that idea formulate, and how did you all choose the bands that would be coming along with you? Of course Jaimoe will be joining as well, which is really amazing.

CS: Initially the idea was to put together a traveling festival kind of thing. We instantly thought of the Allman Betts Band because we actually played a couple shows together several months ago down in Florida. The idea grew and then we were talking about how when bands like us tour together, we’ll always wind up on stage together during the encore. Then it became, “You know what we should do? We should create this show where the breakdown is that everybody plays a set of their own and then we dedicate a full set at the end of the night to a big jam.” None of us had ever done that, we’ve always just had time as a factor when you play a show because curfews are ramped up these days and they’re strict. So, we’ve never had the luxury of dedicating such a large portion of time to really just stretching out and playing songs that we love and that the audience loves. It sounds like a really fun thing to do in the summer, to me. We thought we should celebrate the music of these southern bands that we all love so dearly. Where we come from, it’s just omnipresent; it’s part of our DNA. Anyway, those guys are all buddies of ours and we love and respect their bands and they were very into it. I have every single one of my digits crossed hoping that my country—well, the world—can get past this mess and we can all get back to a normal way of life and keep that tour together. I really have faith that we’re all going to be fine and that we’re gonna have a good summer.

JM: If we can get through this, come the summer the celebration aspect will be more than just about specific bands–people will be thrilled to return to seeing real live music instead of watching it on your TV or computer screen.

CS: Yeah, and also speaking of the tour, it was so great that Jaimoe got involved to come out and play in the jam. We’ll have some other special guests as well. I don’t know exactly what shows, but Jimmy Hall says he’s gonna come to some. Hopefully we can get some others. I think Jack Pearson and our buddy J.D. Simo. The deeper and deeper we got into planning it, I thought, “This is going to be great.” I’ve never done anything like this before.

JM: For the big jam sets at the end, considering there’s so many of you, will you map everything out in advance or is it going to be more like what songs you’re feeling?

CS: I think a little of both. I think we’ll have to map it out a little or else we’ll all be standing up there wondering what to do. It won’t be the same thing every night, that’s for sure because that’ll be a rule: it can’t be. Obviously part of the idea is the spirit of the south and celebrating that rock and roll music. All of those songs will be vehicles to stretch out. I was also talking to Devon Allman and Duane Betts and I was saying that there are no rules about what we have to play. We’re not going to get in trouble if we don’t play a specific song, but we also want to touch on the music and songs that inspired those bands: the gospel and blues and early rock and roll. It’s funny— I could talk about this stuff for hours, but I won’t waste your time.

JM: I assure you that would not be a waste.

CS: There’s an endless supply of material is the short answer. [Laughs]

JM: I’m very much hopeful that this tour will be at its full strength and hopefully I’ll be able to catch a show. Is there anything else you wanted to highlight?

CS: I think that’s it. Thank you for helping us spotlight this year. I was talking to my manager and we were figuring out where a portion of the proceeds from the Capricorn sessions will go– MusiCares was definitely talked about because our own crew are all sitting here idle and it’s tough. It’s tough for everybody, but who works harder than the rock and roll road crew? I don’t know anyone. They’re the first ones there and the last ones to leave; they’re always working.