Now on Southern Ground, Blackberry Smoke continues to burn hot and fast
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Hard work pays up, but if the boys in Blackberry Smoke have learned one thing, it’s this: They can’t ever stop.
To let off the gas at this point in their career would be to slide backward, out of that recent with Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Artists, away from the fans they’ve cultivated, often one at a time, through ceaseless touring over the past 12 years. And while that pace can be a grueling one, so far everybody in the Southern rock and country outfit still has the willingness to carry on, singer Charlie Starr told The Daily Times during a recent phone interview.
“With each year that passes and the more ground that we gain, it feels better and better and better,” Starr said. “Every night, we’re playing for a new bunch of people, a brand new set of ears. And we’re spreading out farther and farther, trying to make the best music we can possibly make, ever night.
“Each person I talk to who comes up and says, ‘I saw you on DirecTV, and I’d never heard of you before,’ that’s a thrilling thing to hear – especially when they say, ‘I can’t believe I’ve never heard of you!’ That’s no shock or surprise. We’re not a household name, so I usually tell them, ‘I’m so glad you DID hear of us!’ That adds fuel to our fire.”
That fire’s been burning for a while now, ever since Blackberry Smoke rose up out of the Atlanta area, which Starr rocked with bandmates and siblings Richard and Brit Turner. At the time, the guys were already on track to defining the Southern country-rock sound that would come to define the band in which they all three perform today (along with guitarist Paul Jackson and keyboard player Brandon Still). Their sound got them noticed by Jesse James Dupree of Jackyl, who produced their 2004 full-length “Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime.”
Around the same time, Blackberry Smoke began to make a name for itself around the South, and those first big arena shows opening for bands like ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd cemented the determination of Starr and his bandmates to make Blackberry Smoke successful, no matter how long it took.
“The first big arena show we played, back in 2004 or 2005, we were rock ‘n’ roll musicians, so that’s what our dreams were made of, playing shows like that,” Starr said. “As we’ve pushed on through the years and played more of those kinds of shows, they’ve never become commonplace. Therein lies the thrill of what we’ve worked so hard for – the payoff, I guess you could say.”
They followed up “Crime” with the EP “New Honky Tonk Bootlegs” before going into the studio with Dann Huff, who had worked with Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban, to record “A Little Piece of Dixie,” which was released in 2009. The band’s then-label folded around the time of its release, however, so it didn’t get the attention it deserved, at least until Brown heard it and wanted to re-release it on Higher Ground.
“We were like, ‘No! We’ve been playing songs that will be on our new album since 2009; we’ve got to make the next one,’” Starr said.
Brown wanted to take Blackberry Smoke on the road first, however, and last year the band opened for the Zac Brown Band on a string of dates. The experience was both mind-boggling and gratifying, Starr said.
“Every night at the end of his show, he’d have our entire band on stage with his entire band, and we would play his songs together,” Starr said. “It was like a football team up there, and I remember going into that thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be a production nightmare getting onstage and going.’ But Zac’s crew did it quicker than I ever figured it could be done.
“Then I remember thinking, ‘Good Lord, what are we going to play?’ But we would do a Tom Petty song, and a song by The Band, and then he wanted to play a Blackberry Smoke song and then one of his songs.”
During a break in touring last summer, the guys went into the studio to record “The Whippoorwill,” a new album scheduled for an official release on Aug. 14. However, the band is selling limited copies already at its live shows.
“On ‘Whippoorwill,’ you can tell that musically we’ve evolved and grown, and that’s part of why we do it – to see how far we can take this thing,” Starr said. “It’s not so far removed from everything else we’ve done; we’re not trying to reinvent ourselves at all. It’s just that, to me, it sounds more like us than ‘Dixie’ does.
“That’s not to say ‘Dixie’ doesn’t sound like us, it’s just that ‘Whippoorwill’ is all about the songs. There are songs on there that’ll rock your teeth out, and songs that feel like you’re on your back porch. It’s not one-dimensional.”