Blackberry Smoke Is Reinvigorating Southern Rock
Up from Georgia, Blackberry Smoke: Brandon Still (keyboards), Paul Jackson (guitar), Brit Turner (drums), Richard Turner (bass), and Charlie Starr (vocals/guitar)
Photos courtesy of Blackberry Smoke/Vector Management
It's the kind of press coverage that any band would openly salivate for: cover stories, lengthy features, worshipful album and concert reviews, and breaking news on musical activities.
However, in order to read said coverage, U.S. fans of Blackberry Smoke will have to pay in pounds.
That's the Queen's pounds, because it mostly appears in UK publications like Mojo, Uncut and Classic Rock. They love the Atlanta-based group. And with the release of their new record, Holding All the Roses (Rounder), they hope to repeat some of that success in their home country.
"It surprised us, initially. We'd been to Europe five times in total, and only made it to the UK late in that series," vocalist/guitarist Charlie Starr says today. "It's different there with work visas."
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"But our label over there, Earache, was very enthusiastic as far as getting the word out. So our first shows there were huge, and the last time we sold out [2,000-seat capacity] Shepherd's Bush. And radio over there picked up on our last album there and this one big-time. We're not used to that in the U.S.!"
While the band can generally be categorized as "Southern rock," "country rock" or "classic rock," the material on Holding All the Roses is not slavish to any one genre. And Starr feels it's BBS's most wide-ranging and cohesive effort to date for the band that formed in 2000; the group also features Brandon Still on keyboards, Paul Jackson on guitar, Brit Turner on drums, and Richard Turner on bass.
The band's newfound higher profile may be in no small part to the presence of Brendan O'Brien in the producer's chair. And though best known today for his similar duties on records by Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, and Velvet Revolver, it was his earlier work in the late '80s and early '90s that attracted Starr and his bandmates most.
"We loved all those records that he did then: the early Black Crowes, Dan Baird, the Four Horsemen and Raging Slab," Starr ticks off. All four bands were -- no surprise -- bluesy hard rockers with a '70s-rooted sound.
The mention of the Four Horsemen (who actually had five members) from Starr is telling. They were a great band that should have been bigger and made some impact with a Top 20 rock single and video in 1991, "Nobody Said It Was Easy," before they were derailed by infighting, lineup changes, and a double tragedy.
First, drummer Ken "Dimwit" Montgomery died of a drug overdose in 1994. And the next year fast-living, risk-taking, rowdy vocalist Frank C. Starr was hit by a drunk driver while on his motorcycle. He was left with a massive head injury and putting him in a coma. Starr finally passed away in 1999.
Charlie Starr says he is friendly with Four Horsemen guitarists Haggis and Dave Lizmi, and adds that he is no relation to their lead singer. "A friend of mine gave me that in my twenties" he notes. "But I think he was thinking more of Ringo!"
"We wanted to work with Brendan since the beginning of the band. We knew all his friends, so it was cool to finally talk to him. He came out and saw a show. And when it came time to do this record, he said he did not want us to just repeat ourselves with what we did on our last one [2012's The Whippoorwill]."
So O'Brien gave Blackberry Smoke the "freedom" to make a "big rock and roll record" that still could showcase the band's acoustic side, and it's the one they wanted to make as well. Starr uses Led Zeppelin III as an analogy.
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Holding All the Roses is the band's fourth full-length effort in a discography that also includes a live record (last year's Leave a Scar, Live: North Carolina) and a couple of EPs. All have been on different indie labels with names like Cock of the Walk, BamaJam, 3Legged and even country superstar Zac Brown's now-defunct Southern Ground.
Still, it's surprising that the new one is on Rounder Records, which, since its 1970 founding, has been home mainly to bluegrass, blues, and folk artists.
Starr says he had the same question when two of the labels' three founders, Ken Irwin and Bill Nowlin, got in touch with him. They reminded him that Rounder has also been home to George Thorogood and...Rush.
"They told me, 'and you thought we were a label that only signed 80-year-old banjo pickers!'" Starr laughs. "They really are music people. It's not like being on a major label where they don't give a shit about you."
Also helping to heighten Blackberry's Smoke's recognition in recent years have been shows opening for the massively successful acts Zac Brown Band and Eric Church. That these contemporary country stars have a sound rooted more in Marshall Tucker or the Allman Brothers Band than Garth Brooks or George Strait is not coincidental.
"It can be a daunting experience. And sometimes it sucks, and other times it's great," Starr reflects. "But if you have 20,000 people a night, and 200 of them who have never seen us before have an inclination that they like us and maybe get a record, that's a plus."
One friend who has a great inclination to like Blackberry Smoke is ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, who has sometimes sat in with the group, particularly in Houston. And while the Sharp Dressed Man may or may not make a similar appearance at Thursday's show, Starr says that the man and the city are inseparable.
"I have very fond memories of playing Houston, and I love Billy. It's great to find out that your heroes are also great people, and he's a perfect example of that," Starr concludes. "I can't think of Houston without thinking of Billy."
Blackberry Smoke performs Thursday, May 7 at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. Doors open at 7 p.m. For more on Blackberry Smoke, visit www.blackberrysmoke.com
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