Don't Call Blackberry Smoke Outlaws, But They'll Get Out of Hand

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If you haven't smelled Blackberry Smoke in a while, they might have been at sea.

The Atlanta Southern rock/outlaw country (whatever) band has been on so many cruises it's a little surprising the quintet's long hair isn't braided and beaded. When Rocks Off caught up with lead singer/guitarist Charlie Starr a few weeks ago, he was in the middle of packing for the band's first-ever foray on Kid Rock's Chillin' the Most Cruise.

That would have been the cruise on which BBS was scheduled to perform alongside Shooter Jennings, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Band of Heathens, '80s rappers Whodini (of "Friends" fame) and of course Kid Rock himself on a sunscreen-soaked voyage between Miami and Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas.

"I'm sure it'll be the naked-people cruise," Starr says by phone.

Although this was BBS' maiden journey with Kid Rock's oceanbound outfit, Starr reckoned it was the band's 11th musical cruise overall.

"We're cruise royalty," he laughs. "We've done every one of the Skynyrd cruises, three Rock Boats, and then Zac Brown had a Sailin' Southern Ground cruise a few years back."

Starr admitted he was expecting a high time on the high seas.

"No offense to any of the other people who host cruises, but I'm told that Kid Rock is the best host," he says. "You know, he's a party guy, so..."

Did he know how many strip clubs were on the Kid Rock cruise?

"I don't know," admits Starr. "I think it will be a floating strip club."

Actually, Starr says he uses the annual Skynyrd trip -- the Simple Man Cruise will embark on its seventh edition this coming October -- as a convenient chance to take his family on a "working vacation."

True, Starr says his son loves to go out on the band's tour bus; sadly, the 16-year-old is in school right now. But after about 15 years as a band, the Blackberry wives are less than enthusiastic about going on the road at this point -- especially since according to the band's Facebook page, the band members sleep in beds other than their own as many as 250 nights a year.

"[The wives] are usually like, "No thank you. I don't need to be trapped on a bus with 11 guys,'" Starr says. "But this is a great opportunity for us to all get away, soak up some sun."

Cruises like Kid Rock's offer bands like BBS something besides convenient family-vacation time and a paycheck. Low-gimmick, hard-touring, undeniably retro-sounding groups are unlikely to break out using now-outdated avenues of promotion like widespread MTV or FM-radio play these days. But by putting themelves in front of concentrated crowds of fans loyal to better-known but unquestionably similar artists such as Kid Rock or Skynyrd, BBS can't help but win over some new fans of their own.

They must be doing something right. Maybe it just takes a while. The band's song "Pretty Little Lie" has recently been picked up by both CMT and country radio. According to a tweet from House of Blues Houston Thursday afternoon, tonight's show is almost sold out; this without any new BBS product since 2011's Whipporwill, either.

For a variety of reasons - their sound, their look, their placement on satellite radio, the company they keep on cruises, song titles such as "Leave a Scar," "Sleeping Dogs" and "Up In Smoke" -- Blackberry Smoke have come to be associated with a certain "O" word. Starr confesses he isn't sure he'd go along with that.

"I don't know that I personally would, just because it's been used so much," he says. "That's the only reason. Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and Hank Williams [Jr.] and Johnny Cash and all those people are heroes of ours musically, because they did want they wanted to do, and they didn't follow what was popular at the time; Hank saying he was the original outlaw in the '70s, whatever the case may be.

"And then that movement in the '70s with Willie and Waylon and Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver, they were just doing something different," continues Starr. "They just didn't want to follow Nashville's lead because of the way the music business had become.

"Even at that point," he adds. "People complain about how it's become homogenized now, and that's just when it becomes such a business, and the music and the musicians become such a commodity."

So yes, we've seen this all before, of course.

"I'm telling anybody anything they don't know," agrees Starr. "They didn't necessarily need to be labeled as outlaws then. Even Waylon was like, 'Really? Don't you think this outlaw bit's done got out of hand?'"

Blackberry Smoke plays House of Blues tonight with Drake White and Houston's Grand Old Grizzly. Doors open at 8 p.m.

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