Sometimes, bands will expend time, planning, and energy into putting out a new record. And sometimes, one can emerge organically, almost as an unexpected afterthought. For Atlanta-based southern rockers Blackberry Smoke, last year brought both of those creative paths to the sonic portfolio.
In April, the band that features Charlie Starr (vocals/guitar), Paul Jackson (guitar), Brandon Still (keyboards), Richard Turner (bass), and Brit Turner (drums) released their sixth studio effort, the 13-track Find a Light. Then they decided to film some video footage performing a couple of those tunes acoustically, strictly to release on their website and YouTube for diehard fans.
That turned out so well, the band decided to put down some extra numbers and invite friends like vocalist/fiddler Amanda Shires, vocalist/guitarist Oliver Wood, and guitarist/mandolin player Benji Shanks to join the party. The result was a 5-song EP, The Southern Ground Sessions, named after the Nashville studio in which it was recorded. It features four different versions of songs on Find a Light along with a cover of Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky.” Blackberry Smoke plays Houston on January 26 at the White Oak Music Hall.
“The whole thing was a surprise. We were not attempting to start or complete a project. We were just going to capture some video footage, and only because we had some success with acoustic video material before that brought us lots of [internet] traffic,” Starr says.
The Houston date is a headlining electric-based set, as are a number of other upcoming shows in 2019 which will also see Blackberry Smoke acting as an opening act for Lynyrd Skynyrd on their farewell tour and as part of the Tedeschi Trucks Band-branded “Wheels of Soul” package tour. They’ve also got a live record and DVD of their 2018 annual homecoming show at the Tabernacle in Atlanta coming out. But the band also just announced a short acoustic-only string of dates in March and April, and Starr is looking forward to it.
“Over the years we’ve done it several times here and there. And it’s really enjoyable,” he offers, “We’ve had fans over the years ask about when we’re doing it again or even do a tour, so it seemed like good timing with the release of The Southern Ground Sessions.”
On the back of that record’s cover, there’s a picture of each band member with an accompanying animal symbol, perhaps a take on the self-designed runes by members of Led Zeppelin to identify each band member on their fourth album. But maybe Starr needs to take an extra look at his own copy of the record.
“I think I’m a rat. And that’s not cool at all!” he laughs. When informed that his representation it actually, uh, a cock (or to be polite, a rooster), he reacts with mock enthusiasm: “Oh great…that’s even better!”
Formed in 2000 in Atlanta, Georgia, Starr says that members of the still-original lineup Blackberry Smoke were inspired by other Peach State-bred bands like the Black Crowes, Georgia Satellites, Drivin N Cryin, and even R.E.M. a bit further up the road in Athens. But superficially, their long hair, beads, and Southern Rock category also lump them in with Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, both of whom interestingly got career boosts performing or recording in Atlanta.
But Starr notes that his band – like those latter two Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Acts – also find inspiration from a bit further geographical distance.
“Skynyrd in particular were influenced not heavily by American rock bands, but by Free and Humble Pie and Cream,” he offers.
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“Nobody considers that we’re influenced by the same things that influenced those bands, or the Rolling Stones and the Faces, but we are. Most of the time, I don’t think we even sound like Skynyrd. But I’ll take it!”
What he does like is the freedom he feels the band has to vary their musical sound from bar-band rockers to more ambitious epics to plaintive ballads. Something he attributes, conversely, to their lack of standard commercial cred.
“We really haven’t had the kind of success that would make us have to repeat a formula!” Starr laughs. “But we can do what we want, and we’ve found a stride about working in the studio and self-producing the last two records. We’re making music that we like. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. And there’s no music that we don’t feel. We’re trying to make music that sticks to your ribs.”
Blackberry Smoke play on January 26 at the White Oak Music Hall, 2915 N. Main. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Chris Shiflett opens. $29.50. Call 713-237-0370 or visit WhiteOakMusicHall.com. For more information on Blackberry Smoke, visit BlackberrySmoke.com