Blackberry Smoke is Paul Jackson, Brit Turner, Charlie Starr, Brandon Still, and Richard Turner.Photo by David McClister/Courtesy of Sacks & Co.
During the 1970s, most of the major rock recording studios were in well-known cities like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Memphis. But down in Macon, Georgia, a little upstart operation called Capricorn Studios made a surprising impact, particularly with the raucous sounds of Southern Rock.
Founded in 1969 by Phil Walden and Frank Fenter (though Walden would become the face of the operation), the studio and label scored an affiliation with Atlantic Records and super producer/exec Jerry Wexler. Cut within Capricorn’s walls were albums by two of the genre’s titans – The Allman Brothers Band and the Marshall Tucker Band – but also bands beloved by crate diggers like the Dixie Dregs, Wet Willie, Grinderswitch, Hydra, Sea Level, and Cowboy.
Business issues forced Capricorn’s closure in the early 1980s, but it reopened a decade later, recording bands like Widespread Panic, Gov’t Mule, and Cake before shuttering again. A major historic preservation/renovation project followed, and while the label is still defunct, the historic studio reopened in December of last year.
That the Atlanta-based Blackberry Smoke would be interested in recording at Capricorn is not surprising. Formed in 2000, the group has obvious roots in ‘70s Southern Rock and its practitioners both in sound and look, though they’ve never simply been a throwback effort.
The band pays tribute to the studio, affiliated artists, and the city with music with the new EP Live from Capricorn Sound Studios. Recorded in just one day, the six all-cover songs include “Take the Highway” (The Marshall Tucker Band), “Revival” & “Midnight Rider” (The Allman Brothers Band/Gregg Allman), “Keep on Smiling” and “Grits Ain’t Groceries” (Wet Willie), and “Southern Child” (Little Richard). Some of those originals were recorded in the exact same spot as Blackberry Smoke’s versions.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of time to prepare, so we just chose some favorites,” vocalist/guitarist Charlie Starr says. “And for years I’ve loved this deep cut from Little Richard. I heard it on an AM radio station in Atlanta and pulled over, it was beautiful. It was part of a record he did that was never released. And you would be correct in saying that the Allman Brothers Band, Otis Redding, and Little Richard are three of the greatest gifts that Macon, Georgia gave to the world.”
That the man born Richard Penniman would pass away last month at the age of 87 shortly after “Southern Child” was recorded only adds to the poignancy of the song as the EP closer.
Blackberry Smoke also includes Richard Turner (bass), Brit Turner (drums), Paul Jackson (guitar), and Brandon Still (keyboards). Guests on the Capricorn Sessions include current Marshall Tucker Band flautist Marcus Henderson (who appears on “Take the Highway”), and backup singers/frequent collaborators the Black Bettys (twins Sherine and Sherita Murphy) who add a majestic, celebratory quality.
“We really didn’t talk about how to sound on them to make them ours, we played them pretty respectfully and didn’t take many liberties with them. It’s not for fear of offense, it just felt good to play them that way,” Starr offers. “And we played them live. We stood in the room and did it together. There are no overdubs. And we got to take off a little in spots on some of them.”
Adding to the authenticity of the project, original Wet Willie singer/harmonica player Jimmy Hall does the same honors on the two covers of his band’s tunes. Their “Keep On Smilin’” was a No. 10 hit in 1974, though the new version for some reason fully spells out the last word.
His presence made the project even more special, and it is a credit to Starr’s lack of ego that Hall sings lead on the two cuts. During the day, Hall would also regale the assembled with stories of Capricorn’s heyday, and at the end of “Keep on Smiling,” Hall and the Black Bettys do a little improvised call and response that buoys the tune.
“Jimmy is first and foremost a legend of Southern music. His power speaks for itself, and he hasn’t lost a step. What a great performer, musician, friend, and absolute sweet human being,” Starr says. “He was excited to do it.”
Considering the current pandemic, Blackberry Smoke has taken inspiration from the tune by spearheading the online hashtag #KeepOnSmiling to spread some positivity. And some proceeds from the sale of the track will go to the Recording Academy’s MusicCares COVID-19 Relief Fund. “That song was tailor-made for a pandemic!” Starr laughs.
Another connection to the studio and label’s original days can be heard on “Midnight Rider.” Starr is playing Duane Allman’s personal 1957 Les Paul Gold Top guitar. It was specially loaned to him by The Big House, Macon’s Allman Brothers Band museum, housed in the same building in which the group and their families lived early in their career.
It wasn’t the first time Starr has gotten to play the instrument, but that didn’t mean he was any less scared of, say, dropping a priceless rock and roll artifact on the ground (it had sold to a new owner for $1.25 million in August 2019). The instrument was used by Allman heavily on the first two ABB records and – most importantly – for his epochal solo on Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla.”
“Richard Brent, the curator of the Big House Museum, brought it over. He’s close with the owner and is the guitar’s caretaker for a lot of the time. He was permitted to bring it over and let us use it,” Starr says. “I’ve played it several times before and it’s an incredible instrument. It’s touched.”
As for current events, Blackberry Smoke was supposed to embark on a nationwide tour with the Allman Betts Band (featuring three sons of ABB members) and Wild Feathers (featuring original ABB percussionist Jaimoe). Starr hopes that the perhaps unwieldy-named “Spirit of the South: A Celebration of Southern Rock and Roll Music” will happen in 2021. The band is also finishing up a new record of original material.
But in the Age of Coronavirus, Starr is holed up at home, spending time with his family, and breaking in a new puppy – which has, um, an accident in the house during the course of our phone interview, and for which Starr has to call his wife to handle.
“Man, we’re OK. But it’s crazy to think that this is the longest amount of time we’ve been home in 20 years, so it’s taken a bit of adjustment on everybody’s part,” he says. “But when you have kids and wife and a backyard and gardens to plant, it all works out!”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.