Like pretty much all active touring and recording musicians during the past nearly 15 months, Charlie Starr found himself at home a lot more than usual. And also like a lot of musicians, the Blackberry Smoke vocalist used the forced quarantine as a time to write new music.
But he didn’t expect that while having his coffee and watching the news one morning, he’s find inspiration for what would become the title track of their just-released album You Hear Georgia (Thirty Tigers). The band will also play the House of Blues in Houston on June 11.
“There was this guy being interviewed about COVID and he had this really thick Southern accent, and it made me smile. But then I wondered if people heard what he was saying, or just how he’s saying it. And if people thought he might not be very intelligent with that accent, even though he was,” Starr says from his home in the Peach State. “That accent just stirs a lot of different reactions in people. And of course, Georgia was in the national news a lot because of the [Presidential and Senate runoff] elections.”
The resulting words are more about cultural and social perception and preconceived notions than music. “You hear Georgia when I open my mouth/Don’t make no difference what I’m talkin’ about/I let you in and then you throw me out/You can’t see nothin’ past a shadow of a doubt,” he sings. And then “You see Georgia when you look down on me/From the top of that mountain where you’ll always be/I wanna reach up sometime and shake your tree/You’ll fall soon enough/I guess I’ll let it happen naturally.”
When asked if the South and Southern men are misunderstood, or painted wholly with a brush of negativity—especially in today’s world—Starr thinks for a moment before responding.
“I wouldn’t call it misunderstood. Like a lot of places in the world, bad things have happened to people in the South, and there’s good people and bad people here just like everywhere. When I started to travel around the world, I realized that was true,” he says.
“People spend a lot of time focusing on the negative. When if they focused on the positive, more positivity and beauty would grow. Especially if you’re talking about the past. You can’t change if you don’t move away from negativity, especially as it deals with the past.”
Growing up, Starr says he was “taught to love everybody” by his father, who would also repeat the old adage that if you’re pointing the finger at someone, you will then have more fingers pointing back at you.
In addition to the songs he wrote himself—“Hey Delilah,” “Lonesome for a Livin’” (a duet with country star Jamey Johnson), and “All Over the Road”—Starr collaborated with a number of other writers including Keith Nelson (“Ain’t the Same”), Travis Meadows (“Old Enough to Know”), Nick Perri (“Morningside”), and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Rickey Medlocke (“Old Scarecrow”).
Southern Rock aficionados who read the liner notes will also see Starr’s collaborator on opening track “Live It Down” and “You Hear Georgia” is Dave Lizmi, guitarist for the short-lived hard rock group (and fellow Georgians) The Four Horsemen. Their rough and raucous 1991 debut record Nobody Said It Was Easy is a cult favorite, and their videos even appeared on MTV for a while.
“That record came out when I was in high school. That was such a great window of time for music in 1991 and 1992,” Starr recalls. “You had them, and Raging Slab, and Izzy Stradlin, and the Black Crowes. It was a great time for rock and roll music that didn’t have lipstick on.” Starr says. He’d seen some Instagram videos Lizmi had put up with of him playing various riffs, and one of them morphed into the opening salvo on “You Hear Georgia.”
But the biggest name to collaborate with Starr on You Hear Georgia is Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule, ex-Allman Brothers Band, and solo artist) with the cautious but hopeful anthem for a better future “All Rise Again.” It also has the two trading vocals. Starr says the pair were on the phone together comparing their notable pandemic-output of songwriting, and decided on the spot to write something together.
You Hear Georgia is the band’s seventh studio record since their founding in 2001, and their discography also includes several live records and EPs. Along with the Allman Betts Band, the Marcus King Band, and the Drive-By Truckers, Blackberry Smoke are the standard bearers for the contemporary Southern Rock sound.
The current lineup includes Starr (lead vocals/guitar), Richard Turner (bass/vocals), Brit Turner (drums), Paul Jackson (guitar/vocals), and Brandon Still (keyboards). They add Benji Shanks (guitar) and Preston Holcomb (percussion) when on the road, where they are occasionally also joined by backing vocalists the Black Bettys, made up of sisters Sherita and Sherie Murphy.
But producer Dave Cobb could also be considered an adjunct member, as Starr says he brought far more to the record than just an ability to spin knobs. “He’s got great technical know-how, and he’s a great producer and engineer who knows how to get the sounds you want,” Starr says.
“And he gets right in there with you on the floor when you’re playing. He doesn’t use a click and it’s all analog and natural. We’ve been together for 20 years and you’ve kind of heard everything. But then you get Dave in there and he’s really excited and bubbling with passion, so it makes you excited.”
Blackberry Smoke will embark on a headlining tour of large clubs and theaters (kicking off in Houston on June 11 at the House of Blues) before switching gears at the end of July to headline “The Spirit of the South” package show with The Allman Betts Band, the Wild Feathers, and founding member of the Allman Brothers Band Jaimoe on the bill.
Starr says the band will introduce more songs from You Hear Georgia to their set list, but there’s one phrase you’ll never hear him utter from the stage. “When I was a teenager, I joined a bar band led by Russ Everett,” Starr recalls. “And he told me do not ever, ever say ‘We’re gonna slow it down a bit.’ It is such a bad thing to say, because if people are pumped up, they’ll just go get a beer or pee. It has a real negative connotation coming out of your mouth!”
Finally, with the band just starting to play shows again, the question must be asked: How much rehearsing did Blackberry Smoke need to sort of shake off the sonic cobwebs?
“Oh, we had to rehearse for sure. At this age…let’s just say that the rehearsals were hilarious. There was a lot of ‘Oh my God, how does this go?’” Starr laughs. “At this point, 20 years in, we’re going to have to hire our children to come in help us to remember how to play our own songs!”
Blackberry Smoke play 8 p.m. on Friday, June 11, at the House of Blues Houston, 1204 Caroline. For information call 888-402-5837 or visit HouseofBlues.com/Houston. $25-$59.50.
For more on Blackberry Smoke, visit BlackberrySmoke.com
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