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Shining Lights: Blackberry Smoke Keep Southern Rock's Fires Burning

Thursday, 01 November 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: David McClister

For southern rock ‘n’ roll fans still mourning the Allman Brothers’ demise and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s recent retirement, salvation isn’t too far away. Although those legends can never be replaced, Georgia outfit Blackberry Smoke have spent the best part of a decade keeping the genre they pioneered alive, kicking and – most importantly - relevant.

Just as night follows day and spring gives way to summer, there’s something  dependable and trustworthy about Blackberry Smoke. We have come to rely on them to deliver great album after great album built on an exhilarating, heartfelt bedrock of  southern grooves and touching Americana with grin-inducing stylistic twists and colourful instrumental turns.

On top of that they’re one of the hardest touring bands on the circuit and, this year alone, have already played over 200 shows in support of their latest record, the exceptional ‘Find A Light’. Dishing up hook laden rock ‘n’ roll and traditional country with elements of gospel, grunge, blues and folk, while tackling some pretty dark subjects, it’s further proof that this five-piece are writing their own legacy and not merely standing on the shoulders of giants.

We spoke to singer and guitarist Charlie Starr ahead of Blackberry Smoke’s latest UK tour, touching on their huge popularity on these shores, why they covered a certain Tom Petty song on their new acoustic EP ‘The Southern Ground Sessions’ and what Jools Holland said about them after they performed on his TV show.

On ‘Find A Light’ you seem to be searching for hope and optimism in these troubled times. A year after writing that album, are you any more positive about the state of the world and America or is it all still going to hell in a handbasket?

I mean, it’s just the craziest time right now. In the US, of course, we are politically polarised. That type of thing, I don’t know if it’s cyclical, all I can speak for are the 44 years I’ve been alive. I’m sure people that grew up in the depression would say ‘Hey, this is not shit. You guys are all just bickering amongst yourselves like a bunch of children.’

Back then they were starving to death, so peaks and valleys I guess. It does get tiresome to listen to the red and blue voters in the US just constantly harangue one another. And it’s a daily, an hourly, occurrence. I still feel that way a year later and you have to find some positivity in among all the negativity.

Which songs off the album have evolved the most since you’ve been playing them live?

Flesh and Bone and I’ll Keep Ramblin’. Those have grown legs. We stretch them out, jam a little, let them breathe in certain areas. Flesh And Bone for example, the groove of that song you just don’t want it to stop. Some songs feel like they just wanna be played pretty true to the arrangement we used when we recorded them. I can’t really explain why that is or why we want to stretch out on others. It’s whatever feels right.

How was I’ll Keep Ramblin’ written and recorded because, with the pace and all the stylistic shifts, it almost feels like that song has a mind of its own and is dragging you guys along for the ride?

Robert Randolph and I wrote that a few years ago and, I think, he recorded an instrumental version. Then we played this guitar extravaganza show in Nashville and performed it live. Myself, with Robert and a house band. It was really cool, just as this wild frenetic performance. People really dug it, we loved it and it was exciting.

I had no plans to record that song before that but when we were done I said ‘Robert, I think Blackberry Smoke is gonna have to record this song and you got to come play on it.’ He came to Atlanta and we put it down. When you have someone like him come in and play the energy is just infectious and fills the room. Everybody has to step up and everybody did. I still get excited when I listen to the recording today.

All your albums have a different sound but, after six records, is it getting harder to keep pushing the stylistic envelope and make each one unique without repeating yourselves?

Well, so far it hasn’t seemed very difficult. Ask me that again next year. The last few years have felt really exciting, fulfilling and creative. We’ve been on, what feels like to me, a real hot streak with plenty to record and enough time to get it done.  Everybody has worked really efficiently and we’ve made some really good records.

You’ve got a new acoustic EP out too, which contains a wonderful version of Tom Petty’s You Got Lucky. Why did you choose to cover that particular Petty track?

We played it live a couple of times previous to recording that version. We actually played at an acoustic show and it was something I had listened to not long before. I started playing it on the guitar and was like ‘Y’know, underneath that ‘80s production of the original version is such a perfectly written song.’ I was talking about it the other day with a friend and said ‘When I was a kid that video was all over MTV.’ I remember it was like a post-apocalyptic story and they’re the road warrior type guys riding around in the desert and they find the guitar and the radio and it’s foreign to them.  

That was all powerful imagery but it was covering up these incredible lyrics. It was the start of what became the MTV generation. People would maybe listen with their eyes at that point and I guess I was guilty of it too. Now, as an adult re-examining certain songs, I remember thinking ‘It’s fucking perfect.’ When we were recording we were like ‘We should do a Petty song’ and that was fresh on our mind.

Amanda Shires certainly adds a lot to your version, too.

She’s such a beautiful performer. I asked if she would come up that day and do Let Me Down Easy, which is on the record, and she said ‘Yeah, I’ll come.’ I said, ‘Well bring your fiddle as well this time.’ I didn’t know until today that she had done You Got Lucky before, with her husband Jason Isbell and Jerry Douglas, but it makes sense. She played those beautiful little melody lines on the fiddle, the guitar lines and synth lines. It was really cool.

What did you learn from Tom Petty as a songwriter that you’ve applied that to your own writing?

He had a great quote years ago: ‘Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.’ That’s it. He was a master of getting a point across and it could be very simple at times, perfectly so.  There was very little wasted time, or wasted notes or melody, in a Tom Petty song. Nothing frivolous. It seemed like every second was very powerful.

That EP was released ahead of your forthcoming UK tour. At what point did you realise things were taking off for you in over here?

Well, the first show was at the Barfly [in London], I think it holds 150 people, and then the next time we came over we played Shepherd’s Bush. So, it was a large jump of growth, pretty immediately it felt like. Then we started to work with Earache records, who are fantastic, but we didn’t know what was going on until the record we had available at the time – either ‘The Whippoorwill’ or Holding All The Roses’ - was the number one rock record in the UK. We were flabbergasted. It was fantastic.  That was an incredible feeling for us and we had Earache to thank.

You managed to appear on Jools Holland’s show a couple of years back. What reaction did you get after such exposure?

I would say the impact was large. The response was really positive. It was a really exciting thing to do, we felt very honoured to be a part of it and Jools was really cool.  He came over to me at one point and said ‘Man, you guys are bona fide in the boogie.’ Thank you very much.

I know you have a very fluid live show and don’t repeat yourselves, but how hard is it to put a set list together now you have so much stuff to choose from?  

It’s not difficult. I enjoy it actually. There are songs I feel we have to play or people would be angry. That doesn’t bother me, I love the songs, but I do like to mix it up each night. There will be people who, like last night in Milan, a fellow said ‘Why didn’t you play Sanctified Woman?’ ‘Well we played it last night and we’ll play it again in a few nights.’ Shaking it up keeps it fresh and interesting for us and, in the United States, we have a pretty large cross section of people who travel to multiple shows and they don’t want to hear the same songs again and again.

For young bands just starting out and learning their craft, what advice would you give them about how to put on the best show possible?

I would say do what you do and don’t try to conform to what you think the audience wants to hear because, nine times out of 10, you’ll be wrong.  Just do your thing and if people like it great, if not then you’re not for them.

What do you think about modern acts who use backing tapes because they can’t recreate a performance live that was the result of studio trickery?

It’s not for me, but there are people who feel they need that to, just like you said, recreate what they’re trying to put across to the audience. We’ve all seen it and I’ve seen some really bad examples of it where I’ve thought to myself ‘If you’re gonna do that, at least try to do it a little better.’ We’ve seen, just in recent years, a huge arena act – that I won’t name – and it was so easy to point out what was tracks. You could distinctly hear like ‘Oh, well that’s him singing with himself’ or ‘Oh, that’s three guitar tracks and there’s only one guitar player in the band.’

You supported Skynyrd for some dates of their farewell tour. What can you say about that experience?

It was definitely bittersweet and they spared no expense with the production. There were some really powerful moments with the video content. I won’t spoil it for people who are hopefully gonna see it but it was very bittersweet.

With them and the Allman Brothers not being around anymore, bands such as yourselves and Black Stone Cherry are essentially carrying the genre forwards. Does that kind of status ever cross your mind?

It does, yeah. If people feel that way that’s an honour, but at the same time it’s not something we think about when we go about making a record. We don’t say ‘Oh, we gotta make the next Skynyrd record because they’re not gonna make one.’ All we think is we’re gonna make a Blackberry Smoke record.

And what’s the status of the next Blackberry Smoke album?  

I’ve written a few songs but no plans yet. We’re still in the thick of the ‘Find A Light’ movement. I’m sure we don’t have plans to make an EDM record or anything, we’ll just continue to do what bands do and try to push ahead.

Blackberry Smoke Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri November 02 2018 - NEWCASTLE O2 Academy Newcastle
Sat November 03 2018 - GLASGOW O2 Academy Glasgow
Sun November 04 2018 - NOTTINGHAM Rock City
Tue November 06 2018 - BELFAST Telegraph Building
Wed November 07 2018 - DUBLIN National Stadium
Fri November 09 2018 - CARDIFF Tramshed
Sat November 10 2018 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Academy Birmingham
Sun November 11 2018 - BRISTOL O2 Academy Bristol
Tue November 13 2018 - SOUTHAMPTON O2 Guildhall
Thu November 15 2018 - LONDON O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
Fri November 16 2018 - LONDON O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
Sat November 17 2018 - MANCHESTER O2 Apollo

Click here to compare & buy Blackberry Smoke Tickets at Stereoboard.com.





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