Blackberry Smoke — Living in Song

When you’re on the road for most of the year, it’s crucial to keep things fresh—and that’s just what Blackberry Smoke strives to do. During my chat with vocalist and guitarist, Charlie Starr, he elaborated on the amount of attention that goes into selecting their repertoire when cooking up their set list each night. The same goes for their albums—just have a listen to their 2018 releases, Find a Light and the EP, The Southern Ground Sessions. There are no recipes for art, but sweet harmonies with heavy flavors of blues and rock mixed with some southern tang make for a rockin’ taste that fans can’t seem to get enough of.

Since their start in 2000, Charlie Starr, guitarist Paul Jackson, bassist Richard Turner, drummer Brit Turner, and keyboardist Brandon Still have been climbing their way to the top of various music charts. In 2015, their album Holding All the Roses found a spot on Billboard’s Top Country chart, and the next year, their 2016 record, Like an Arrow, took its place there as well.

A few years ago, I was lucky to have had the chance to conduct my very first interview as a journalist with Starr. So, when I heard Blackberry Smoke would be back in town, I jumped at the chance to catch up with the band. During our chat this time, the kind artist filled me in on the new albums, his writing process, and what it takes to create such magical shows each night.

You guys had two sold-out shows in late February while in Tennessee—how’d they go?

Oh, they were fantastic. It was different. It was very special being that they were in the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. It just conjures this energy not only for the band, but for people there. It’s sort of a hallowed ground, musically-speaking. Although, I will say, that didn’t stop four people from being arrested on Saturday night (laughs). It got quite wild. But it was a fantastic time, I will say.

What a way to get into a nice round of tours! You guys had a busy 2018. You put out a full-length album and an EP. I love both of them.

Thank you very much!

No—thank you. What was the recording process like for Find a Light?

It was the usual. I’ll write songs at home and we’ll get together and play them, and then we’ll get to the studio and record them. This is the third record that’s been self-produced in our career. I don’t know, we have nothing against producers, it’s just that with these particular albums, we knew exactly—or we thought we knew exactly—how we wanted them to sound and be. We had a pretty clear picture in our mind’s eye of how we wanted them to turn out and I think most of the time, you want to trust your instinct. That’s the best way to go about something like that. So, yeah, we normally work pretty quickly. We don’t have the luxury of staying in the studio for months at a time, so we prepare ourselves and go in and get it done.

Yeah, and I know you guys spend a ton of time on the road touring. You’ve got to get in and get out.

Yeah! That’s it.

Okay, so you’re writing a song and it’s complete. What if it just doesn’t jive—doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album? Or have you been really lucky where it hasn’t happened much?

Oh, it happens! They get left behind. They get filed away in the “maybe next time” box. Some of them will see the light of day and some don’t.

Find A Light, compared to, say, Holding All the Roses from a few years back, sounds a little more eclectic. You’ve got some rockin’ songs, some bluesy songs like “Flesh and Bone,” and some gospel elements in “I’ll Keep Ramblin’.” Is that just how things came out?

In a nutshell, yeah. That’s the way the songs feel when they’re written. That’s their initial feeling. Like, this is this kind of song, or this is a fast song, or this is kind of a bluesy song or more like a gospel song…. Songs are sort of born like children, and usually they’ll maintain those attributes unless you get in the studio and it just doesn’t feel right. And then we could say, ‘Why don’t we try it slower’ or ‘Try it as an acoustic song.’ It just depends.

How have your fans reacted to the various songs?

I think our fans—our loyal fans, are used to it. We try and cover a lot of ground. It’s expression, you know? We don’t look at our music as commodity, so we don’t follow a formula. Like, there’s no instance in our career where we said, ‘Oh! This formula works! Look at this big hit we just had! Let’s repeat that.’ That’s never happened (laughs). So, we’re not tied down to one idea.

It’s for the art.

Yeah. I would say so. Sometimes, I feel a little presumptuous calling myself, or ourselves artists. But I guess that’s what we are. We’re creating something from nothing and hoping that other people like it.

You had some guests on the album, too. What led to those collaborations? You had three guests on there.

Well, initially it was just going to be Robert Randolph because we wrote “I’ll Keep Ramblin’” together and actually played it live together. So, when we were going into the studio, I asked him if he would come play on it and he said yes. It was sort of a given that he would come.

My friend Keith Nelson and I wrote a song called “Let Me Down Easy,” and as we were writing it, he said, ‘I think it’d be cool for a girl to sing with you on this.’ To have that harmony kind of thing. And so, when we started recording it, I had been speaking with Jason Isbell, who’s a friend, and his wife Amanda. I had never really met her, but she’s a great artist and her voice is really cool and unique—and she’s a great fiddle player, too. At that time, I thought she seemed like the obvious choice, and she was. So, I called her and asked her and she said yes.

And then The Wood Brothers are old friends of ours and one of our favorite bands. They just happened to be in town and I asked Chris and Oliver if they would come and sing on “Mother Mountain.” It wasn’t initially our plan to fill up the album with guests. It just worked out that way.

Amanda was also on the EP. Do you think she’ll be making some more appearances?

I hope so. She’s great. She was very gracious with her time. I know she’s busy, as well, and has a fantastic album and tour. Any time she can make it happen, she’s more than welcome.

That’d be awesome because your voices really work well together.

Yeah! She has a real mountain music delivery in the way that she sings a harmony. Not a lot of people have that. It’s not something you can teach. Her inflection was perfect. I was blown away by how—I shouldn’t have been blown away because I knew she was great. But I was so pleased—she knows that thing, that harmony thing that you can’t teach people. I mean, it’s in you or it’s not. She’s just got that lonesome mountain delivery that I love so much.

Looking ahead to this tour, are there any particular venues you’re looking forward to?

Oh, everything. It’s gonna be great. I know we’re gonna be playing some places that we haven’t played before. Some smaller rooms for this—it’s a seated, acoustic laid-back thing and we’ve taken on multiple nights in some of the rooms to accommodate some of the ticket buyers, and that’ll be a lot of fun.

Oh yeah—and I noticed the EP is all acoustic. There’s a cool story behind it, right?

Yeah. You know, with that EP, it wasn’t really a planned recording session. We were actually just recording video content of ourselves during a little living room jam with friends. The audio was more of an afterthought. Not that we didn’t care—there were just no overdubs. We just set up some mics in the room and played.

That captured some magic, I thought. And at the end of the day, we were all like, ‘Wow. This sounds great! This is what you get when you don’t try hard!’ (Laughs). But it’s by no means perfect, but it captured—the guys at the studio—they captured a really unique happening, I thought. So, at the end of the day, we focused more on the audio than the video. We thought, ‘Well, this could be something that people might want to have.’ So, we packaged it up and put it out there.

Little surprises, huh? You guys have a ton of shows lined up through the spring and summer. How do you keep things fresh night after night?

We change things up. We don’t play the same show every night. There’s no regimented way that a song has to be performed. I’m not saying we’re like the Grateful Dead and that we have 500 songs and never play the same songs twice. But there are no rules. If we feel like jamming, we jam. If we feel like playing something fast, it’s fast. We don’t run it in a military fashion like some people do. It’s not like one, two, three, four, you play these 15 songs and you’re done. It’s a little more open-ended. And a lot of bands do that and we understand why. It keeps it enjoyable and, like you said, it keeps it fresh for the band and for [the audience]. Especially people who come to multiple shows. They don’t wanna see the same thing over and over again.

I’ll look at [the set] the day of the show and I’ll look at what we played when we were there last time. That’s the first thing I’ll look at. And then I’ll look at what we played last night and just see. That’s the two factors there.

Catch Blackberry Smoke on April 1 at the Bergen PAC and City Winery on April 6 & 7!