Throughout Blackberry Smoke’s two-decade career, playing live has been the lifeblood of the band — even if it meant scaling down, something singer and guitarist Charlie Starr has been akin to doing more of over the last two years, due to Covid-19. The band hosted a few socially distanced and drive-in concerts during the shutdowns.
“It’s a tough habit to kick, playing music in front of people,” Starr said during a recent phone interview. “Even before we started to do those kinds of shows, my buddy Benji [Shanks, a touring guitarist with Blackberry Smoke] and I were playing for my neighbors in my backyard.”
The Atlanta-based group formed in 2000, with the central goal in mind to tour and perform for as many people as possible. They weren’t necessarily “product-minded,” Starr admitted. It was about playing and making music for fans, something the band continues to focus on.
“We knew what we could control was taking our music on the road and playing for people, which was really the most important thing,” Starr said. “We didn’t set these goals like we want to get signed to a major label and we want to sell out stadiums. We just had maybe a more realistic view of it: ‘OK, here’s what we can do. Let’s do this.'”
Blackberry Smoke spent much of last summer on a headlining tour that will continue this year, with dates currently booked through September. Fans can expect some surprises mixed in a setlist of fan-favorites, Starr said; the band switches up tracks nightly.
“Personally, I love playing all of the songs,” he said. “There really aren’t any that I go, ‘Oh, man.’ And even if I did, even songs we’ve played thousands of times now, when you see people react, it kind of keeps it fresh.”
The tour is in support of the band’s May 2021 release, “You Hear Georgia,” which debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Americana albums chart. The band — Paul Jackson (guitar), Richard Turner (bass), Brit Turner (drums) and Brandon Still (keyboards) — had plans to go into the studio in March 2020 to record the album with Dave Cobb.
“We had a bunch of songs written and we were ready to go,” Starr recalled. “We were in Canada — just started a Canadian tour. I think we got three shows played and we were sent home. What we were going to do initially was go into the studio right off of that Canadian tour. It’s always great for a band to go in the studio coming off of a tour because you’re all well-oiled and rehearsed. Of course, that all got shot down.”
Instead the group paused recording plans before settling on a late-May trip to Nashville’s RCA Studio A, where Cobb works. The slight delay actually benefited the album, Starr said, allowing him time to write more songs, a few of which supplanted other tunes that had been slated to go on the album.
One was “All Rise Again,” co-written with Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band). On one of the best songs from “You Hear Georgia,” the soulful rocker includes a tangy slide guitar solo and a vocal turn.
Another new addition was the title song — a crunchy rocker responding to the demeaning stereotypes often associated with the South and the people who call it home. “You Hear Georgia” was the last song Starr wrote for the album.
“I was sitting over in the corner, and I had been fiddling around with a riff with my buddy and songwriting collaborator Dave Lizmi, who’s a great guitar player,” Starr said. “We were batting some music back and forth, and I started playing what I had of the song and singing the first couple of verse lines, and Dave Cobb was over in the corner of the studio on a couch. And Cobb came by having a cup of coffee and he said ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s not finished. It’s nothing yet.’ He said, ‘Well, go finish it. I love it. We’ve got to record it.'”
Cobb suggested the song title as the album name — something Starr called an “A-ha moment.”
“It kind of cemented the whole week,” Starr said. “Everything went so well and then to end on that sort of a bang was, ‘Yeah, man, you’re exactly right.'”
The rest of the album demonstrates the band’s versatility, while still showing Blackberry Smoke is first and foremost rock-and-rollers. Tuneful and muscular rockers like “All Over The Road,” “Live It Down” and “Morningside” appear next to a poppier tune laced with funk, “Hey Delilah,” a pure country song, “Lonesome For A Livin’,” featuring a guest vocal from Jamey Johnson, and a stripped-back gentle ballad, “Old Enough To Know.”
Like each successive Blackberry Smoke album, Starr finds the band growing musically and crafting songs more cohesively. He said the band’s focus is more clear than ever.
“I guess that’s bound to happen when a band’s been playing together for years and years,” Starr added. “I can go back to our first album and think, as a songwriter, ‘Oh, well I wouldn’t have done that that way now’ or ‘I wouldn’t have said that exactly that way.’ But that’s just getting older, I guess.”
Though he loves the youth and exuberance of the older work, he clarified, being more seasoned also bends to the musician’s favor. “But then I put on ‘You Hear Georgia’ and there are songs where I’m like, we can still lay it down like we did when we were in our 20s.”
Blackberry Smoke will perform July 17 at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater in Wilmington. The show is sold out though Live Nation posts verified ticket resales here.
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