The pandemic couldn’t stop Blackberry Smoke from happening | Local music | Detroit
Throughout Blackberry Smoke’s two-decade career, performing live has been a cornerstone of the band. So being forced off the road by the pandemic hasn’t been easy for the band.
“It’s a tough habit to kick, to play music in front of people,” Charlie Starr, singer, guitarist and main songwriter for the band, said in a recent phone interview. “Even before we even started doing these kinds of shows, my buddy Benji (Shanks, who’s a touring guitarist with Blackberry Smoke) and I were playing for my neighbors in my backyard. OK, any port in the storm.
In fact, when the Atlanta-based band formed in 2000, getting the chance to tour and play shows was the central goal, and it’s pretty much remained the band’s goal ever since.
“We knew what we could control was getting our music traveling and playing for people, which was really the most important thing,” Starr says. “We play this music and make these records to sell to these people. We’re not particularly focused on products like that, but at the end of the day, that’s what it is. You make music to enjoy yourself as a musician, and you hope these people will buy it so you can make a living. So that’s sort of what we focused on. We haven’t set these goals as we want to be signed to a major label and we want to sell stadiums. We just maybe had a more realistic view of it. OK, here’s what we can do. Let’s do this.”
Eventually, Starr was able to resume shows beyond his backyard, as Blackberry Smoke played socially distanced and drive-in gigs in the fall of 2020. The band then spent much of last summer on a headlining tour, continued to do shows this year, and will end the year playing their album Nightjar to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this release. Fans can expect a few surprises in the set list.
“We kind of change it from night to night,” Starr explains. “There are songs that we kind of always play, favorites that I guess, well, if we don’t play them, then we hear about them. But that’s OK. Personally, I love playing all the songs. There really isn’t anyone I say ‘Oh, man.’ And even if I did, even the songs that we’ve played thousands of times now, when you see people reacting, it keeps fresh. ‘Oh, I love this song.’
A few songs could be from the band’s latest album, You hear Georgia, which was released in May 2021 and debuted at No. 1 on the US Americana Albums Chart. The band, which also includes Paul Jackson (guitar), Richard Turner (bass), Brit Turner (drums) and Brandon Still (keyboards), had planned all along to make a new album in 2020, but the pandemic pushed those plans back. . for a few months.
“We had planned to go into the studio in March (2020) with Dave Cobb,” says Starr, mentioning the well-respected producer who stayed on board for the project. “We had a bunch of songs written and we were ready to go. We were in Canada. We had just started a Canadian tour. I think we played three shows and were sent home. What we were going to do initially was go into the studio right after this Canadian tour. It’s always good for a band to hit the studio after a tour because you’re all well oiled and rehearsed. Of course, it was all shot.
Instead, the band put their recording plans on hold before moving to RCA Studio A in Nashville, where Cobb works, in late May. This slight delay actually benefited the album. This gave Starr time to write other songs, some of which he says supplanted other songs that were to be on the album. One of those tracks was “All Rise Again,” which was co-written by Starr and Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band). One of the best songs on You hear Georgiathe rugged, soulful rocker features a tangy slide guitar solo and a Haynes vocal turn.
Another new addition was the title track, a crisp rocker responding to the demeaning stereotypes often associated with the South and the people who call it home.
“The song ‘You Hear Georgia’ itself was the last one written for the record. I was sitting in the corner fiddling with a riff with my pal (and songwriting collaborator) Dave Lizmi, who is a great guitar player,” Starr explains. “We were going back and forth with music and I started playing what I had of that song and singing the first few verses, and Dave Cobb was in the corner of the studio on a couch. And Cobb came over for a cup of coffee and he said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s not over. It’s nothing yet. He said, ‘Well, go finish it. I love it. We have to record it.’
“And Dave Cobb, I think he said you should call the album that, and it was just kind of an Ah-hah moment with all of us,” Starr says. “It was like ‘You’re right.’ It kind of cemented the whole week here. Everything went so well, and then to end on this kind of hit, it was, “Yeah man, you’re absolutely right.”
The rest of the You hear Georgia demonstrates the band’s versatility, while showing that Blackberry Smoke is first and foremost a rock ‘n’ roll band. In addition to several other melodic and muscular rockers (“All Over The Road”, “Live It Down” and “Morningside”), there is a more pop track mixed with funk (“Hey Delilah”), a pure country song with guest vocals from Jamey Johnson (“Lonesome For A Livin'”), and a sweet, stripped-back ballad (“Old Enough To Know”).
Starr believes the latest album, like each successive Blackberry Smoke album, finds the band growing musically and creating a slightly more cohesive set of songs.
“The focus is a little clearer, I think, with each (album),” Starr says. “I guess that has to happen when a band has been playing together for years and years. I hope the songwriting has grown. I have the impression that is the case. It makes me feel good. I can go back to our first album and think, as a songwriter, think ‘Oh, well, I wouldn’t have done it like that now’ or ‘I wouldn’t have said it exactly like that.’ But that’s only getting old, I guess. There are aspects of our first two records that I still really like, that is to say the youth and the exuberance. But then I put ‘You Hear Georgia’ on and there are songs that I’m like we can still do it like we did when we were in our twenties.
Blackberry Smoke performs with Jamey Johnson and Megan Moroney Friday, Sept. 9 at the Michigan Lottery Amphitheater; 14900 Metro Pkwy., Sterling Heights; 313-471-7000; 313presents.com. The event starts at 6:15 p.m. Tickets start at $25.15.