Taking cues from the era of album-oriented Southern rock — not to mention cutting their teeth on club and arena stages nationwide night after night — perhaps the only thing surprising about Blackberry Smoke dropping a double-live album is that it didn’t happen sooner. Certainly card-carrying members of the band’s burgeoning cult following who fell in love with their 2012 DVD, Live at the Georgia Theatre, would say so.
“Our fans, over the course of a few years, would say, ‘Wow! I wish I could put this in my CD player in my car and listen to it,’ Smoke leader Charlie Starr tells Rolling Stone Country. “We had some fans that [said], ‘This doesn’t work in my car, what the hell is the problem?'”
Well, the wait for a smoking Blackberry live album ends Tuesday, with the arrival of Leave a Scar: Live in North Carolina, a 22-track double LP capturing a sweaty, balls-out rockin’ April, 2012 gig at Winston-Salem, North Carolina haunt Ziggy’s. For good measure, the band’s also unleashing a live DVD companion to the record. “We were like, ‘Well, hell, let’s just film another show,'” Starr says. Here you can check out a reliably passionate performance of the stirring country blues lament “One Horse Town.” It’s a song that goes against the grain of contemporary country’s penchant for small-town anthems, and one that hits home for Starr.
“[It’s] the opposite of what most people think of as a ‘nostalgic for my hometown’ kind of song,” he explains. “This one was really a look at the town I grew up in [Lanett, Alabama; pop. 6,468]. I remember going back several times throughout my life and seeing friends that fell victim to the meth epidemic, or things that happen to small towns from time to time that just suck ’em dry. … Some of the people that I’ve known over the years, I was like, ‘Wow, I never thought that this would happen to you.’ And I just thought about how badly when I was younger, I wanted to go see what else I could find.”
But is it that plain-dealing sentiment that makes the song a Blackberry Smoke fan favorite?
Starr muses, “I wonder sometimes if everybody is understanding the meaning of the lyrics, which — not to compare myself or my [co-writer] Travis [Meadows] with Springsteen — is sort of like “Born in the U.S.A.” you know? People will scream it at the top of their lungs and it’ like, ‘That’s not really what Bruce means, but OK.'” Perhaps Starr and Meadows had Springsteen in mind when they nodded to the Boss’s 1980 classic “The River” with the opening line: “In the tiny town where I come from/you grew up doing what your daddy does.”
Indeed, the singer-guitarist did get out of Alabama. Indomitably dedicated road dogs, Blackberry Smoke spent nearly two years touring their last studio record, 2012’s acclaimed The Whippoorwill. Starr says those gigs inspired the decision to do a live record and another DVD. “The shows were so good, and the fans were coming out, and it was just such a great year or so — or maybe two years — during that time I was just thinking, ‘Man, people from time to time mention how much they’d like a live album,’ and I’d think about that myself. So then it was just sort of a no-brainer.”
He goes on to explain how the band’s material takes on a life of its own as it’s road tested.
“Any amount of time spent playing music together with five people, the music will just naturally evolve,” he says. “We’ve never been a band to rehearse a ‘show,’ so to speak — we’ve got a pretty big catalog of songs to play; we do a 90-minute to two-hour show every night, and switch it up and play different songs from different records and some covers that we like, or new songs — there are no rules. … Some songs can get a little jam-y from time to time. Tempos change; you find different grooves for songs after playing for a long time live. If a song is brand new that you recorded in the studio, it may not have found its live legs yet.”
Fans can observe that process in reverse on Leave a Scar, which includes a work-in-progress rendition of the heretofore unreleased swampy rocker “Payback’s a Bitch.” “I wrote that song right after we recorded The Whippoorwill, so it’s got a little age on it as far as the show goes,” Starr says.
Inspired by the work of documentarian and friend Blake Judd [Judd’s 2011 doc Charlie Louvin: Rattlin’ the Devil’s Cage a particular favorite], the band tapped Judd to film interviews and capture them on the road and at home for a mini-doc that’ll appear on the DVD. If it reinforces the band’s image as quintessential, renaissance Southern rockers in the vein of heroes like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band, well, Starr doesn’t necessarily have a problem with that.
“When people call us [Southern rock], I hope they don’t call us that with a smirk on their face,” he says. “And if they do, screw ’em! I don’t care. We’ll fly that flag. … We’ll wear that hat — the Southern Rock Band hat — because we’re a rock & roll band from the South, it’s what we do.”