This week Blackberry Smoke released the scorching double-live album and DVD Leave a Scar: Live in North Carolina, but it looks like Smoke fans won’t have to wait long to hear new music from the Southern rockers. Singer-guitarist Charlie Starr tells Rolling Stone Country the band just wrapped sessions on their fourth record, and the follow-up to their acclaimed 2012 long player The Whippoorwill. They cut the album in Atlanta with Grammy-winning super-producer Brendan O’Brien, whose pedigree includes Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, AC/DC, Stone Temple Pilots and others.
“It’s not a huge departure from any of our albums,” Starr says of the as-yet-untitled effort. “There’s really big rock & roll songs on it, and some laid-back moments as well. We maybe are mixing it up a little more than last time.”
Starr promises that, in addition to the half-dozen or so new-album jams the band’s been busting out at live shows of late — including the greasy, blood-and-guts blues-rocker “Payback’s a Bitch,” an early live version of which appears on Leave a Scar — fans can expect the same raw power from the tunes they haven’t heard yet. Starr’s especially excited about a rocker called “Holding All the Roses.”
“I think people are really gonna be blown away by it,” he says of the song. “Just the way that the song turned out; we’re just over the moon about it. … It is a song that will knock your head off. I mean it is just relentless!”
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Despite both the band and O’Brien’s Peach State status, Starr says they’ve been like ships in the night: This is the first time they’ve worked together. “He’s an old Atlanta guy and I think a few of us had met him and hung out with him over the years way back in the day, but this is a new experience for us as a band,” Starr recalls. “We recorded live [in the studio] a lot again, and we tried a few different things as well.”
What kind of different things? Starr’s coy on that question (“Some of it’s top secret”). But he promises, “Nothing that’s so radically different. … Have no fear, we didn’t make a hip-hop record with [O’Brien].”
“He’s a legend for a reason, you know?” Starr says of the producer. “Brendan O’Brien makes great records. He has the know-how and résumé to prove it.”
Although O’Brien is known for a slick, warm-and-roomie-yet-radio-ready production style that has elevated artists like Train and Rage Against the Machine to higher echelons of stardom, Starr says Smoke fans need not worry about the band sacrificing their true grit for Top 40 aspirations.
“That comes with having to compromise in one way or another,” he explains. “We really love the music that we make, the way that we make it. We love to tour the way that we tour and play music for our fans. We want to play for more and more people every night, obviously. But if it ever meant sacrificing one bit of the integrity of the music, or ourselves as musicians, we shun that.
“When you do something to alienate your true fans — the people that spend their money and travel around the country to see you — if you do something to turn your back on them, then you’ve failed,” he goes on. “[The fair-weather fans] are the ones who are going to buy one song off iTunes and be done with it and forget that it’s on their iPhone, so I’ll take the fans that really care any day.”