“We’re a rock & roll band from Georgia,” says Blackberry Smoke singer, guitarist and chief songwriter Charlie Starr.
But that may be simplifying things. Especially when one looks at this week’s charts, where the group’s new album Like an Arrow appears in the Number One slot on both the country and the newly created Americana chart, and sits comfortably at Number Three on the rock albums chart.
Such is the broad appeal of Blackberry Smoke, a Southern-rock group that can toggle easily between shit-kicking country, funky soul and blistering heavy rock. Like an Arrow hits all those marks, delivering classic-country storytelling in “The Good Life,” Muscle Shoals R&B in “Believe You Me” and what Starr says are “the heaviest songs we’ve ever done” in the title track and “Waiting for the Thunder.”
“We’ve never changed really. The name of the genre that they stick to us just changes,” says Starr, puffing on a vape pen outside Nashville club the Basement, where he and bandmates Brit Turner (drums), Richard Turner (bass), Paul Jackson (guitar) and Brandon Still (keys) are rehearsing not for a balls-out rock show, but a special country-leaning acoustic gig. “It confuses some people because we obviously have a deep love for traditional country music. And our debut record was a rock & roll record through and through. People are like, ‘This doesn’t make any sense?’ But it makes complete and total sense for us, because the Stones did it and Zeppelin had ‘Hot Dog.’ And Marshall Tucker was a rock & roll band, but yet they’d have songs with pedal steel.”
“Smoke is to Southern rock what Sturgill Simpson is to country. They keep it classic and pure, yet constantly bring new fans to the genre,” says Jaren Johnston, singer-guitarist for fellow Southern-rock and country revivalists the Cadillac Three. “We have always looked up to those guys. They are going to be carrying the torch that the Allmans and Lynyrd Skynyrd helped light.”
Whatever arbitrary adjective the industry chooses to describe Blackberry Smoke’s sound, there’s no denying what the Georgia band does is working. The chart-topping debut of Like an Arrow marks their second consecutive Number One album on the country charts, following last year’s Holding All the Roses. Brendan O’Brien (Bruce Springsteen) produced that record, but for Like an Arrow, the band called all the shots.
Starr says the album, which was recorded, mixed and mastered in just a month’s time, was a bit of a surprise. The band had time off last January and decided to fiddle with some new songs.
“We started to rehearse and it felt so good, we said, ‘Let’s record these songs,’ and if we run into problems, we’ll call a producer. And if not, we’ll make a fucking record. It really was as simple as that,” Starr says.
On their 2009 album Little Piece of Dixie, Blackberry Smoke nodded to their classic-country roots by including their version of Willie Nelson’s “Yesterday’s Wine” – with special guest George Jones. For Like an Arrow, they reinforce their Southern rock bonafides by enlisting the godfather of the genre, Gregg Allman, to sing on the spirited album closer “Free on the Wing.”
“From the get-go it had that Macon, Georgia, feel. When we started to record, I think it was a selfish daydream we had: How great would it be to have Gregg Allman on this song?” recalls Starr. “We’ve become friendly with Gregg over the years and worked with him some, and he said yes.”
“Free on the Wing” is right out of the Allman Brothers songbook, with Starr playing a syrupy Duane-like slide lick as the band lopes along behind him. (Listen to the song below.) Blackberry Smoke had hoped to perform live with Allman at last summer’s Peach Music Festival, but Allman’s health woes kept him off the road. They may get the chance this weekend, when they play the rescheduled date of Allman’s Laid Back Festival in Atlanta.
Starr says the impact the Allmans had on his own band can’t be overstated.
“If you want to talk about the term ‘Southern Rock,’ they birthed it. You can even be specific and say Duane Allman birthed it. People talk about his outro solo on Wilson Pickett’s version of ‘Hey Jude’ and say it’s the birth of Southern rock music,” he says. “Were it not for Gregg Allman, we wouldn’t be making music.”
One of Starr’s songwriting gifts is the way he acknowledges those who shaped him, whether it’s Allman in “Free on the Wing” or, more personally, his father and grandfather in the marvelous “The Good Life.” Written with Travis Meadows – who himself has his own grandfather homage, “Black” – “The Good Life” is full of paternal advice. “Son, don’t let your horseshoes point down / never put a blade in the ground / always look a man right square in the eye / don’t let the good life pass you by,” drawls Starr in the chorus.
But for all their outlaw-biker imagery and bluster – Blackberry Smoke are favorites at the Sturgis Motorcyle Rally and will appear in an upcoming episode of NCIS: New Orleans set at a rally – the band members are actually quiet family men. While some have tried to tag the album’s opening track “Waiting for the Thunder” as a political diatribe, Starr suggests it’s inspired more by his desire to protect his kids.
“When it comes to politics, I think about my family first and foremost,” Starr says. “That song was not meant to be a political statement of any kind. It’s more of a ‘How scary is our world right now’ statement. Somebody asked me if it was about Donald Trump. I said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ When I’m speaking of ‘he’ or ‘brother,’ or whoever the character might be, it’s about anybody that would be elected president or in a position of power. It’s saying, ‘Good luck, man, because the world is so fucked up now.’ Who wants that job?”
The same question can be asked of guys playing rock & roll. With guitar-based bands disappearing as alarmingly as honeybees, it’s not exactly a profitable or chic career path. Taking a puff, Starr waves off any concerns about being cool or successful.
“Our music is a working-class thing. That’s where we come from and that’s what it speaks to – not hipsters,” says Starr. “If we please ourselves and our fans with a record and then we go take it to them live, that’s the job. If it charts, that’s gravy.”