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Posted July 26, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes
 
 

Blackberry Smoke: The only way they know how

Blackberry Smoke
Blackberry Smoke

Holding All the Roses, Blackberry Smoke’s fourth studio album and its first for Rounder Records, might be the band’s heaviest yet. Singer-guitarist-songwriter Charlie Starr phoned in from his home just west of Atlanta to talk about the 12-song set that’s produced by Brendan O’Brien (AC/DC, Aerosmith, Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young) and dips into blues, gospel soul and country.

Your new album is your first on Rounder. Was there a falling out with Southern Ground?
No. Zac [Brown] and all those guys are still our buddies. Southern Ground the label just disintegrated. Business is tough. I’m sure it was a stressful undertaking. It didn’t work out on the business end. We were lucky that Rounder was ready for us. It’s a good place to land. They have a great roster. I come from a bluegrass background by and large and so many of those great bands and artists were on the label, from Tony Rice and the Country Gentlemen up to Alison Krauss. I was talking to the president the other day. I told him that I remember being a teenager at the advent of the CD era. One of the first Rounder CDs I brought was Volume One of the Jimmie Rodgers recordings. That was a huge thing for me. Having a label that made things like that attainable was huge for me as I was growing as a musician and artist. So I thanked him.

Talk about the approach the band took on Holding all the Roses.
It’s really the same approach as every record. The job in front of us is to make the best record we can. It’s never someone’s artsy project or anything like that. We make music together as a band so let’s go in and record these songs. Our preproduction was discussion over the phone. [Brendan O’Brien] had the song demos and we whittled them down to the 15 or so. The only discussion we had about what kind of record we wanted to make was to talk about the records we loved. The Whippoorwill was us playing live.

We always wanted to make a different record each time. We wanted to stretch out a little sonically. It came together nicely I think.

Were you familiar with the other bands he had produced?
We were huge fans of his work with the Black Crowes and Dan Baird and the Four Horsemen and Raging Slab and on into Aerosmith, Pearl Jam, A/DC and Bruce Springsteen. He doesn’t make a habit of making bad records. We’ve wanted to work with him for a long, long time.

What studio did you use?
We recorded the basic tracks in Atlanta at The Quarry Recording Studio and finished at Los Angeles at the studio that used to be A&M Studios.

The album rocks harder. Were you going for a hard rock sound?
That’s what we are. I knew [O’Brien] would be a good fit. We’re a guitar band and he’s a guitar producer. He is a fabulous guitar player. That’s something I love about his work. He’s an excellent musician. It’s funny, man, I listen to all of our records and I hear rock ‘n’ roll records. I don’t know where people hear country music. Sure, the new honkytonk bootleg EP we made is traditional country music. But even with The Whippoorwill, I don’t hear any country songs on it. There are some songs on this one that are heavier than the last album. The title track and “Let Me Help You (Find the Door)” and “Payback’s a Bitch.” They’re just heavier and that’s good. That’s what we talked about. We wanted an album with big, riff-laden rock ‘n’ roll songs and some laidback acoustic stuff. We wanted the record to have a nice ride.

The title track has such a great balance of hard rock and country. It sounds like there’s some traditional instrumentation in the bridge.
It’s a fiddle. Ann Marie Simpson is great fiddle player. She came in to record to add some string parts in a couple of songs. She and I were sitting around and jamming on an acoustic guitar and a fiddle playing bluegrass songs. She has a bluegrass pedigree and she plays with Steven Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. I love that. That’s where I live. We started playing some fiddle tunes and Brendan walked in and thought it was incredible. It’s his idea. He wanted us to put it on the song so we did. It turned out great. It’s a stroke of genius.

I like “Living in the Song.” Was there a particular incident that prompted that tune
No. It’s a composite. It’s sung from the perspective of a guy who seems like he’s constantly on the run. It’s not necessarily from the law or from a woman. He can’t sit still.

Do you think the band has revived Southern Rock?
I don’t. It’s not something we’ve done consciously. We never sat down and said we wanted to revive Southern Rock music. We just sound the way we sound when we play together. It’s as organic as it comes. If it we were putting it on or contrived, people would sniff it out and it wouldn’t be natural. We just sound the only way we know how. If one guy was playing punk rock, it wouldn’t work. If I was a singer like Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden, it wouldn’t work. It’s the way we work together. We are from the southeastern United States and that shows in our playing and singing. I never thought there’s a void and it’s Southern Rock and we need to do that. I know we will champion Lynyrd Skynyrd the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band as much as anyone because they made beautiful music. People say it’s forgotten but it will never be forgotten.

It’s never gone away but it might not be as popular so the media creates a situation where it needs reviving.
Those bands are still out touring, except for the Allman Brothers who just called it quits. I’m sure they’ll get back together again. That’s why you have reunion shows. That’s the only reason bands ever break up. They might not be the flavor of the month but they’re still making music that’s better than what’s number one right now.

 

 


Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.