January 13, 2013
By David Huff
Igniting Fires with Music
Vocalist / Guitarist Charlie Starr Speaks With JAM Magazine
Photos courtesy Blackberry Smoke Facebook / MySpace
Blackberry Smoke was facing perhaps the most challenging, and critical moment, of their ten year-career.
It was mid-October, 2010. Two weeks earlier, the band had just released their first album in five years, Little Piece of Dixie, on the indie label BamaJam Records. Now the band, consisting of Charlie Starr (Lead Vocals, Guitar), Richard Turner (Bass, Vocals), Brit Turner (Drums), Paul Jackson (Guitar, Vocals), and Brandon Still (Keyboards) was informed their label was out of business. BamaJam CEO Ronnie Gilley had been indicted by a federal jury for conspiring to buy and sell votes to get electronic bingo legalized in Alabama. There was no money for tour support, let alone to promote their album. For all intent and purposes, Blackberry Smoke was now stranded on the road. The stunned musicians were literally speechless once they fully digested their situation. They were preparing to play a side stage at the Deluna Music Festival in Pensacola, Florida when the phone rang. On the other end of the line was Zac Brown.
The Atlanta musician had finally hit it big in country music after years of slugging it out on the road, just like Blackberry Smoke was doing. Over the years, both groups had crossed each other's paths in the same Southern music circuit they both participated in. They had also bonded on the yearly Lynyrd Skynyrd Simple Man cruises that both acts were featured performers on. Brown had heard what happened to the band's label, and his phone call was straightforward and simple. Whatever the guys needed, he'd take care of it. And if the band wanted to, they could record their next album for his label, Homegrown Records.
There were no strings attached to the extraordinary gesture. One Atlanta band had finally struck gold; the other was still mining it on the road, one show at a time. The Zac Brown Band had built up a phenomenal grassroots fan base by constantly touring over the years. It had finally paid off. For him, Blackberry Smoke was a kindred spirit doing the exact same thing. Offering assistance was the Southern thing to do.
The band took Brown up on his generous offer. With his assistance, Blackberry Smoke continued on the road the next year playing some 250 dates in 2011. They kept up the torrid pace the year after playing everywhere and anywhere a promoter would have them. The road warrior mentality has finally paid off.
In August 2012, the band carved out a five-day window to record twenty songs for their Homegrown Records debut, The Whippoorwill. The recording has been roundly praised as brilliant, and has further enhanced the reputation of this 'must-see' live band that has once again hit the road to spread the gospel of smoke, blackberry style.
JAM: I was looking at your website recently, especially the message board, and it had quite a bit of activity with people excited you're on the road again and how they can't wait to see you live. How important has social media been to spreading the word about Blackberry Smoke?
Charlie Starr - Well, I am probably not the best one to answer that question. We have a couple of guys in the band that are really tech savvy with the whole social media thing and I am definitely not one of them. Fortunately, I get to reap the benefit of the activity created through social media. Times have certainly changed, that's for sure. Back in the days of the Allman Brothers, when they first started playing, it was all word of mouth. When someone saw the band live, they'd tell their friends about the experience. Those people would then go out and see the Allman Brothers and spread the word about them to their friends. Today that word of mouth is spread instantly on the Internet.
JAM: The first issue of Jam Magazine came out in Sept. 1979 while I was in college. At the time, Southern rock was still all the rage with the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker, the Outlaws and Molly Hatchet leading the way. Three decades later, the music is a happy afterthought. Today, Blackberry Smoke is carrying the mantel, and breathing new life into, one of the greatest genres of rock ever developed in this country. Does that bother you?
No it doesn't. I am completely okay for us to carry that mantel on our shoulders. To be honest, we have never sat down and said, "Okay we're gonna be a southern rock band!" There's never been a spoken agreement between us on what direction we were going to take the music. Honestly, it's just what we sound like when we sit down and play together. If we were to try a different approach to songwriting, or try to play a punk song, Blackberry Smoke would sound ridiculous. What you hear from this band is a natural evolution of the music over the last 12 years. We all have certain styles of music we love to listen to. For us, it just so happens that the records we enjoy listening to records created by the top Southern rock bands in the day. We are heavily influenced by the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker, Wet Willie, Charlie Daniels, as well as Bill Monroe, Little Feat, the Stones and the Dead.
JAM: Blackberry Smoke can perform any classic southern rock song it likes. That said, when it comes to creating your own music, do you often find yourselves walking the fine line to make sure you that what you know in your head from other people's music doesn't find its way into your own creations?
Well, as a songwriter, I have always thought, and I subscribe to the idea, that great music has already been said and done in one form or another. I believe Keith Richards was quoted once as saying there's only one big song, and the Stones just reach up and take their little piece of it. When I am writing, I'd be hard pressed to come up with the new cliche phrase that turns the world on its ear. I just try to be as natural and real as possible. I'm not trying to be flippant when I say that either. I don't try to overplay what I'm writing to be clever and funny. Lyrically, I've always thought that simple is always best. I am not really an abstract lyrical writer. I write about true life and true feelings. I look at words sometimes and try to create lyrical passages in a way they may have not been expressed before.
JAM: Lyrics don't mean a thing unless you have the music to go with it. How do you pair the two?
That is where the natural feeling for the music comes into play. I write a lot of songs on acoustic guitar that usually have a riff to go with it. Blackberry Smoke is a riff band, not a singer-songwriter type of group. The music is important, but we love to create riffs that will stick to your ribs and gets you moving. One hand washes the other, the riff loves the lyrics and the lyrics love the riffs. It's great to be in a band with five guys that have been playing together for a long time. You know everything there is to know about everyone, especially how they play their instrument. I know all the guys will be right in that pocket when it comes to creating the music.
JAM: The federal indictment of Ronnie Gilley, founder of BamaJam Records, in 2010 was certainly a game-changing moment in the history of Blackberry Smoke. What was going through your head when this all came down?
Well, you're right! It was a moment of truth for this band. We weren't involved with his activities obviously, but he was the CEO of our indie label, and he dragged it down with him. There really was no chain of command, and since we had never been on a major label, it's hard to compare what we were going through. When the funding stopped, everything shut down for us, and I mean everything. Nothing was going to be paid and we were pretty screwed. Our label basically dried up. Obviously we weren't going to stop being Blackberry Smoke and figured we'd have to jump back into our van and do it the old fashioned way. If we had to go back to the early days and travel that way, then that's what we were going to do. It was frustrating period of time for us, don't get me wrong, but luckily we had a great friend named Zac Brown.
JAM: A phone call took place.
Yes it did. Zac had been privy to all that was happening to us through the grapevine, and he gave us a call. He basically said, "Man, I hear you guys are having some problems."
JAM: Did you call him, or was it the other way around?
He called us. Zac said when the dust settled and you need a home for your music, you've got one. We said thank you and jumped on board. He had broken pretty big by then. We had been friends for years. His offer to us literally came out of the blue.
JAM: Let me tell you, Blackberry Smoke has given "road dog" bands a lot of hope with how you stuck to your guns and did it your way, playing everywhere and anywhere just to spread the word about the band.
I hope so. I think we all have that gypsy gene in us where the road feels like home despite the fact we all have wives and kids. We make the best of the time we have when we're at home, but this life is wonderful. We love playing music and seeing people light up every night that we play. And of course, we love to play together. I figure it will stop if we ever got to the point we don't like to play together. At the end of the day, it's not how much merchandise we sell at a show, how many records or sold, or how many people we perform in front of. It all comes down to the show, and the music we're playing on stage. It's the most important thing.
JAM: I guess I should congratulate whoever in the band has wives because they have married completely understanding women who totally understand your commitment to Blackberry Smoke.
I have to hug and kiss all the wives for being so patient, so forgiving and so benevolent.
JAM: Talking about being on the road, you played two venues in Texas, Hank's Grill in McKinney and the Flores Country Store in Helotes, northwest of San Antonio. How did you discover these places to perform, or do you even care where Blackberry Smoke plays?
Honestly, I couldn't tell you. I do know they were great venues to perform in, I will say that. If there are people out there interested in booking us, then we're interested in them.
JAM: I was rather astounded by the admission you made about the new album where you said, "We've never done an album and actually planned a tour around it." That is kind of a sad statement you made about The Whippoorwill album.
Here's the thing. We tour all the time. It's how we make our living. The state of the music industry is totally different than it was ten, twenty even thirty years ago. The business side of this business is unforgiving and it moves very slowly. This band hates to wait for anything. We are musicians with a short attention span. But we also work hard. Our hands are always dirty. We are always fighting and scratching even during the times no one is doing that for us. It's the way Blackberry Smoke started and the way we have continued. We have found ourselves in the position several times in our career waiting on a label type situation to record our music. It was like, "Man, we need to get in and record!" So, for two years after Little Piece of Dixie was released, we were dying to go in and make what became The Whippoorwill. The thing is there wasn't a hole in our schedule. Obviously there were different reasons and circumstances that held us back.
JAM: Zac had already told you he wanted to release your next album.
We knew that situation was solid for us. Again, finding the time to go into the studio and record was the actual hard part. Zac suggested we do a run of tour dates with him to test out the songs we wanted to record and we said okay. We toured with him for a couple of months.
JAM: How long did it take you five to record The Whippoorwill?
We tracked it in five days.
JAM: That is phenomenal, as well as refreshing to hear. Most bands think you need months of studio time to record an album. The spontaneous days of the '70s, when bands wrote, recorded, released and then toured behind an album in a single year, then repeat the process the following year, is a lost art form these days.
Yes it is. Don't get me wrong, we were exhausted around this time because we had just come off a long tour and had filmed a DVD at the Georgia Theater. We literally had a window of five days to record our album and we did it. There was no time to think about the music. It was like, "Okay, here are the 20 or so songs we are going to record. This is the time we have allotted to for it, one, two, three, four here we go!"
JAM: You really do live and breathe the road.
This band can't stop touring for a long period of time. We have to roll in order for us to pay our bills and feed our families. From the very beginning almost, our career has been unconventional. Instead of it being make an album, tour then repeat the cycle, for Blackberry Smoke it has always been tour, tour, tour. Make an album, tour, tour, tour. Five days may seem like a short amount of time, but for us, it was a golden opportunity to sit down and make the record our fans wanted us to make.
JAM: Was it difficult to whittle the songs down to the 13 tracks you wanted as a permanent record of Blackberry Smoke?
It wasn't difficult for us. We had recorded more material for this record than our previous effort. For instance, on Little Piece of Dixie there were no outtakes. We knocked out exactly twelve songs and that was the record. That album was one of those piecemeal things where we recorded a little bit here, a little bit there. This time however, we sat down and made it through seventeen out of 22 songs for the album, and they were all mixed. At the end of the process, it was like "Okay, which 13 do we want?" We were pretty much in agreement on the songs, though there were a couple of them that we went round and round with. Then we just figured whatever tracks didn't go on this record we would use for the next one or do something else with them. That said, I think we made some pretty good choices for this album.
JAM: What's interesting Charlie is the fact you could go ahead and release those outtakes on your website and sell them as one dollar downloads. It would be something special for your fans and another source of revenue for the band.
That's actually a good idea. Those options are great to have. We could release them as bonus tracks or get our online community involved by asking their opinion of the music we left off. The possibilities for the songs that didn't make The Whippoorwill are endless thanks to the Internet. We have included bonus tracks on the rereleases of our older records. Seriously, for our nerdy fans of which I'm one of them, I would love to give them a host of options to hear stull like that.
JAM: This band travelled in a dark tunnel for such a long time, what was the light you saw that kept you five going and drawing you ever so much closer to it?
I have always thought personally, and I think we all have, that it's the people you encounter on the road that give you that inspiration to keep going. I don't know how to articulate the feeling. There are nights when you're really feeling horrible and you start wondering why are you doing this? You're ready to go home, you're tired of the travel and for lack of a better term, you are 'road weary.' You play a show and suddenly two people come up to you afterwards and say, "Man, your show was fabulous. I've never heard of you before and I'm so glad we came in to see you." Comments like that reignite our fire every time. It tells me there are people out there that want to hear our kind of music and they are glad they came out to see us perform. Even if you are a thousand miles away from home, it's worth it. I enjoy our band more than anybody. I have always felt that every time we play, every time I listen to something we have recorded, it reinforced why Blackberry Smoke is something special to me. And if it is special to me, it has got to be special to other people as well. We all feel that way, and it keeps us going.
JAM: I had someone ask me one time why I continued to interview bands and keep Jam Magazine going after all these many years. I told them the music business is like a drug. Once it gets into your system, it becomes a high you never want to go away. I can only imagine what it is like on the creative end.
Well, you are absolutely right in what you said. Music is a drug, and I don't care what genre you play, it does something to your soul that keeps you wanting more of it.
JAM: When you got out of the Buffalo Nickel situation, you could have gone really heavy instead the Southern rock route. The Turner Brothers had played in a heavy metal band for years before the Buffalo Nickel gig. Did you three ever discuss musical direction after leaving Gary Steir's to his own demise?
Here's the thing. Right off the bat, when we played in Buffalo Nickel, we only played Gary's songs. At that time, I had a handful of songs of my own that he didn't want to hear. This was his band, and we were hired musicians. When we stopped playing in that band, I told the guys I had these songs, and this is what they sound like. They liked it, and we took the music in that direction. I don't come from a heavy background. It's very Southern and varied. I love Aerosmith as much as I do Bill Monroe. That's where I came from. Our band sound is going to go where it's going to go first of all. The chemistry takes the music in the direction it wants to go. Obviously my influences are going to affect the other guys because I write the music.
JAM: When the Black Crowes gained all their notoriety in the early '90s, did their success affect the musicians in the Atlanta area and the direction they took their music.
Well, let's face it! The Black Crowes are a fabulous band even with all the changes they went through. They were and always have been an excellent rock and roll band. They definitely influenced a lot of musicians in the area expect for maybe the speed metal guys who couldn't give two shits about the Crowes. But their influence on the music scene in Atlanta was undeniable. That said, this band never sat down and said we were going to sound like anybody. What we created just happened.
JAM: "Backs Against The Wall" would be a good name to call one of your tours because it seems to be the mantra for this band.
You know, it's funny you said that. The other day when we were in Cincinnati, I was in this record store and found Back Up Against the Wall, the second Atlanta Rhythm Section album that introduced their great singer Ronnie Hammond. They were a truly incredible band. They caught shit about being studio guys who formed a band, but they were fabulous. In fact, they were a perfect example of how all those Southern bands that came out in the '70s all sounded different. None of their music was alike and they all had their neat little thing going on.
JAM: That neat thing you talk about with the great Southern rock bands centered around one thing, a great guitar player and equally great singer. Every one of those groups was immediately identifiable because of it.
A lot of people overlook that aspect of Southern rock because what you just said is exactly what set them all apart from one another. It is quite sad to hear people pigeon-hole that genre of music by lumping all those bands together. I think that's why the term Southern rock bothers Gregg Allman like it does. The musicianship in all those bands set them all apart from one another. The guitar playing and vocals was especially important to their identities. Today, when you hear a song on the radio by the Outlaws, Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker or the Allman Brothers, you immediately know who the band is from the singing and guitar playing. What people have failed to understand over the years is that all these bands had different roots. For instance, Marshall Tucker was more a country jazz band. The Allman Brothers were a really great jazzy blues band.
JAM: Unfortunately, the one thing that does tie a lot of those Southern rock bands together was untimely deaths of key members of the band.
Yes, that is unfortunate.
JAM: What Blackberry Smoke has accomplished over the years is extremely hard. Not everyone has the fortitude, both mental and physical, to carry on like you have for the past ten years. It appears you are poised to finally reap the rewards of the million miles of road you have traversed.
I hope so. We want to continuously evolve as a band and not become stagnant. We want this music we're creating to naturally grow on its own. We want it to stretch out and evolve, but not at the cost of the band's integrity or never in a situation where we're asked to do something we are not comfortable doing. That was one of the great things about joining Zac's label. In our conversation with him, he flat out told us he didn't want the band recording anything we didn't want to. We knew what was best for us, so do it.
JAM: The last ten years the music business has been turned upside down and inside out. Staying on the road building a fan base has almost been a blessing in disguise for Blackberry Smoke because today, you are on an artist friendly label run by a friend who totally understands what you're doing.
Touring is the way bands make money these days. It would be hard for us to understand a situation, like a pop singer who has a hit single that only hits the road because they have a popular song. That is not touring and that through process is not where we come from. Blackberry Smoke comes from the school of take your music to them no matter where they're at. It's been a long haul, don't get me wrong, but if you ask any of us how we feel about it, you'll get the same answer. We love taking our music to the people. That's the school of thought this band comes from.