Blackberry Smoke: Letting It Fly
by Rob Slater on November 07, 2016
"We've felt like the underdog for most of our career,” Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr confirms as he checks in following a few weeks on the road with Gov’t Mule in August. “It’s an uphill battle,” he admits, “which it is for all bands—unless you’re the Stones.”
But while Blackberry Smoke’s rise through the ranks has been fraught with obstacles, the Atlanta-based quintet is on much firmer footing as the enter their 16th year as a band with their dynamic new record, Like an Arrow.
A band’s journey often begins with a name and, in this case, that process can be traced back to their formative days in Atlanta and an inspired idea from Chris Robinson.
“Chris Robinson did name the band, yes,” Starr confirms when asked if that story was true. “My drummer, Brit Turner, has known Chris for years. We all have.” Starr recounts one particular booze-soaked night hanging around Robinson and his Black Crowes bandmates when they were kicking around ideas for their moniker.
“Naming a band is fucking hard,” Starr jokes. “All the good ones are taken. “So Chris was over for about a 24-hour period—there was some partying going on, and he kept coming up with these silly suggestions,” he continues. “Finally, he said, ‘What about The Blackberry Smoke?’ All of a sudden, that didn’t seem so silly.”
Dropping “The” from Robinson’s not-so-silly suggestion, the ragtag group— which also includes Richard Turner (bass), Paul Jackson (guitar) and Brandon Still (keyboards)—got started down a decidedly blue-collar path. The band earned its stripes by gigging hard in the early years and working toward its first record, which arrived in 2004 in the form of Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime.
It’s a fitting title, looking back, as Starr and Blackberry Smoke wouldn’t experience a surplus of good fortune initially, bouncing from label to label for their first three albums. First it was Cock of the Walk, then BamaJam (for 2009’s Little Piece of Dixie) and Zac Brown’s Southern Ground (for 2012’s The Whippoorwill).
“We’ve been involved with these labels that have fallen apart,” Starr reflects. But landing with Brown’s budding organization and Southern Ground brand felt like a new start for the band.
“Any time someone who is successful shows interest in working with us, it’s exciting,” Starr explains as he talks about joining up with Brown’s operation, and even hopping on a tour with Zac Brown Band. “At the time, we had no home, so it was perfect timing.”
The Whippoorwill offered Blackberry Smoke their first extended taste of success. The record peaked at No. 8 on the country charts and moved over 50,000 units, introducing the band to the world of country music. With The Whippoorwill, Blackberry Smoke got some help from Brown (who earned a writing credit on “Crimson Moon”) as well as ZBB associate Clay Cook (who infamously ditched Berklee College of Music with John Mayer to move to Atlanta and start a band). “The fans let you know which [record] is their favorite and that has long been our touchstone,” Starr also notes. “And that’s fin .”
However, despite those achievements, the record label curse followed the band to Southern Ground, which dissolved in 2015.
“The Beatles couldn’t even make it work, you know?” Starr quips about artists starting their own labels. “Zac’s a great guy and he’s a great friend, but he saw how hard it could be. He had his hands full being Zac Brown, and I think the last thing that he could find himself doing would be micromanaging a label while he’s busy touring the world and selling millions of records. Far be it from me to know how to make something like that work.”
He sums it up with an understandable amount of resignation: “We had a good time there. We made a good record and went on a couple long jaunts with Zac. It was good.”
While Blackberry Smoke may have been without a home for their next record, which wouldn’t come out until 2015, the group experienced expansive musical growth in this time, stretching into the jamband realm and firmly planting their feet in the country-rock world, thanks to the success of The Whippoorwill.
One of those jamband connections came about during a 2013 visit to Bob Weir’s TRI Studios in San Rafael, Calif., where they got a chance to play with the Grateful Dead guitarist. A self-admitted “huge Dead fan,” Starr was thrilled to be invited to play Weir’s high-tech studio.
“We asked Bob if he wanted to jam with us, so we just went down a list of songs and threw together a jam,” he says of the impromptu musical meeting that turned into much more than the group had anticipated. “It was a marathon. I think we wound up playing for sixteen hours.”
Starr, who notes that his wife saw about 38 Dead shows while attending the University of Georgia, welcomed Weir to join Blackberry Smoke for tunes like “Ramble on Rose,” “Deep Elem Blues” and The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek.” The guitarist vows that the performance will eventually see the light of day. (Weir and Blackberry Smoke revisited their collaboration at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, Calif., in April of 2014.)
While the performance itself was a clear career highlight, what Starr remembers most about his time at TRI was the conversation afterward with Weir and longtime Dead roadie Steve Parish.
“[They] told stories about touring the South, playing Atlanta and playing shows with [the Allman] Brothers in the early ‘70s, and the whole Watkins Glen thing,” he remembers. “I had a buddy who took some photos of them at RFK Stadium when the Brothers and the Dead played. I showed Bob a couple of those photos and he was like, ‘Oh, my God, it was so hot that day and I was so glad the Brothers went on in the sunshine because you couldn’t keep an instrument in tune.’”