A Wisp Of Blackberry Smoke

Blackberry Smoke guitarist/singer Charlie Starr talks with Pollstar about the band, his musical upbringing and how Aerosmith made him want to buy a Les Paul.

Carrying on in the Southern rock tradition of The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Marshall Tucker Band, Blackberry Smoke is one hard-working band whose members are dedicated road monsters, often touring throughout the year.

We caught up with Starr while he was at home taking a break from life on the tour bus.  While chatting with Pollstar Starr described his life growing up, what made him want to become a musician and songs that the band is road testing for its next album.

Starr also gave us a peak at the business side of Blackberry Smoke and how the band’s manager, Ken Levitan of Vector Management, helped the group achieve success.

But there is at least one dream Starr is still looking to fulfill.  He’s hoping his manager might be able to work some more magic and introduce him to one of the other artists on Vector’s roster – Emmylou Harris.

Performing at The Fillmore in Silver Spring, Md.

Why aren’t there more Southern rock bands on the scene today?

The term “Southern rock” can mean different things to different people.  Sometimes I think maybe that term can bring about a mental picture of a dude with a rebel flag … in some little bar somewhere … and I love Skynyrd and I don’t want to say anything that might [sound] bad, but playing “Free Bird.”

It seems to me that there’s a very stereotypical image that comes along with the term “Southern rock” and people may miss out on how musical the rest of the genre is and was. … Those bands like The Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker, Wet Willie and Charlie Daniels were all so different from one another.  They were influenced by great music, blues, jazz, gospel, country and British rock, and rock ’n’ roll that came from the Southeastern United States. … Put all that together and it was magical to me.  Especially The Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker with the heavy jazz influence, but turned up to the level, not to be cheesy, but like The Brothers, specifically, were like Wes Montgomery played through a Marshall.

Also, that term kind of got pinned on us.  That’s fine.  We’re not kicking back at that at all.  If by calling us that you mean we’re akin to The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Marshall Tucker, that’s fine.  That’s an honor to be mentioned in the same breath as those great bands.  But I would never want people to sell us short and think that’s all we are.

We never set out and said, “OK, we’re going to be a Southern rock band.”  It’s always been a happy accident, so to speak.  We all like the same kind of stuff.  We have differences of opinion, of course, musically, in some areas.  But we’re all kind of coming from the same place, musically.  On the same token we never sat down and said, “We’re going to do something completely different.  We’re going to change the world. We’re not going to sound like anybody has ever sounded.”  That has never figured into it.  We play music that makes us feel comfortable.  If we were to all cut our hair into mohawks and try to be a punk band, we’d be silly at it.  We do what fits.

If the individual members were to do solo projects, would the resulting albums sound like Blackberry Smoke albums?

Not at all. They would all be so different.  Our musical motivations are all different.

What was your motivation?

Growing up as a kid I had a dad who loved bluegrass, gospel music and traditional country music, only.  Mostly just bluegrass and gospel because he’s very religious because he didn’t want to hear the drinking songs.

Then my mother was a huge Rolling Stones fans.

How did they get along with having such diverse tastes?

They didn’t.  They were divorced when I was 2.  That would have been interesting to have them in the same household but I split time between them.

My dad gave me my first guitar and taught me my first chords.  What he was teaching me was the “Wreck Of The Old 97” and “Columbus Stockade Blues” and things like that.  Then I would go home and there’s The Stones and Bob Dylan.

Was your father an accomplished guitarist?

No, it was always just a hobby, still is, for him.  He loves it.  When the work was done he always picked up his guitar and played and sang.  And my grandmother played the piano and mandolin. The household was very musical.

How old were you when your father started teaching you the guitar?

About 6 years old.

At what point in your life did you reach a level of expertise that you thought you could make a career with a guitar?

I don’t know if I’m there yet [laughs].

I was never really any good at sports.  I’m guessing this is every guitar player’s story.  I realized I was not a good baseball, basketball, football player.  I just retreated into my bedroom with a guitar and didn’t come out.  I wanted to learn.  I was such a liner-note nerd with all my favorite records. 

I found a cassette copy of Aerosmith’s Rocks in a mud hole.  Down in the Southeast teenage kids like big trucks and they like to play in the mud.  A good friend of mine, we were about 11 at that point, we would go down to this massive mud hole where they would have the mud games for the town.  From time to time you could find an overturned vehicle that had been abandoned.  This particular day we did [find an overturned vehicle] and there was a bunch of shit spilled on the ground – beer cans, cigarette packs and a couple of cassettes.  One was Hank Williams Jr.’s The Pressure Is On and the other was Aerosmith’s Rocks. I had no idea who Aerosmith was at that point.  I took it home and put it on … and it really made me want a Les Paul.

When I started to dig I started to understand.  I had a couple of older friends that were like, “That’s Aerosmith, man.” And I was like, “Who? It’s great but I’ve never heard of them.”  From then on I would save my money and go to the record store.

Photo: John Davisson
Florida Theater Of Gainesville, Gainesville, Fla.

What was your first concert?

I saw bluegrass festival shows when I was young.  My dad would take me.  Those made an impression – bluegrass is so musical, it’s like hillbilly jazz, the beautiful vocal harmonies and the beautiful playing. But the one that really made an impression as far as rock ’n’ roll music was when I saw The Cult when I was 16.

By that time were you watching The Cult on stage and imagining yourself in that position, playing for the audience?

Yeah.  I think even before then I started dreaming. Playing in front of the mirror with a guitar not plugged in kind of thing.

At that time were you dreaming about being a member of a band or being a singer that’s backed by a band, such as Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band or Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band?

For all of my teen years and even into my early 20s I was just a guitar player and I sang harmony vocals with whoever the lead singer was.  I didn’t have any desire to be a lead singer or a frontman.  In the little town where I’m from it was just bar bands, of course.  There was no venue there for a band playing original music.  It was all just four sets a night at Shooter’s Bar & Grill sort of thing.

I played in a few of those bar bands that had singers and realized all the singers were just goofballs, they were just crazy people.  And most of them that I played with couldn’t sing worth a shit anyway.  Eventually I kind of got pushed into that role by an old drummer friend.  It was like, “You just sing.  Since this dude never shows up, you just be the singer.” And I did and never looked back after that.

Now, as a professional singer, have you learned routines to take care of your voice on show days?

Yeah, that’s always in the back of every singer’s mind, I’m sure.  I may be jumping to conclusions there, but I have a comfort zone.  I know when too much is too much.  But at the same time, the first time we went to Europe we played 20 shows in a row with no day off.  That was definitely a workload and I learned to keep my mouth shut during the day in order to do that 90 minutes every night.

When The Whippoorwill came out last year you were very excited about the album.  One year and countless shows later, do you still feel that way?

I do.  I am definitely looking forward to making the next one which we will do as soon as possible.  We’ve got a whole pile of songs … we’ve been playing a few of them at shows.  I don’t listen to our music very often because we play it almost every night. But I did listen to The Whippoorwill on a plane the other day and it still excites me just as much.  When I first got the vinyl, I put it on at home, and vinyl being what it is, with mojo in the grooves, I was right back in that room at Echo Mountain Recording Studios.  It was a beautiful thing.

When you do listen to your music, are you able to keep a detachment and enjoy it as a listener or do you immediately remember the recording sessions and anything that might have been going on during that time?

It’s a little of both. I don’t know if I could ever detach myself from it. The critic is here, that’s always on, listening to little things that bugged me then and see if they still bug me now.  I can totally see people’s faces in the room when we were making it.  That’s a beautiful thing.  I love that.

Is there anything on the album that still bugs you today?

Oh, yeah. With everything we ever recorded, especially as a singer, you’ll always think, “I sing it differently now” or “I could have done that better.”  It think that’s why most people don’t listen to their own music that much.

Was there anything you learned from The Whippoorwill sessions that you’ll be taking with you into the studio for the next album?

I guess there are always little lessons that we’ve learned.  I don’t know anything specific that’s not completely nerdy.  Magic is created, usually, accidentally.  In my opinion there are a couple of moments on the album that are happy accidents.  They weren’t planned – mic bleed and little ghost tones that happened.  There’s actually one spot, and I won’t tell you where it is, where Paul and I actually said two different words in the song.  We know where it is and it’s hilarious.  We were like, “Let’s leave it.”  Those kind of things.

It’s amazing to work with people who are knowledgeable about studio work, the science and art of mic’ing instruments and amplifiers.   The facilities at Echo Mountain are fabulous. … It’s like going to school every time.

Photo: John Davisson
DeLuna Festival, Pensacola Beach, Pensacola, Fla.

Considering the huge amount of touring Blackberry Smoke does, do you see the studio work as an accurate representation of the band or is it more of a blueprint for the live shows?

I think it can be a little of both. Brett, the drummer and I talked about it one day and I think we’re probably quoting Tom Petty verbatim with this – “The album you make is really a snapshot of the band on that particular day.”

When it comes to performing live, and you’re in a band and allow yourself the freedom to expand musically, it won’t be too long before you’re playing the songs a little differently, whether it be the tempo or the way you phrase the lyrics.  But at the same time it’s a thrill to play the songs the way they go.  We wouldn’t want to go out at this point in our career and play the songs so they are unrecognizable.

Are there performances that never take place in public that are just fantastic moments for the band, such as jam sessions backstage with other artists?

There are times on the bus or in the hotel rooms, we do that quite a bit.  We don’t have a whole lot of time to rehearse.  Actually, with brand new songs, to work them up, get them in shape or even to start that process, that will happen on our bus or in a hotel room with acoustic instruments.  And a lot of bands will probably say there is some magic that goes down at sound checks sometimes when you look up and the only person there is the janitor sweeping the floor.  And the band is just like, “Holy shit!  That was amazing. Let’s try to do that again.”

Have you already road-tested some of the songs written for the next album?

We’ve been playing four of them. I write the setlist every night. It can be fun but it can be quite a pain in the ass.  We never like to play the same show.  That’s boring.  Before The Whippoorwill came out, we had played almost every one of those songs live for quite a while.  This time we have about 17 new songs to go in and record and I don’t know if we’ll play all of them live before the album comes out.

Of the four songs you’re playing live, are you already receiving feedback from the fans about the new material?

Some people have already said, “I really love this song.  When will I be able to get it?”  That’s always a good thing.  That’s way better than, “What is that?  I’m not sure about that.”  Social media being the way it is, there’s no filter.  [The response] will come from all angles. 

It’s so much fun playing something brand new because if you do go out night after night and see familiar faces … people that follow [you], you want to give them something brand new, something completely different so that they’ll come back the next night and be excited and want to hear something else.

Is it tough to strike a balance in the set so that you satisfy the fans who just want to hear the old songs yet please the ones that want to hear the band’s latest music?

It can be.  There are people that once you play something they don’t know, they just tune out.  We just did the Simple Man Cruise with Lynyrd Skynyrd. We played three shows on the cruise and we played a brand new song in each show.  And I had one family there, a guy and his wife and daughter who come to every show they can.  They live in New York and he came up after every show and asked about said song.  He would say, “That’s the brand new one?” and he even would ask about a lyric.  And I thought, “See!  He’s listening to me.  That’s listening listening. … [If] I was in his shoes I don’t know if I’d be retaining that type of thing.

Was the Simple Man Cruise more like a working vacation for you and the band?

It always is.  We’ve done it for seven years. There are so many repeat customers, so many who have come on the cruise all seven years. I think they called it the Southern rock family reunion this time around.

How long have you been with Vector Management?

About a year.

Vector manages artists from many genres and their roster includes acts ranging from Cheap Trick to Angelique Kidjo to Pat Benatar.  When you saw acts such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Williams Jr., on the company’s roster, did you think Blackberry Smoke would be a good fit and that the band would be in great company if it signed with Vector?

I would say yes.  We noticed that but I don’t even think it would have mattered. It’s very advantageous that they do have Skynyrd since we are similar in a way. [Manager] Ken Levitan is a genius. He’s one of the nicest people, for lack of a better term, he’s genuinely a nice person.  That struck me immediately because I’ve talked to people that are not, who have different agendas.

The No. 1 biggest reason we work with Vector is that he understands exactly where we’re coming from and exactly what the vision is.  That being the case, I don’t think it would matter who is on the roster.  Hopefully, working with him, I’ll get to meet Emmylou Harris.

Was there anything Ken brought to the band that you and your bandmates had never thought of? New ideas or extra elements perhaps in merchandising or marketing?

I think right now he’s been so busy with helping us facilitate things that were already on the big list.  And we had a big list, things we, up until that point, were not able to accomplish.  Such as [appearing on] “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” That was pretty huge.  European distribution, things that we needed, he’s coming in with fresh eyes and ears.  Any ideas that we had, I haven’t heard “no” yet.

In the very beginning we were talking with Ken and he said, “I understand this. I know exactly what you want to do and how you want to do it and I’m here to help. I know we can do it.”

For a band that performs live as much as Blackberry Smoke does, how tough was it to focus everything on one song when you appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno?  To play one song cold and then leave?

The stress factor … sort of dictates how the performance is going to go down.  That was an odd experience.  I loved it. It was great.  There are great technicians and people working on the set.  They’ve done it so much.  But it is a completely different animal than playing a show.  Jay Leno made a joke, “Are you ready to go be perfect on camera for three minutes?” And then he said something like, “There are only 6 million people watching.  No pressure.”  So it is a little like when the starting gun goes off.  It was great. … It was over quickly and you hope it translated, and you move on.

The producer said what song they wanted and we said, “Absolutely.  No problem.”  A couple of our fans said, “Why didn’t you do this song?  Why didn’t you do that song?” And we were like, “We were asked to play this song.  Thank you very much.”  Oh, well.  You can’t please them all.

“When it comes to performing live, and you’re in a band and allow yourself the freedom to expand musically, it won’t be too long before you’re playing the songs a little differently…”

Upcoming Blackberry Smoke shows:

Nov. 21 – Athens, Ga., Georgia Theatre
Nov. 22 – Athens, Ga., Georgia Theatre
Nov. 23 – Asheville, N.C., The Orange Peel
Nov. 29 – Atlanta, Ga., The Tabernacle
Dec. 31 – Nashville, Tenn., Downtown @ 1st Ave. & Broadway  (Bash On Broadway)
Jan. 9 – Tampa, Fla., The Ritz Ybor
Jan. 10 – Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Revolution
Jan. 11 – Lake Buena Vista, Fla., House Of Blues
Jan. 15 – Richmond, Va., The National
Jan. 16 – Norfolk, Va., NorVa
Jan. 17 – Chattanooga, Tenn., Track 29
Jan. 18 – New Orleans, La., House Of Blues
Jan. 19 – New Orleans, La., House Of Blues
Jan. 23 – St. Louis, Mo., The Pageant
Jan. 24 – Indianapolis, Ind., Egyptian Room
Jan. 25 – Detroit, Mich., St. Andrews Hall
Jan. 26 – Grand Rapids, Mich., The Intersection
Jan. 30 – Chicago, Ill., House Of Blues
Jan. 31 – Madison, Wis., Majestic Theatre
Feb. 1 – Minneapolis, Minn., Varsity Theater
Feb. 6 – Cincinnati, Ohio, Bogart’s
Feb. 7 – Columbus, Ohio, Newport Music Hall
Feb. 8 – Cleveland, Ohio, House Of Blues
Feb. 11 – Toronto, Ontario, Virgin Mobile Mod Club
Feb. 13 – Boston, Mass., House Of Blues Boston
Feb. 14 – Philadelphia, Pa., Theatre Of The Living Arts
Feb. 15 – New York, N.Y., Irving Plaza Powered By Klipsch
Feb. 20 – Charlotte, N.C., Fillmore Charlotte
Feb. 21 – Raleigh, N.C., The Ritz
Feb. 22 – North Myrtle Beach, S.C., House Of Blues
Feb. 28 – Baltimore, Md., Baltimore Soundstage
March 1 – Nottingham, United Kingdom, Bodega Social Club
March 2 – Manchester, United Kingdom,  Academy 3
March 3 – London, United Kingdom, O2 Academy Islington
March 5 – Wolverhampton, United Kingdom, Slade Room
March 20 – Fayetteville, Ark., George’s Majestic Lounge
March 21 – Dallas, Texas, House Of Blues
March 22 – Houston, Texas, House Of Blues
March 25 – Tulsa, Okla., Cain’s Ballroom
March 27 – Oklahoma City, Okla., Diamond Ballroom
March 28 – Amarillo, Texas, Midnight Rodeo
March 29 – Albuquerque, N.M., The Dirty Bourbon
April 1 – San Diego, Calif., House Of Blues
April 2 – West Hollywood, Calif., House Of Blues
April 3 – Anaheim, Calif., House Of Blues
April 5 – Las Vegas, Nev., House Of Blues
April 10 – Reno, Nev., Knitting Factory Concert House
April 11 – Sacramento, Calif., Rockin Rodeo @ Stoney Inn
April 15 – Boise, Idaho, Knitting Factory Concert House
April 18 – Seattle, Wash., The Neptune
April 19 – Spokane, Wash., Knitting Factory Concert House
May 9 – Silver Spring, Md., The Fillmore Silver Spring
May 10 – Baltimore, Md., Baltimore Soundstage

Please visit BlackberrySmoke.com for more information.