Living his life in the song
Blackberry Smoke, the down-home juggernaut from Atlanta, Ga. is on everyone’s music radar these days. From country to rock and blues, this band is getting noticed, and for all the right reasons. The band makes some of the best, authentic Southern music out there, and there’s no end in sight.
With every album released, from Blackberry Smoke’s first album, 2003’s “Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime,” to 2009’s “Little Pieces of Dixie,” 2012’s game-changing “Whippoorwill,” to last year’s blockbuster release, “Holding All the Roses,” the band just keeps evolving, getting better and gaining new fans with every album release.
Blackberry Smoke has worked and toured with such Southern rock and country music giants as George Jones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Marshall Tucker Band, ZZ Top, Zac Brown Band and most recently with Gov’t Mule. The band sells out shows wherever they go — from the House of Blues, to The Georgia Theater, to the venerable, hallowed walls of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The band constantly tours, playing upwards of 250 or more shows a year, so you can imagine just how busy a life like that can become.
Sitting down to talk with Charlie Starr, I was pleasantly surprised that my conversation with him was relaxed and unhurried, especially given his hectic, busy schedule, not to mention that he had a show to do in just a few short hours.
Having just come back from a short stint in Australia at the Byron Bay Blues-fest a couple weeks prior, Blackberry Smoke — my current favorite band — afforded me the pleasure of speaking with the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Charlie Starr. I was so excited to sit down to an interview with him, because he is the engine behind what I believe to be the most exciting country/southern rock/blues band to come along since Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd hit the music scene in the late 1960s-early 1970s. They are a wonderfully accessible, down-to-earth, redneck version of Zeppelin and Skynyrd, rolled into one big, giant fatty of smokin’ musical goodness. For me, there hasn’t been a band as exciting as Blackberry Smoke in several decades.
When I spoke with Starr in New Braunfels, Texas (just outside of San Antonio), I wanted to find out directly what his musical beginnings were like, what his original musical influences were and what they are today. We also talked about what makes a song great and what he sees in the future for him and the band, as well as the changing music industry.
Brian McKinny: You come from a musical family. When did you first realize you wanted to make music your life’s work, and were there any other aspirations for you?
Charlie Starr: Not really. I think I always just kind of knew. In my teen years, it became a reality, “I’m gonna do this.” Before that, when you’re a kid, you don’t know shit. So it took some time growing up to figure out it was really what I wanted to do, what I was meant to do. I knew that I could do it, early on with a guitar. I wasn’t good at throwing a baseball and too old to play football, but I knew I could make it with my instrument. I think that if you’re wired that way, you just kind of know what you’re good at and want to do.
McKinny: Do you remember your first guitar? What was it and how did you acquire it?
Starr: My first guitar was a little, cheap acoustic by a company called Global, and it was an old, gut string guitar.
McKinny: What was the first band you played in and what kind of music did you play?
Starr: When I was in the eighth grade, my buddies and I started a band called Malteze. When you’re a kid, and you get into your first band, obviously, it’s horrible, but you come up with all these things — a little symbol and all that stuff, and then you start drawing out the name of your band, designing whatever font you want, or whatever. Well, my buddies and I came up with a logo that used a Maltese cross with the name on the bottom.
We were doing songs by Aerosmith, Metallica and Guns N Roses, which had just exploded onto the music scene at the time with “Appetite for Destruction,” but we didn’t have a singer — nobody was gutsy enough to get up and sing! So we just did instrumental versions of all the favorite songs we had from bands like that, and we played my 16th birthday party; we played a couple of friend’s parties, people’s backyards … It was a pretty typical beginning, doing stuff we all do when we’re that young and starting out playing in bands.
McKinny: When did you decide to get up and sing in front of the band? What was the catalyst that got you to move up front?
Starr: I wound up playing in different bands as I got older, playing in cover bands in the beginning from about 18 until my early 20s, playing in bars around the southeast. I was in one particular band where we played three sets a night, and our singer quit. We had a gig booked at this little honky-tonk bar in Georgia, and I was singing harmonies, and it was really just out of necessity; I was like, “If we want to get paid, I have to sing, I guess.” So I did.
I sang around the house with my guitar and starting to write songs, but when I was forced to get out and sing in front of people I realized, “Shit, I can do this. It’s not that hard.” Back then, I was just starting to drink, and that was really to make sure that I wasn’t too nervous — it’s just what you do when you’re starting out in a bar band. But that’s really when I learned how to sing in a band, playing in those bar bands.
McKinny: I know your father is very musical, and I’m sure he had a lot of influence on the types of music you listened to growing up, as well as you getting into playing music. But who were your first musical idols — the pickers, singers and bands you listened to and admired when you were learning to play and sing, and who are your idols now that you’re successful?
Starr: From an early age, Bill Monroe, (Lester) Flatt and (Earl) Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and all that bluegrass stuff, and Hank Williams. That’s what I heard a lot, and the radio, of course. My mom loved rock and roll; she loved The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. But when I really got serious, I was into Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, and all that kind of rock and roll. I never really clung to just one.
The Stones were huge to me and a lot of people my age — they’re the greatest rock and roll band in the world. Then I got into Little Feat, Marshall Tucker and later into songwriters — Van Zandt, Guy Clarke and Steve Earle. I take a little bit from everybody, you know? I can’t pick just one — it’s like the impossible question. I mean, one day I’ll wake up and think “AC/DC’s the greatest band in the world.” And the next day it’s “Led Zeppelin is the best band in the world” or Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Grateful Dead … It’s just an ongoing thing.
McKinny: You’ve said before that if there was one person you could get a guitar lesson from, that person is Merle Travis, one of the best finger-pickers of all time. Who have you met that just blew your mind?
Starr: Derek Trucks. He didn’t take me by surprise, because I already knew how incredible he was. But man, when we were jamming and to watch him play guitar, it was incredible. He is, without a doubt, the best guitar player I have ever seen in person.
McKinny: When did you first have the feeling that Blackberry Smoke would be a success, and how long did you play and perform together, before you started to realize some of that success?
Starr: The first time we sold out a show of our own, the first time I thought, “Okay, this is starting to work” was a few years into our band. Success did not come quickly. There was a lot of playing, traveling and promoting. But that’s when you first start believing it, if you didn’t before, that this may actually work. All this hard work is starting to pay off. And it’s been like that ever since.
McKinny: I find it interesting that I’ve never talked with anybody — not one — who has said, “Yeah man, from the beginning everything just clicked.” That never happens.
Starr: Yep, I’ve heard people say to me before, “One of these days, I’m gonna write that one song that changes everything, becomes so popular and just explodes.” And I always think, “I’m not so sure I agree with that.”
I think I would rather write an album full of songs that are not necessarily a huge pop hit, but I’d rather have our fans be happy with an entire album full of songs that they love. I wouldn’t want to have a song like “Honky-tonk Ba-donk-a-donk” that I wouldn’t be happy singing, like, forever! I don’t wanna be 60 years old saying, “Do I have to sing this song again?”
McKinny: When you’re ready to head back into the studio to record, what do you look for in a producer? What factors into your decision to hire a producer?
Starr: Well, it’s a little bit of all that. It’s definitely a “feel” thing, but it’s also about the type of records they’ve made. I think that’s the biggest thing right there. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to work with Brendan O’Brien, because of the records that he’s made.
Sometimes we produce it ourselves, because it feels right. We just finished the new album coming out probably in September, and I made a bunch of demos with new songs, and I was like, “I really think that we can go in and do this,” and everybody agreed, “Let’s go in and do this, and let’s turn it into a monster!”
There is literally a little bit of something for everybody on it. It has some massively heavy songs that will freak people out, it has some funky stuff, some total Macon, Georgia kind of stuff, and it’s really kind of different, but special.
McKinny: A mutual friend of ours, Anthony Byrd, asked me to ask you this next question: Do you or the band have any pre-show rituals you perform before a gig?
Starr: Oh yeah, we love Anthony and his family! Great people! I look forward to seeing them again real soon. But to answer your question, no, we don’t. We just do a head count to make sure everyone’s in the same room and is ready to go (laughs)! That’s our ritual – “Is everyone here?”
McKinny: You’re the main songwriter in the band; most of the stuff you guys play comes from your head and heart, so in your estimation, what is it that makes a song great?
Starr: For me, if you’re talking about one that’s my own, it’s one that I want to keep singing and playing over and over. If it has something, a quality that makes it stick to my ribs, then I always hope it’ll be the same for other people, and that’s not always the case. I’ve got tons of songs that I thought were good, and I’d play them for other people, and they’d be like, “That’s alright …”
Obviously, they can’t all be winners, but I think that if it’s something that you’re comfortable revealing about yourself, if it’s very personal, it’s a very enjoyable art form. You can take it any direction you want to.
McKinny: Is there any subject matter that’s off limits for you as a songwriter?
Starr: I don’t have any real desire to write a protest song or anything like that about the goings on in the government, or stuff like that. I’ve written songs about the state of the world, “the world’s going to hell” kind of songs, and life can often inspire those kinds of songs. There’s one on the new album that’s kind of like that, but never anything that’s in any way political.
It’s a polarizing thing, too, whether you agree with it or not. It’s like “okay, this is not what I paid for,” especially for the fans at our shows, specifically. They don’t pay to come see us preach or to listen to me get up on a soapbox and give a dissertation on how the government is screwing us all. We already know that!
They come here to escape all that, and besides, it’s a slippery slope to start down. A band of our stature has to tour to make a living, so it’s best to entertain with our music and not piss people off with political b.s.
McKinny: How has your songwriting and the band’s music evolved since “Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime” hit the shelves back in 2003? What’s changed about your sound and the way you write music?
Starr: I hope that I’ve grown as a song writer; I think all writers hope to do that. Being able to incorporate different types of textures in our recordings and adding Brandon Still on keys with the beautiful piano and B3 (Hammond organ) for the keyboard stuff opened it up a lot. You know, “The Whippoorwill” was a turning point for the band I think, because we were starting to play a lot of our own headlining shows, we had the time to stretch out and jam, and his addition really let the show breathe. “The Whippoorwill” album reflected that, I think. It opened things up; it was warmer.
I remember, one day a few fans came up and said, “It’s not heavy!” I was like, “When have we ever really been heavy?”
We’re just a rock and roll band – we’re not a metal band. But you know, each time we put out an album, it sounds different. Some people will always be like “This one doesn’t sound like the last one!” And that’ll happen – people don’t like change. But when you’re in the band and creating the music, you don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over. You want to grow, and our true fans want to grow with us.
McKinny: Are you a techie/gear head as a guitarist, a grab-it-and-play-it kind of player, or are you somewhere in between?
Starr: I’m somewhere in between. The older I get, the more I get into the gear nerd aspect. And I’ve got my share of, well, let’s say I’m building a nice collection, much to the dismay of my wife (chuckles). But, it’s an addiction, you know.
McKinny: What are some of the things you do as a performer and as a band to show appreciation for your fans?
Starr: We’ve been doing “meet and greets” after the shows for several years now, and we donate the lion’s share of the proceeds from those to charity – such as the Children’s Hospital in Atlanta. Brit, my drummer’s daughter was diagnosed with neuroblastoma a few years ago. She underwent treatment, and it was a long, hard road for them, but bless her heart, she’s cancer-free today and healthy as can be. I think that was really not just for Brit, but especially for him and his wife to say “thank you” to all the people who supported them through that.
It’s our way as a band to sort of give back to the fans to say “thank you,” and the fans know that, because they continue to buy the meet and greet passes, and to shake our hands for the 100th time! We’re always accessible, and the fans do that, because they know it’s going to a good place.
McKinny: What have been the biggest changes you’ve experienced in the industry, since you started out?
Starr: Well, you sell fewer records, because of streaming and the digital marketplace, of course. And that means everyone. It doesn’t rob us of any excitement, when it comes to making new records, because we get excited regardless of how many copies we’ll sell. But that’s changed the world – the way that we listen to music, the way that we purchase it. That’s probably the biggest thing, I would say.
McKinny: How have you adapted to some of those changes? What are some of the things you’ve done to take advantage of the changes in the music industry?
Starr: I’ll tell you this, it makes us tour more. Everybody’s touring more, because we all have to make a living. But that’s good, because people like live music. It’s a different animal.
As far as adapting, what you have to do is go after it on social media and make sure your music is available and accessible digitally to anyone who wants it. Some people are even just giving their records away. I mean, it’s cool if you can do that. Okay, U2, Bono! You’re a billionaire (laughs)! I agree with what he was saying, though, about this being the devaluation of music. It’s like, “Okay, my song’s all of a sudden just worth a dollar, or even less than a dollar.”
He’s got a good point. He’s saying it’s a pretty sad thing that this song I’ve poured my heart and soul into — about my child, my grandmother or my father — is, according to the marketplace, worth exactly the same price as a fart sound. It’s so sad.
McKinny: What about commercial music licensing? That’s always been lucrative, and today it’s even more so. Have you and the band licensed any songs for commercial use by other companies?
Starr: Yeah, we had a couple of songs in video games a million years ago, funny enough. And the latest Madden NFL football game has the song, “Holding All the Roses” in it. We had our song “Good One Comin’ On” in that Kevin Costner movie, “Swing Vote.”
McKinny: You have a new album coming out in September. Do you have a title for it yet, or are you keeping that hush-hush?
Starr: I’m going to keep that hushed up for now, because we haven’t decided between the two or three titles we’ve come up with for it yet. That’s something for our fans to look forward to later this summer.
McKinny: Anything you’d like to add before I let you go?
Starr: I’d just like to say thanks to the fans, always! They are the reason that we continue to do this, thanks to them!
You can find Blackberry Smoke on the Internet at the following links: