According to Blackberry Smoke singer/guitarist Charlie Starr, the term “Southern rock” isn't a bad thing. "It's not an insult to us," he says. "Just don't short-change us: We're not a tribute act and we're not a cover band."
There is plenty about the quintet that suggests the '70s, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers — faded, flared jeans; hair to the middle of their backs; keyboard parts that recall a Hammond organ; and a wall of electric guitars. According to Starr, all of that is just what comes naturally to Blackberry Smoke, which formed a dozen years ago in Atlanta. "If we went up on stage and played a Slayer song, we'd sound ridiculous," he says. On the other hand, "When we play a country song, it's what we love about country music."
What Starr and company (bassist/vocalist Richard Turner, guitarist/vocalist Paul Jackson, keyboardist Brandon Still and drummer Brit Turner) like, country-wise, draws on the outlaw sounds of artists like George Jones. Jones happens to be a fan of Blackberry Smoke (the band performed at his 80th birthday), and Starr is quick to name recording a remake of "Yesterday's Wine" with Jones as a highlight of Blackberry Smoke’s career. That, and meeting ZZ Top. "It gets no cooler," Starr says of that classic rock band. "Just the way they walk on stage is cooler than any other band."
Blackberry Smoke’s members grew up with The Black Crowes’ frontman Chris Robinson, who helped them come up with the band name, and the group has toured with the likes of The Marshall Tucker Band and Zac Brown Band. They met Brown on Skynyrd Cruise years ago. (In Brown’s “pre-nine-number-one-singles-in-a-row” days, as Starr puts it). When Blackberry Smoke’s last independent label deal fell through, Brown signed them to his Southern Ground label. All of that is to say that Starr isn’t one to be star-struck — which might be what impresses him most about his hero, ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons. “He seems to be unaffected by being Billy Gibbons,” Starr says. “He’s just a good guy and he loves music.”
That pretty much sums up Starr, too. Of his band’s oft-niched sound he says, “It’s comfortable music to play and it makes us happy to play it every night.” But he seems especially excited about new record The Whippoorwill, which comes out in August (but is available in advance at live shows). That album was recorded at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studios. And, though Starr has visited the storied studios like Sunset Sound, he says Echo Mountain was “my favorite of all our recording experiences in our 12 years. It’s going to be hard to beat next go around — Echo Mountain stands tall.”
who: Blackberry Smoke
when: Coxe Avenue Stage, Friday, 8:15 to 9:15 p.m.