Find A Light: Charlie Starr Discusses Blackberry Smoke’s New Album, Gov’t Mule, Bob Weir & More
Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. (For more, check out a full archive of more than 60 The Art Of The Sit-In interviews here.).
Find A Light, the sixth album by Blackberry Smoke, reveals a band that sounds ever more like itself: proud torchbearers of a Southern rock tradition, certainly, but a folk/rock/gospel/blues/country-driven original fivesome that can write both tender and party-ready, with at-times-unpredictable flavors.
There’s a humility in this band that stems in part from the fact that they were not overnight (or even over-a-year) sensations. Blackberry Smoke didn’t hit the national radar much until the release of their 2012 album The Whippoorwill, but had been an active band for at least a decade before that, building fans the old-fashioned way, earning their bona fides in shitty bar gigs, getting onto the right bills, not quite shoving off the Lynyrd Skynyrd/Black Crowes/Tom Petty etc. comparisons but not letting themselves be lazily pigeonholed, either.
Now, Blackberry Smoke is a national headliner, and turning up often in our scene, whether on tour with Gov’t Mule, or slaying at festivals both established (Bonnaroo, Peach) and emerging (Hinterland). They can boogie with the best of ‘em, but what they’ve never done, as a recent discussion with frontman Charlie Starr attests, is compromise.
JAMBASE: When did you guys know you had broken through? I remember a big national surge around Blackberry Smoke a few years ago now, but I think some people are still surprised to learn you’ve been together for much longer than that — back to 2000 I think?
CHARLIE STARR: Yes. We’ve been together 17 years. I guess right around when we released The Whippoorwill in 2012, that’s when things started to ramp up more quickly. We had 12 or 13 years to get ready! [laughs] Seriously, though, it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. It’s been such a gradual thing for us. There was no windfall, or momentary popularity jump, or eureka moment. This was a slow snowball that built over time.
JAMBASE: Why do you think that snowball picked up so much speed in 2012?
CS: I think we just made a record that people wanted to hear at that point. We were stuck in limbo for quite a while, dealing with some frustrating label situations. Around then was when Zac Brown formed a label in Atlanta, and we became part of that family, and, maybe for lack of a better word, it just became sort of a Capricorn situation, you know? The bands were all family. It was a really cool feeling. Zac just turned us loose in the studio, he said, “go make your record — the record you want to make.” We self-produced it, with help from Clay Cook and Matt Mangano who are in his band and who are buddies of ours, as well as great musicians. I don’t know, that record just resonated with people. We weren’t trying to record singles, we weren’t at all concerned about radio. We made the record we wanted to make.
JAMBASE: Do you remember a specific gig or tour when it was clear Blackberry Smoke had national attention and a much bigger fanbase?
CS: I wish I could remember the venue, but it was the first time we sold out a show on our own. We had for years been either opening for someone or playing tiny little bars. We put in our 10,000 hours and then at some point, I do remember we arrived at a venue, and we looked outside and there was a line of people waiting to get in, and we were the headliner. Our name is on the ticket, and it’s sold-out. People are there to see us. And was like, OK, I guess this is working.
JAMBASE: It doesn’t sound like you guys have changed much, though, from the band that bonded playing tiny bar gigs.
CS: Yeah, we haven’t. It’s been such a long time, we just … well I feel like we’ve earned it. No one handed us anything. We made sacrifices that maybe some bands don’t have to make if they sign a major label deal or whatever. But if what they do is a failure, maybe they end up with nothing. The way we did this seems way more fulfilling. As a band, we went out, and busted our asses, and earned this. It feels really special. I’m very proud of Blackberry Smoke.
JAMBASE: The new album, Find A Light, is a really strong listen as many have noted already. What did you guys go into it wanting to accomplish?
CS: Thank you. I don’t know that there was a plan. Again, we decided to produce it ourselves and we had a nice little team of buddies we worked with. We just wanted to make a great record. I know that sounds corny, but we wanted sonically for the songs to be interesting and memorable. We wanted to play together in a room and capture that — that’s still so enjoyable for all of us. We’ve never really used a piecemeal method for recording. We want to hear what happens in a room when the five of us play. These days, it can be different. I mean, you can make a record on your phone, or in your car, but a band like ours, playing together in a room is why we got here — it’s not about perfection or locking everything to the grid.
If a song speeds up while we play it, did it feel good to do it? OK, well let it feel good. Music that’s made that’s supposed to be perfect sort of sounds worse that way. Analog equipment, playing together in a room — these things really excite us.
JAMBASE: How do you think you’ve changed as a songwriter? Some of your early reviews point out the depth in the songs — and as a listener, I agree they’re some of your most deeply felt. But it’s not like you just wrote party songs before.
CS: I was sort of partied out a long time ago [laughs]. These days, I’m just trying to write interesting songs that not only touch our fans or someone who’s going to listen to the record but myself. I want to walk away from a song feeling something. That’s the truth, man — I want to put it on the next day and say, I really am proud of this, it sounded as good as I thought it did yesterday.
JAMBASE: Are there songs on Find A Light that you think best represent what Blackberry Smoke sounds like now?
CS: “Flesh And Bone” is a good example of us being a rock ’n’ roll band — which is what we’ve been from the outset. “Mother Mountain” is maybe a good example of the evolution. Overall, though what you hear is just a lot of the elements of music that inspire Blackberry Smoke. I think about bands like Led Zeppelin. That’s a big, bombastic rock ’n’ roll band, and on their third record, half of it is acoustic songs. That was 1971, and people were probably like, “what the fuck is going on here?” [laughs] That’s fearless abandon, to me.
Or, hey, the second Skynyrd, they have “Working for MCA” and “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.” If you heard that song and it was the first Skynyrd song you had heard, would you think that was a rock ’n’ roll band? It’s enjoyable to have freedom musically. We’ve never been signed to a major label, so we’ve never had to answer to A&R guys who would tell us we have to do something because it’ll sell. The opportunity and the freedom has been amazing. Again, with Zac Brown in 2012, he gave us the keys to the studio and basically said, “have at it.”
JAMBASE: It’s strange to think what Blackberry Smoke would sound like if you’d been boxed in like that.
CS: We’ve seen some of our peers and friends of ours go through that. It’s really disconcerting. I know they’re not doing what they want to do, and I think they do, too.
JAMBASE: You mentioned Lynyrd Skynyrd and you guys will open a few shows on the farewell tour. Is it safe to assume you were a fan growing up?
CS: Oh yeah, sure. That music was omnipresent when I was a kid. It’s music that’s closer to the ground than say, The Velvet Underground. For a 6-year-old, it’s a lot easier to understand “Sweet Home Alabama” than “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” [laughs]
JAMBASE: But I imagine you’re a Velvet Underground fan, too.
CS: I am, yes.
JAMBASE: Blackberry Smoke got a big boost in exposure specific to what we think of as the jam scene thanks to your associations with Zac Brown, and of course Gov’t Mule, with whom you’ve played a lot. The tours you did with them were a lot of fun and seemed like for no one more than the people on stage.
CS: We did two runs with the Mule, and those were maybe the most enjoyable of any tour we’ve ever done with another band. They’re friends of ours, first and foremost, but Warren [Haynes] is such a giver, musically. Each night, and I don’t think it was planned this way initially, we did a handful of songs together during Mule’s encore. After we did maybe two of them, we said, “let’s not repeat an encore song together.” So we wound up doing like 32 different encore jams. I looked forward to that every night, first and foremost because I wouldn’t know what songs we were going to do until like 6:00 p.m.
Warren has that kind of unpredictability in mind. I got a real charge out of that. It never really occurred to us to plan too much for it, and we knew it might completely trainwreck. Warren would put “Almost Cut My Hair” on the setlist without knowing if I really knew it or not. Shit, man, that was the kind of thing we were doing in our garage when we were like 13. You’d have your buddies and everyone would jam, and someone would say, “Hey, do you know ‘Fairies Wear Boots’?” And someone would say, “Uh, kind of?” “Let’s play it!”
JAMBASE: Mule is well-known for being generous with its stage, like you said, but so are you guys. You bring young bands along with Blackberry Smoke and you let them come up and jam with you. Do you feel an obligation to nurture the folks coming up behind you?
CS: I think it’s very important to share music, you know? In the last six months, we’ve done a bunch of shows with Lukas Nelson and Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown. I think we jammed almost every night with those guys for the same reason the Mule did it with us: the thrill of the spontaneous. People who paid to see the show like that. I only ever see smiling faces when that happens. It’s not part of the “show,” quote-unquote, because it’s never rehearsed. Don’t want to rehearse it, that might make it fake. I don’t know if it’s an obligation or responsibility, per se, but it is enjoyable.
JAMBASE: We’ve been talking about a few examples, but can you share a favorite sit-in story: you with someone else’s band or someone with Blackberry Smoke?
CS: There are tons. We played “Lord Of The Thighs” with Brad Whitford from Aerosmith. In my head, I had the live version that Aerosmith fans know well, where Steven Tyler says “Mr. Whitford!” And I got to do that. That was special.
And we spent two days at TRI Studios a few years ago with Bob Weir, and I think he played with us for like 14 hours, all told. Bob was just unstoppable. We were all exhausted, I remember, and Bob was like, “we going to keep going?” [laughs] He was so generous with his time, and we just played tons, and tons, and tons of music. At one point he said, “hey man, let’s do something besides Dead stuff.” So we played some traditional songs, and some Little Feat, and some songs by The Band. That was an amazing experience.
JAMBASE: Yeah, it was great that so much of that was captured on DVD [on the 2017 release Live at TRI]. How do you remember the connection with Bob coming about?
CS: We met a guy on the road who was a friend of a friend, who came to our bus one day. We had Europe ’72 on, oddly enough, and he said, “I know Bob, do you want me to introduce you guys?” And he did. We worked it out so we could go play in the studio at TRI, and we were told, “hey, they film everything and Bob sometimes will sit-in.: It wasn’t an offer for Bob to sit-in with us, it was sort of letting us know that sometimes there is an opportunity to do that.
We jumped at it, and to my surprise, Bob came. He had listened to Whippoorwill, and there were a couple of songs he liked, and he asked if we could do some of that and then some other things and some Dead stuff. The footage we recorded actually sat dormant for a while, but we worked together to release it on DVD. It was just a fine time. I didn’t know at that point much about what Bob had been doing and this was before Dead & Company started. Having never met Bob before that, I didn’t know what material would be considered off-limits, and it turned out that nothing was. We did so many cool songs: “Ramble On Rose,” “Mississippi Half-Step,” all these great Dead tunes, and he was just open to all of it. It was fantastic.
Tour Dates for Blackberry Smoke