American music has defined popular music for decades, and in many ways Blackberry Smoke defines American popular music in 2016. Rock & roll with a country influence, Blackberry Smoke turns rock & roll tunes into fresh new musical experiences that are both familiar yet unique. Accented by a driving guitar, heartfelt vocals and a solid rhythm section, this band has a very unique sound rooted in traditional themes with a creative twist that country music sorely lacks. Pleasant surprises define the band and as a musician there is much to enjoy and absorb from their music.
Thanks to California luthier and amp builder Gabriel Currie, we were introduced to Blackberry Smoke guitarist and singer Charlie Starr in January. Charlie was more than willing to be submitted to the probe, and his story is one of dedication, inspiration and accomplishment. Having been the creative force behind the band, his vision for Blackberry Smoke is clear— a hard rockin’ American band that tours the world sharing their unique style and earning new fans around the world each year. Their music is unique, catchy and familiar for fans of American rock, yet they add their own unique flavor to the mix that simply works so well.
If you aren’t familiar with the band, we urge you to acquire their music now. Their albums are a treat for guitarists in particular, and they provide us all with creative twists on rock & roll that inspire with interesting lyrics, great musicianship and excellent songwriting. We are proud to call Blackberry Smoke an Atlanta band, and equally proud to introduce them to you in these pages.
The band tours around the world each year playing their unique style of hard rocking music and it’s not to be missed, mining great guitar work with hook laden songs that stay with you long after the record is over. The band is made up of Charlie Starr (lead vocals, guitar), Richard Turner (bass, vocals), Brit Turner (drums), Paul Jackson (guitar, vocals), and Brandon Still (keyboards). We caught up with Charlie in January and his interview is featured here. Our thanks to guitar and amp builder Gabriel Currie for the introduction and hook up. Enjoy and quest forth…
TQR: Where did you grow up, Charlie?
I grew up in east Alabama about 82 miles south of Atlanta in a tiny little cotton mill town called Lanett. My dad loved Bluegrass and he played traditional Bluegrass and gospel music and a little bit of country but you know those bluegrass people are really funny. It has to be traditional, no electricity and don’t even show me a drum kit. Growing up my dad always had guitars around— mostly Martins. He gave me a D28 Yamaha copy and before that I had a cheap little Global acoustic. So I learned the cowboy chords from him and I was always pretty enamored with the Wreck of the Old ’97 and those murder ballads. At about 11 years old through my friends I heard Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Van Halen. I had a buddy who had an electric guitar— a Mosrite copy that he sold me for $20 and he said, OK, Man, here’s what you do… You take a guitar cable and plug it in the headphone jack of the stereo and put a blank cassette in the record side, hit play record and pause and your guitar will come through the speakers. It was weird and compressed and kind of broken up and I was like, “Oh, my god, this is how they do it. This is where the iron man sound comes from. I didn’t want to see an acoustic guitar for quite a few years after that.
TQR: So how did you really start getting your chops together?
I fell in love with Aerosmith Rocks and Exile on Mainstreet. My mom had a Hot Rocks cassette and she loved the Stones, the Beatles and Bob Dylan. The stuff I had ignored before, I would hear her playing in the morning and I would think, “That is the shit!” There was a girl in school that was older than me and she said I needed to get Sticky Fingers and Exile on Mainstreet. I did and whoa… I saved my money and bought a white Les Paul Custom— I think it was an ’85 and it had the tuning keys that flipped out but it was kind of a piece of shit. It wouldn’t stay in tune, but I thought it looked pretty good. I was playing in garage bands then, looking for the elusive singer. We could never find a singer.
Then I bought a ’76 or ’77 SG and it was kind of a dog, too. But you know how it is, as you get a little older you meet people and you start to learn what was cool and what wasn’t. By then I had turned my back on country music as I got into the Replacements and the Clash, and through the Stones I got into Charlie Patton and Son House and started down that rabbit hole, which was incredible. Eventually I came back around and I started seeing so many similarities to the music I had learned. Oh, “Sittin on Top of the World” is not only a bluegrass tune but a blues song, too. The only thing that mattered was who was playing and singing it. There were also a lot of good players around to watch. There was a guy in my hometown named Billy Earle McLellan. I think he played with Delbert McClinton for a while. He was a confident player— one of those guys who just knew his way around the guitar so well. Just a great player. I look at people that are a little younger than me and you hear people talk about their influences and I think I was pretty lucky. My world didn’t just revolve around Metallica. There is nothing wrong with that but the well I was drawing from was a little deeper.
TQR: So how did Blackberry Smoke come together?
I moved to Atlanta in ’93 playing in a couple of different cover bands. I realized there was nothing for me at home and I realized I had to move to get something happening. There was a group of guys I played with from home and we would go to Atlanta and play 3-4 sets a night. The first person I met was Ted LaThangue who had a band called Voodoo Piston and I started playing bass with them for a minute. You know the Swingin Richards… I played in a band called the Shambles with Chris Edmondson, and then Tommy Rivers. I played with him a little but then I started singing and writing songs. One thing led to another and I wound up meeting Brit and Richard Turner who are the rhythm section for Blackberry Smoke. There was a guy we met in Atlanta who hired us to be his band and we made a record with him in New York. He got signed to Universal and the record was pretty good. It was the first time we got to work in a really nice studio and Danny Korchmar produced it. Then it kind of fell apart. We never toured and we fell out with the singer. I said, well I’ve got some songs if we wanna go in this direction, and that’s how it happened.
TQR: When the band came together did you have a vision for it or did it just kind of come together?
I guess you could say there was a vision. I had just started getting serious about writing songs. I had played in so many bands with people I thought were really good songwriters, and I would watch how they worked. A couple of guys were coming from a songwriter’s perspective on piano or guitar and they would play something and I would think, “Well this song needs a riff.” It’s a rock & roll song and it needs a riff. Most if not all of my songs are riff oriented because I’m a guitar player and rock & roll songs need a riff. That was the vision and I never set out to have a southern rock band. But
I guess that’s how it sounds. Brit and Richard have a metal background. They were in a band called Nihilist that was really popular, but they don’t lack anything when it comes to feel and groove, either. They are very adept either way. If you listen to the first two Skynyrd records, the rhythm sections are very precise. It’s more complex than people give it credit. It’s very complex, and that’s kinda the way Brit and Richard play. We just finished tracking a new album last week at the Quarry in Kennesaw. We’ve had some time off, so we started tracking while we could.
TQR: Do you typically go into the studio with new songs and cut them or do you play them out first?
Well, that varies. When we made the Whipoorwill album we had played most of those songs live for a year or more and we tracked 18 songs in four days because we had played the shit out of them. We had tinkered with the songs from Holding the Roses but we hadn’t played them out.
TQR: So it just depends… Let’s talk about gear.
I went to Clark Music in Atlanta and Rick Richards from the Satellites had sold a black ’56 Junior to another player who had it on consignment at Clark. I really wanted it but I couldn’t afford it, but we worked a trade for the Telecaster I had and some money and the Junior is still my Number One guitar. I’ve played it on every record and tour since. The Junior was the first real guitar I bought and I have never dreamt of selling it. I also had a ’72 Tele with a rosewood neck and a Bigsby that was really cool and I lost that as part of an amp trade, which was really stupid. I was drinking a lot then and if I hadn’t been drinking I would have never done it. If I could find another early ‘70s Tele with a rosewood board I would jump on it. I played a 50 watt Marshall then and the bright cap on the amp was snipped so it was more like a bass amp. There was a lot of turning that amp toward the wall to cut the volume down. I have another ’59 double cut Junior, a ’62 and another ’56, and a ’65 330 that is a monster.
TQR: But you’re kinda of a Junior guy…
Yeah, from initially getting that ‘56 I really love that tonal quality and the single pickup thing, and playing with a guy who is playing a Tele or even a humbucking guitar the Tele just fits.
TQR: How about amps?
I have played Marshalls most of my life. Different ones, mostly 50 watters. I had a Super Lead for a minute. Then I found a really good white JCM 800 that is just perfect. I played Orange amps for a while when they had a warehouse in Atlanta where they assembled amps in the early 2000’s. I’ve always been a British amp player, which is a funny juxtaposition because I have friends who have always played a Super Reverb or a Deluxe that have always been Fender guys.
TQR: That makes a good mix.
Yeah, it does. Over the last several years I’ve had the luxury of using two amps on stage and I like to go for that British-American thing.
TQR: Like what?
I have an amp that Gabriel Currie is making that is voiced like an early ‘60s Pro and it marries well with a Plexi clone made by Greg Germino. The marriage of that with Gabriel’s Echo Park is really special. Gabriel is really friendly with Joe Perry and he has one of Gabriel’s amps and it’s one of the main amps in Joe’s rig.
TQR: What about effects?
I have a few. As the singer I don’t have a lot of time to stomp on them, but I love ‘em. I’ve got a Fulltone SuperTrem that is great and very uncomplicated with just two knobs. I have a Bad Bob 20dB boost by Analog Man that is great when you just need to be a little louder. Cry Baby of course. I have a Vibe Machine by Dry Bell in the Czech Republic that is really cool. A really good Univibe sound. Got an old Echoplex— gotta have that. I’ve been using it more— it’s addictive. Do you know Bruce Smith from the Swingin Richards? He was the first person I saw use one from the Joe Walsh/Jimmy Page school.
TQR: Are you still learning?
I try to learn something every day, there is just so much music to be played. I want to be a jazz guitar player so badly. I have a very amateur understanding of jazz – I’ve learned some cornbread jazz licks. But I love ‘em. Every time I hear someone in a country context like Merle Haggard sneak something in I just love it.
TQR: Who are your favorite players and why?
I love teams… Keith and Mick Taylor, Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, Duane and Dickie… Going back to Skynyrd, when I was old enough to understand what they were doing musically. I fell in love with the way there would be three guitars players staying out of each other’s way. It was always complimentary. Ed King was my favorite player. But I also really loved Al Anderson from NRBQ. Players like him inspire me now. You might think you heard it all and then he would go the opposite way. Billy Gibbons of course— what a huge influence. Lowell George…
TQR: How much do you change things between studio and stage?
Well, I have a little tweed ’53 Champion and a ’56 Princeton that I would love to use on stage. I think Mike Campbell’s main amp is a tweed Deluxe.
TQR: I saw him at a private NAMM show in L.A. and he had a wall of vintage Vox stacks and I walked around to the back and there was a blackface Princeton miked. That’s where his sound was coming from.
Yeah I have a friend who worked around the Van Halen tour and he said the brown sound Plexi was behind all the Peavey stacks.
TQR: What are some of your favorite shows?
We played Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl with Zach and that was great. Those are very fond memories but I really treasure the shows we’ve played, like selling out the Ryman in Nashville or the Tabernacle in Atlanta. We weren’t always accepted in Nashville because some of the labels we’ve worked with didn’t know whether we were a country band or a rock & roll band. I think we’re a rock & roll band, but we weren’t always accepted because we couldn’t be put in a box. To sell out the Ryman without Nashville’s help was a great feeling. We tour heavily every year but this year will be a little lighter and we are really happy about that. We will still tour Australia and another run in Europe and it will still be work, but not 250 shows this year. That sucks the life out of you.
TQR: Yeah but you survived it. What kind of acoustics do you play?
My dad is a D-28 lover and he gave me my first Martin— a D-28 that wound up being part of a trade. I really wish I had that one back for sentimental reasons. I’ve got a ’64 Gibson LGO— a little mahogany guitar. I’ve got a 1948 000-18 that’s a nice little guy. I have a nice quad 0-28 that Zac Brown gave to me for my birthday. I was visiting him and he’s got a guitar room that looks like Gruhn’s, you know. He’s got one of everything hanging on the wall. That quad 0 is like a small jumbo it’s got such round hips. We pulled it down and played it for a couple of minutes and it was my birthday, and he was like, happy birthday. That’s was a very elaborate birthday present. I also have a couple of Gibsons— a really nice Hummingbird and a J200 that are both newer Montana guitars. Those are good road and stage acoustics.
TQR: Which one do you play the most?
Well, I played the Hummingbird for several years. I took it down to my dad’s house and he doesn’t care much about Gibsons but he played that one and said, “You got a good one.”
TQR: How much acoustic do you play in a show?
Two or three songs but we do an acoustic show from time to time and we just did one in Nashville. I really write most of these songs on an acoustic guitar anyway, so they seem to translate pretty well. I really need to get a great D-28. I was up at Maple Street Music in Atlanta and they had a D-42 and I had never seen one before. It was an ’85 Brazilian guitar and it sounded incredible. A very limited run of maybe 12 were built that year. Then he brought in a Collings and said, “Try this.” I couldn’t believe how great that Collings sounded— better than the Martin.
TQR: What’s ahead Charlie?
We just want to continue to grow the fan base. We have never depended on radio air play for our success. We have only been given one opportunity for success and that was to do it ourselves, to make good records. It’s been great to play these huge venues and open for great bands but that doesn’t always guarantee success. TQ