One on One with Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr

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When the announcement went out that Blackberry Smoke was coming to the State Theatre in Portland, Maine on February 16th, 2014, we knew come Hell or high water we would be at that show because we’ve been waiting and waiting for this band to headline here in Maine. If you’re a fan of this band, you know what we mean. Blackberry Smoke’s blend of Southern music styles and natural party vibe is just like honey to the ears. To make it even sweeter, Maine Music News scored an interview with Charlie Starr, vocals and guitar, and had a chance to ask a few questions about the band, talk a little music we all know and love, and where the band is headed down the road.

…and we can’t pass up the chance to say we can feel a good one comin’ on.  Sing along now…

MMN – When we started digging into the band getting ready for this interview, we came up a bit short on the story behind Blackberry Smoke, as well as Charlie Starr. Could you share with us how you started playing music? Is this a family tradition or just a passion for you?

CS – Ya, it was definitely a family tradition. My father and grandmother, his mother, both played. He plays guitar and sings. He is a bluegrass guy, bluegrass and gospel. Never has cared for rock and roll, not one single bit. My grandmother played piano and mandolin. When I was growing up, there was always music. When I was young, I would bang around on my dad’s guitar a lot because I wanted to do what he did. He eventually got tired of me knocking around with his more expensive instrument so he bought me one. There was no doubt in my mind at that point that I had to do that. I think I was around 6 years old. It’s not like he made me, it was never “go practice your guitar.” My grandmother taught me all about harmony and singing gospel songs. It didn’t seem strange to me at all, or new even, it was always there. Then my mother, she loved rock and roll music. She was the Rolling Stone, Beatles and Bob Dylan fan. I split time between the two of them growing up. They were divorced when I was a baby. So it was back and forth, bluegrass and gospel and then I would go back to rock and roll music. We had the Stones over here and Bill Monroe over there. I chalk it up to a pretty good mixture, a melting pot that I grew up in. My mother’s family was very musical as well. Her mother had two brothers that were in a really successful gospel quartet back in the 40’s and 50’s called the Swanee River Boys. That family was very music as well. It’s a curse really, it was stamped on my forehead at birth. You play music or else.

MMN – And Blackberry Smoke? How did five young men end up becoming a band that plays like the best of vintage Southern music?

CS – Oh, thank you very much. I grew up in a little textile mill town in Alabama, which is about 80 miles from Atlanta. I grew up and got an electric guitar and started playing rock and roll music and through my teen years played with friends, forming little cover bands. Then I started to think that this is obviously what I love, I can’t shake that. I really had in mind that I would have a job and pursue music – have a job and pay bills and get fed and chase the music. So that chase led me to Atlanta where I could play original music, write music, and not have to play covers in the VFW every weekend, which is exactly where Paul Jackson, our other guitar player comes in. He was living down in the same area where I was, and he was doing the same thing. With Atlanta being the closest big city, he wound up heading there as well. We just wound up together, and there is not really an interesting story – nothing like Skynyrd, where they talked about Ronnie Van Zant hitting Gary Rossington in the head with a baseball playing little league baseball. We don’t have an interesting story like that. Late night bars and a lot of narcotics and liquor later and here we are.

MMN – Blackberry Smoke’s music and lyrics feel genuine and earthy and grounded and still create variety and interest. How does the writing process work when you are out on the road and doing show after show?

CS – It’s a little tough for me to write on the road, I can’t concentrate. Well, not that I can’t, it’s just hard for me. The focus for writing is not there for me as it is at home. There could be embryos that start or are formed on the road at sound checks and hotel rooms, I just pay attention and take notes, but later the writing and editing process is very personal. I even run my wife out of the house. That’s just me. I see other artists that have writing sessions on the road, and they have a writing bus, and they have all these Nashville people. I don’t know if I agree with the song writing factory that is Nashville. I don’t know if that is definitely inspired songwriting or if it is just necessary song writing. I have been through some of that. I have been put in the room with some writers, and it felt awkward. Then I have written with friends, and it is not awkward. I think that we all agree – songs come from above. Some people might say that, I know I feel that way. The inspiration has to be there for me, I’m not going to just sit there and bang out a song and force it out. That would be a shitty song to me. That is why there are a lot of shitty songs on the radio.

MMN – Don’t even get me going down that road. I love the sound of what you guys have, and you can tell where the influence is coming from, and you can also tell that you guys drive down your own road. From what I can see it doesn’t look like all the other distractions out there have got in the way.

CS – I feel that we are trying to make music that we won’t feel bad about and will still be interested in playing in 20 years. The antithesis of that would be let’s shoe horn this in here and let’s drop Skynyrd’s name in a song or drop George Jones’s name in a song. Its just like we just talked about, it’s not inspired song writing, it’s trying to pull the lever on the slot machine.

MMN – The best example I can give you is I have listened to Eric Church’s new album and there are a few songs on that album that really feel like he sat down with Luke Bryan’s writer and the end result is just confusing. Let me just say, I am a huge fan of his, but his new album feels like he tried too hard.

CS – I understand what you are saying, I feel the same way. Case in point, there is a really great album out by Jonathan Wilson. I think Jonathan is from the Carolinas but he is a California guy now. His new record, it’s not a country record, it’s not a Nashville record, it is very inspired. The songs are excellent. He is covering a lot of territory musically. Same with Jason Isbell, just great songs on his newest album. These guys don’t have singles on the radio, and we don’t either, we have never been a singles band. They are nurturing a fan base, and they have a career. I look at it this way, as long as we can go out and there are people that want come and spend their hard-earned money to watch us play these songs then we are on top of the world. If that happens, then I feel like we win. We don’t have to have a run away hit single to feel like we accomplished that goal.

MMN – Speaking of touring, your band tours constantly. You’re heading overseas very soon. What are the biggest challenges you face being on the road nonstop?

CS – The biggest thing is our family. We all miss our wives and children. That is nothing new, that has been an ongoing thing. It never gets easier. You can’t have both. You have to go out and do this. We know that, and they know that. The second thing is we are dying to get into the studio and make our next album. We plan to do that in early Spring. That can be hard. You have the work load in front of you. We are going back to Europe now because “The Whippoorwill” is being officially released in a couple of days, which is a long time considering that is a year and a half old here. We never had official European distribution. We just shipped our albums ourselves to the fans that bought them. This is a huge step for us. We will be readily available in the market place for fans. Obviously, they are starting with the most recent album. There is nothing wrong with that, please don’t get me wrong, I am just chomping at the bit to make our new record, and we are not in the studio right now. It’s just frustrating. Everybody in the machine is ready, our entire team, it’s just a matter of time.

MMN – Fans of Blackberry Smoke will know what I mean when I say the band is like a special secret, a little bit unknown – even though you have songs appearing on video games, on television shows. Being with Southern Ground must have made a big difference with getting your music heard and seen. Can you talk about that?

CS – Zac Brown is very visible. And him taking us out on the road with him tons – we have opened for him at Madison Square Garden, The Hollywood Bowl, and Red Rocks. It’s just a fabulous time, and he is giving us the opportunity to play for his fans who might not have any idea who we are. With Zac Brown, with that ilk, it’s pretty much guaranteed that we will be in front of 20,000-30,000 people a night. That does not mean that we automatically win. We still have to go out and do our jobs. There may be fans of his that don’t like our music, I can understand that. I mean everybody doesn’t like everything. It is still hard work. Zac definitely does not have a magic wand. He can’t sprinkle some Zac dust on us and make us huge. He knows that as well. He has afforded us the opportunity to keep this growing. If we needed anything from him, if we need to make a new record, or if we need to film a live show, the label is there to support that. Where we are not independently wealthy ourselves, that would be tougher for us. Being that his label is an indy label, he gives us the artistic freedom we need. He does not want to change anything about us. If I called Zac and said I wrote this song and it is the most offensive song in the history of songs, he would laugh and say lets record it. He is cool.

MMN – What can you tell fans afraid that Blackberry Smoke might end up sounding overprocessed and packaged? Is Southern Ground helping you to stay true to what makes Blackberry Smoke so unique?

CS – That could never happen. We are just too old and stubborn to be told what to do. We have come this far. The sound of the band has evolved as has the song writing. Hopefully, it gets better and better. We definitely are not going to make the same album over and over again, but overproduced and packaged we will never be. We are trying to make music that is going to be appreciated for a long time and not just hurry up and make a million dollars.

MMN – What are the best ways that fans can support the band?

CS – Go to shows. Man, as easy as it is to burn music for people and get it for free from these download sites, you are not really supporting your favorite artists unless you are supporting them financially. I don’t mean that to sound greedy at all. It’s just the facts of life, dude.

MMN – Exactly. Go to shows, and purchase merchandise from the booths – buy a shirt, buy an album – while at the show.

CS – If we are creating a product, be it a t-shirt or an album, and if you buy it, that keeps the wheels rolling. Its funny, people will come up to me say “man, I like your band so much,” and I say “thank you.” They go on to say “I have burned The Whippoorwill for all my friends.” I bite my tongue and want to say “Don’t do that, man, that is not helping.” I mean it is helping to let people hear the music, but how about telling your friends they should go out and buy it? But man, people are funny, they will say and do the damnedest things.

MMN – It is a different world than what we grew up in.

CS – It is. I am not definitely trying to put a price tag on anybody’s music. Vince Gill once said that he was so offended at times thinking about iTunes and how certain songs that he had written cost 99 cents. He said that basically that song that I poured my heart and soul into writing costs the same as a fart sound. The industry has changed so much, pretty much since about the time when I was in junior high when Appetite for Destruction came out.

MMN – I was stationed in England when that came out.

CS – I bet it had as much of an impact on you as it did for me.

MMN – It changed my life.

CS – Me, too. I don’t know how to explain it, but all of a sudden I got tunnel vision. This was the kind of music that stirs your soul because it is dangerous and there was just something about it. It had that thing that was very real. It shook the industry just like so many other bands before.

MMN – Very true. I think we could talk about that for a very long time, but my time with you is running out. One last thing – being on the road as long as you are, you all must get a little stir crazy. Any fun stories on how you pass the time?

CS – I go record store shopping. Vintage vinyl is an addiction. It is always there, unfortunately, so says my wife, I always come home with an arm load of records. We go bowling and hit the malls. Sometimes its fun to go to the mall – being old men, all the cute girls look at us funny. Tonight, we are in Niagara Falls, and everybody is trying to work up the courage to go check out the falls, but it is so cold, and there is so much snow. We are Southern boys, and I don’t know if it is going to happen.

MMN – Charlie, thank you so much for your time. You have been more than generous with your time.

CS – Ok, buddy, thank you, and see you on Sunday.


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