Southern rock favorites Blackberry Smoke return to DeLuna Fest in 2012. The band previously played the inaugural 2010 festival. / Special to GoPensacola.com
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Those who yearn for the Lynyrd Skynrd sound of Southern rock ’n’ roll, take note: Atlanta-based Blackberry Smoke is returning to Pensacola for DeLuna Fest, and is not pulling any punches. Lead singer and guitarist Charlie Starr shared over the phone what it was like to record their newest album, “The Whippoorwill,” and has exactly the attitude that you expect from a long-haired rock and roller raised on gospel and bluegrass but honed on a Les Paul. This band is definitely not slick and shiny, and they prefer it that way.
Q: So are you guys actually from Atlanta, or are you from outside the city?
A: Well, we’re not actually from Atlanta. Two people are — the brothers — our bass player and drummer [Richard and Brit Turner, respectively]. They are from Atlanta, but the rest of us, the other three; I’m from Auburn, Ala., or rather just north of there. Brandon Still, our piano player, is from Lancaster, S.C.; and Paul Jackson, our guitar player, is from Pensacola. We always say the band is from Atlanta, because that’s where we formed. That’s where we call home. It was just one of those stories that you always find … Atlanta was the closest big city for all of us to wind up, to play and find a music scene to play original music.
A: Do you think it’s been easier for Blackberry Smoke to get their start in Atlanta rather than going to someplace like Nashville?
A: Yeah, because for Nashville, we don’t have that identity really — we don’t share that identity that artists and bands from Nashville do. And that changes over the years, too. Nashville seems now like it’s so pop oriented. There’s not a whole lot of — nothing that’s on the radio anyway — anything that’s hugely successful that’s really got some heart and soul to it. Over the years, if anybody had mentioned moving to Nashville, I personally was not a supporter of that idea. We’re doing just fine where we are. I mean, this is our home. We recorded our previous album, “Little Piece of Dixie,” in Nashville at a few different studios, but we were a little bit removed there, because we were doing exactly what we wanted to do. We didn’t have a label breathing down our necks, saying, “this song’s too long, this song’s too loud,” you know? Dan Huff and Justin Niebank produced it. They were totally like, “we want you guys to make the record that you want to make. We want to make a record that sounds like you.”
Q: That was “Little Piece of Dixie,” right?
A: Yeah, and the new album, “The Whippoorwill,” is an even greater example of that because, I don’t know, it shows that we added Brandon Still on piano and that has helped broaden the sound of Blackberry Smoke. So this album is a really good showcase for him and what he’s brought to the table musically. And also, we had the reins even more in this case.
Q: Do you think joining Zac Brown’s Southern Ground label had to do with that also? Because “Little Piece of Dixie” was more of an independent thing, right?
A: Yeah, it was. It totally was. It was no label deal at all. Dan Huff just really loved our band and our music; he did business with us and it wasn’t a work-for-hire from a record label. It was just that he wanted to be involved in the project that we were undertaking. So this time, we waited and waited and waited to make a new album and we had been playing a lot of those songs that are on “Whippoorwill” live, so we definitely were more comfortable this time just because we had been playing most of the material for a long time, so it wasn’t … I don’t know — I really haven’t sat down and talked about it much, about the details of how the records are different. It was a different studio; different way things are set up. We were getting different sounds in the room and this one sounds a bit more organic to me, a bit more “raw.” I read where somebody said something about the production of this album [“Whippoorwill”], about it being more “country” [that slick Nashville sound] which is absolute horse [dung]. I don’t know what has stopped up their ears, but it’s like, okay. If you are comparing the two, “Little Piece of Dixie” was a rock ’n’ roll record, too, but this one sounds like it’s recorded on your back porch. To even think that this album was overproduced is incorrect, by a long shot. But you know, people have opinions that I can’t change.
Q: Well, that’s why we do interviews — to get your point of view!
A: I actually read a review of the album not long ago where the guy made the accurate description, where he said that this album — whereas “Little Piece of Dixie” may have been a little bit slicker and brighter in spots — “The Whippoorwill” sounds like it was recorded in (legendary soul haven) Muscle Shoals (, Ala.). That was the vibe that we all had in there doing it. It was like, “Man, this sounds like a greasy soul record at times.” It’s got a vibe.
Q: Do you think because of your family being so musically inclined and growing so exposed to many musical influences that it helped create the perfect storm for the eventual formation of Blackberry Smoke?
A: Yeah, my dad plays bluegrass and gospel music and my grandmother played piano and mandolin and sang gospel music, and hillbilly music, really. So I grew up being taught how to do that and then I got a Les Paul and added volume to the equation. [laughs]
Q: With Blackberry Smoke being labeled a Southern rock band, but having so many elements of gospel and bluegrass in addition to opening for and joining the record label of the Zac Brown Band, could you see Blackberry Smoke being considered a sort of crossover band, or is that just the beauty of Southern Rock as a genre?
A: Well, yeah, I think that it is the beauty of the genre, and if you really listen to Marshall Tucker and the Allman Brothers Band, you hear that they were adding a lot of exactly what we are adding, too. It was a huge melting pot for them as well. They had gospel additions and jazz additions and country and hillbilly influences. So if that makes more sense for people to consider that country music because it has that leaning to more of a country-style feel, that’s perfect for us, you know? I mean, we are a rock ’n’ roll band, I would say, but I think that the lines have been blurred over the years. They get blurrier and blurrier.
Q: So being from Atlanta, I have to assume you have played most of the venues there. Do you have a favorite Atlanta spot? I can easily see Blackberry Smoke playing the Southern Comfort, that little honkytonk east of the city, and fitting in perfectly.
A: We played there! Years ago, it was crazy. And we went next door to the strip club at one point in the middle of the night and there was one crossed-eyed stripper with tennis shoes on, that’s all. [laughs] I [also] always loved Smith’s Olde Bar, that’s a favorite. I’ve just seen so many cool shows in that place and we’ve played there a lot. I miss the old Cotton Club. That was a good venue. We’ve got this show coming up on Sept. 8 at the Masquerade Music Park, which is behind the Masquerade [music venue].”
Q: I was going to ask you about that. I read that it will be the first Brothers and Sisters Music Festival and that the North Mississippi All-Stars and Unknown Hinson, who plays here in Pensacola pretty regularly, will be headlining with Blackberry Smoke.
A: Yeah, it’s going to be great. We’ve wanted to do something like that for a long time and it just seemed like the right time to get it going.
Q: So Blackberry Smoke was the driving force behind this?
A: It was our brainchild from the ground up, from the word “go.” It’s funny because it sort of happened quickly. Well, not sort of — it definitely happened quickly! This is just the first one and we hope it grows; we hope to do it every year. It was quite the undertaking. There were all these bands that we invited and the ones that are coming were definitely on the short list, but there were a ... ton more bands that were not available, that we couldn’t work out getting on with us. And that’s not to sound negative at all — this is a great line up, but hopefully it will get bigger and better every year.
Those who yearn for the Lynyrd Skynrd sound of Southern rock 'n' roll, take note: Atlanta-based Blackberry Smoke is returning to Pensacola for DeLuna Fest, and is not pulling any punches.
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