By Jay Williams
If you like your rock and roll straight up, no chaser, then you’re probably already well acquainted with Blackberry Smoke. They’re for you if you’re into the real thing and by that I mean Little Feat, Led Zeppelin, Black Crowes, George Jones …
Like most great bands, the Georgia-based five-piece are true road dogs and their stagecoach pulls into Blighty later this month (a few tickets for London Roundhouse on Tuesday 28th are still available HERE).
Jay Williams caught up with their frontman, joint guitar-slinger and main songwriter Charlie Starr during some rare downtime in Sweden.
TLE: How’s the tour going so far Charlie?
CS: Oh, it’s really great, the night before we were in Stockholm and they were really singing – you find out how much English they know.
TLE: Do certain songs go over differently in different countries in Europe?
CS: Yeah, there are differences. Especially in the Scandinavian countries. They can be a little quieter during songs, you know? They’ll be a little more reserved and listen a little more intently than say fans in the UK or fans in the US for that matter. Sometimes that might throw you, you might think ‘are we bombing? What’s going on?’ But they’re just listening, you know? In Germany people seem to be a little more intent on listening, but that’s good!
TLE: How big is your crew now?
CS: There are ten people total in the touring party.
TLE: That’s quite manageable …
CS: It is, except on a day off when everybody scatters. I wouldn’t want to be the tour manager …
TLE: Are you managing to write any new material at all?
CS: I have been, yeah, here and there. I’ve got a nice small batch of songs. Sometimes that will start at the end of a record because you’re already sort of in the creative mindset. I normally start to write right after and then we’ve got a block of time off coming up after this tour is finished where I’ll have the opportunity to do some finished work and editing and get ready to start a new record.
TLE: Does the song writing process vary, do you just pick up a guitar, do you work with a portable studio, how does it work?
CS: Yeah. I’ve got a little recording device and a notebook (laughs). I’m sure if anyone got my phone and listened to my little audio notes they’d probably laugh at all the little noises and humming and those types of things … times have changed – you can almost make a record on your phone.
TLE: Let’s talk about how you came to record with (stone cold country music legend) George Jones (Charlie, the rest of the band and their pal, country singer Jamey Johnson, ended up getting together with the great man in to put down a great version of Yesterday’s Wine in 2009, a song originally written by Willie Nelson and turned into a hit duet by Jones and his fellow outlaw Merle Haggard). Check it out:
CS: Jamey is an old friend and initially the idea was to record it with Jamey. We were on the road and I called him one day and said ‘hey man, let’s go in and record a version of Yesterday’s Wine, the way that George and Merle did it, you know? He said ‘yes, let’s do it’. So we picked a day at the studio in Nashville. At that time, the label we were working with were working with George, so the president of the label said ‘hey, you want George to sing on it too?’ And I remember, I thought ‘yeah right!’ I just didn’t really think that that would happen. Then lo and behold, George is coming. I was like ‘You’re shitting me’. The day he came we had already finished the track. George came in with his wife Nancy, and the producer of the day, whose name was James Stroud – great guy, legendary producer who had worked with George before – said ‘I don’t know how much he’ll wanna do, cos he’s eighty, you know?’ He said he might sing a line or two, or he might wanna sing the whole song, who knows? He got there and he was feeling really spry and he said ‘let’s sing it, all three of us’. So we went back into the vocal booth and all three of us sang it together. It was fucking fantastic. I mean, standing next to George Jones … and the funny thing was – and this is just me being a nerd musician – he said ‘you sing the melody and I’ll sing harmony to you’. And I thought (laughs) ‘OK … George Jones is gonna sing harmony to me … that is unbelievable.’ In the pantheon of country music, there is nobody that sings a song like him. No one. His delivery and his phrasing are second to none. He was the best.
TLE: I love the way you guys weave covers into your set. You used to – you may still do – break it down during Sleeping Dogs and play part of Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks – and of course you did that cover of The Rover (from Zep’s Physical Graffiti) for a 40th anniversary tribute CD along with some other bands for Mojo mag – how did that come about?
CS: Yeah, we were asked … it was Phil Alexander, the editor of Mojo … there were several bands that were asked, a different band for every song from Physical Graffiti. Funny thing was, I was asked ‘pick a song from Physical Graffiti’ and I instantly said ‘Down By the Seaside’ and the response was ‘that one’s already taken – pick another’. I forget my second choice, but then they said ‘the only thing left is The Rover’ and I thought ‘well, you could have told me that first’. But it’s not like you can go wrong with any song from Physical Graffiti.
TLE: It’s a great cover, you didn’t fuck about with it. Did you get any feedback from Mr Page about it?
CS: I heard that he heard it and loved it and I heard that what he loved most about it was the end, cos we kinda stretched out the end … but I didn’t hear that from his own mouth, so I don’t know for sure. When we recorded it, we did it in a day. We were in the studio where we recorded the last two albums. We toyed with the idea of making some changes to the arrangement and it didn’t feel right to do that, because … it’s the fucking Rover, so we just decided to play The Rover. And when I heard the rest of the record, all those other bands that played the other songs, some of the songs are unrecognisable. In my opinion, that’s a disservice. You’re paying tribute … but that’s my opinion.
TLE: Can you remember the first gig you went to?
CS: I believe that the first big rock and roll show that I saw was Cinderella in ‘88 [big hair metal band]. And I saw The Cult – fantastic – on the Sonic Temple tour. I wasn’t allowed to go to big rock and roll concerts until about 1988. Think I was about 14.
TLE: You always have great support bands, is that something that you have input in?
CS: We do have, obviously, input. There normally will be somebody involved who has an idea of what would be a good package, and then we can ‘yea or nay’ that. But they’ve all been great. The Temperance Movement are fantastic … the Delta Saints, obviously The Biters (current support) are fantastic as well, so …
TLE: What’s playing on the tourbus at the moment?
CS: Yes, lots of Netflix. Have you seen Goliath? [New show with Billy Bob Thornton]. Oh … it’s fantastic. We finished it last night. Also, you have to get Marty Stuart’s new album. It’s called Way Out West. It’s sort of a California country kinda record. I think Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers produced it. It’s definitely the best new album of the year for me.
TLE: You’ve got a seemingly bottomless well of covers you can draw from and you’ve jammed with Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Leslie West (Mountain), Chris Robinson and Rich Robinson (ex-Black Crowes) and countless others I don’t even know about. How big is your personal encyclopaedia of songs? If I threw some song titles at you now, could you tell me if you could jam them on the night?
CS: Probably, because I’m a song nerd and a music nerd. When everybody else was getting good at baseball, I was getting good at songs. So yeah … I’m a nerd with it. I dare ya. Go ahead (laughs).
TLE: OK. Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love (Van Halen)?
TLE: Run to the Hills (Iron Maiden)?
TLE: OK here’s one for you. You ready for this? Fox Chase (Blackfoot, awesome southern rock band who flew high in the early 80s)
CS: Wow. Now, I don’t know if I could play that. I don’t know. You may have got me. We did these jams with Rickey (Medlocke, Blackfoot frontman and guitarist, who went on to join Lynyrd Skynyrd) on the Skynyrd cruises and for three years he would say ‘what do you wanna do?’ cos we were picking covers, and I said ‘I want to do Railroad Man’, the first song on No Reservations and he fucking ignored me, every year. Finally I went to his girlfriend, Stacey, and said ‘tell him that we need to do Railroad Man’ and so she did, and then he said ‘OK, cool’, so I had to go through her. We did it and it was fantastic.
TLE: Where are you at with guitars? Do you ever buy when you are over here? Any favourite music shops?
CS: I never have. I see plenty. It’s always like a guitar safari on every day off, If possible.
TLE: Are there any particular guitars that you lust after?
CS: I always gravitate towards single pick-up (Les Paul) Juniors. I’ve got several, P90 guitars … I love all guitars but I probably have more P90 guitars than any others.
TLE: People (like Gene Simmons) have talked about the ‘death of rock’ and everyone’s trying to figure out the Rubik’s cube of How To Succeed In the Music Industry but guys like you are doing it … it’s just hard yards, isn’t it? Putting the work in?
CS: That’s it. It’s dedication and perseverance and tenacity. Those three things … and maybe a little talent (laughs).
TLE: You produced your latest record (Like An Arrow) yourselves. How was that experience?
CS: It was great. We went back into the same studio with the same engineer that was used on Holding All the Roses and we had started to rehearse some new songs and they felt really natural. I think we just knew what we wanted and it was timing, because we didn’t have a producer in mind, Brendan O’Brien was actually busy, we had a small window of time open where we were off the road and we thought ‘you know what, let’s do it ourselves, and if it sucks, we’ll stop’. And it didn’t suck.
TLE: What’s your take on streaming from an artist’s point of view? Do you have strong feelings about it?
CS: Well I do … in that it’s changed the game … we’re not a band – I guess there aren’t many bands, unless you’re selling millions of copies of a record – that’s actually going to make money off selling records, but our fan base do like physical copies, so that’s good. The majority of our fans, they’re old school, they’re older people. I don’t guess that we appeal to many teenagers, for the most part. But the idea of using streaming services as a whole is pretty crooked when it comes to the artist getting ripped off. I just had a discussion the other day with Shooter Jennings (son of yet another country legend, Waylon Jennings). He was very excited and very perturbed and annoyed and said ‘I would like to have an audience with Donald Trump, as a businessman, and say “hey man, look what these streaming services are doing to artists”.’ It’s just the devaluation of the song and of the album. It sucks. Even going back to the advent of iTunes and Vince Gill, who said ‘this is a crazy idea – when a song that I wrote about somebody that I cared deeply about costs 99 cents’. You make pennies. It’s embarrassing.
TLE: That it is. You’re playing the Roundhouse when you hit London, lot of history in that place … you looking forward to that?
CS: Yeah, we were there last year for the Classic Rock awards and we performed a couple of songs with all of those people looking on … people like Jimmy Page, Alice Cooper …
TLE: Were you nervous?
CS: Very nervous. When you’re standing there staring at Jimmy Page, it’ll make you quiver a little.
So that’s it, give or take some chit-chat about The Replacements, Presley’s epic 1969 album From Elvis in Memphis and my (frankly genius) idea for the band to start selling Blackberry Smoke vaping juice. If you’re not already familiar with ‘The Smoke’, there’s still time to sort out tickets for another blistering performance from one of the best live bands of the day.