Interview: Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr Talks ‘Holding All the Roses,’ Why Classic Artists and Vinyl Still Matter
The Georgia-based group -- lead singer and guitarist Charlie Starr, guitarist and vocalist Paul Jackson, keyboardist Brandon Still, drummer Brit Turner and bassist and vocalist Richard Turner -- blend classic rock, blues and Southern rock into catchy country rock songs. Their skillful musicianship and stellar live shows have helped Blackberry Smoke pick up legions of die-hard fans, from various genres, since releasing their first album in 2004.
'Holding All the Roses' was released digitally, on CD and on vinyl on Feb. 10. On Feb. 18, the band hits the road to tour in support of the 12-track record. The Boot spoke with Starr about the new album and tour, the band's diverse fan base and why classic music and vinyl records still matter.
You've previously said that 'Holding All the Roses' is "more up and down" as compared to 'The Whippoorwill.' What do you mean by that, and how do you think this album is different?
It's kind of a two-fold thing. As far as production, the last album was really just us playing live, and that was great. After all that, that was the album we wanted to make: a real Muscle Shoals kind of thing, for lack of a better way to put it; under-produced, if you will ... So, in going in with [producer] Brendan O'Brien, he and I were talking about what kind of record we wanted to make, and he said, "You know, you just did that. You just made the 'set up live in a room' [style of album], and it's really just you guys playing -- just the sound of the band in that room." And I said, "Yeah ... Well, we don't want to repeat ourselves."
We want to make a different record every time, if we can. As a band, it's so enjoyable to learn how to use the studio because the studio's a different animal than playing live. It's not an easy thing to capture live energy on tape, and some people beat their brains out trying to do it, and then a lot of people will learn that the studio itself is just a different instrument. You think of it, you go at it a different way. So I said, "Well, we'd like to make a record that's got more to listen to this time" -- more textures, more tone, more light and shade, you know? And so that's what we did. I think we achieved that.
And as far as the ups and downs, 'The Whippoorwill' had some different songs with different vibes, some big rock 'n' roll songs and some laid-back kind of stuff like 'Ain't Got the Blues' and 'One Horse Town,' and I think this record's got even more of that. It goes further in both directions. The song 'Holding All the Roses' may be the heaviest thing we've ever recorded. It's kind of frenetic and crazy, the way it kind of stops and starts and goes from electric to acoustic to electric to acoustic. And then 'No Way Back to Eden' is probably the most mellow song we've ever recorded. It's a really vibe-y song, you know? So that's where I was coming from with that.
We want to make a different record every time, if we can.
In between 'The Whippoorwill' and 'Holding All the Roses,' you released a live album. Was there anything you learned from making that record that you applied to this one?
The live album, no. We probably had less to do with making that album than anything else we've ever done ... We just played the show, and the engineer made sure he got every note recorded, and then I personally wanted the entire show to be on the album, and so we worked that out ... and then a buddy of ours mixed it. He just really sent the mixes over, and he's great, so I listened to it once and was like, "This is fine. This is perfect. It sounds like it sounded." So that was easy: There was no toiling over mixes, no pre-production, no talking about arrangements, the stuff that goes into making an album. Shoot, if we could make live albums for the rest of our life, that'd be the easiest thing I could think of!
But that being said, with Brendan, he made it easy as far as, we didn't have any pre-production to speak of ... I sent him all these new songs -- acoustic demos, really, of new songs, and a couple of songs that we had played live. 'Payback's a Bitch' was one, but I had a couple of live recordings of the band actually playing the songs, not just home demos. And so we just kind of talked through those a couple times. I had about 20 songs that we picked through with a fine-tooth comb ... but he was like, "You know, we'll deal with arrangements and things if there's something that needs to be addressed" ... and that's what we did. You go in, and you start to record something, and if it feels like you're playing the intro too long, if it feels like a solo is too short, or if that song needs one more chorus or one more verse or whatever, you just address that when [you're there]. Unless you're Bob Dylan, then you do exactly what you want to do!
But working with Brendan, working with a producer, you allow another set of ears into your inner sanctum really, another opinion, and that is what you want a producer for, especially someone you respect like we respect Brendan, and he was great. He was just -- the arrangements didn't change much. Where they did change, he had great ideas. 'Holding All the Roses,' he had the acoustic demo I'd made at home, and then we played the song live, and it was huge, this big rock 'n' roll song, and he was like, "I love that, yes I do, but I don't want this song to lose its acoustic demo vibe, so let's do both," and I thought that was a stroke of genius. It starts that way, and then the band comes in, and then it returns to that for a verse, and then it [does it again]. It gave that song a whole new life; it just made it so very interesting. But other than that, he's just a rock 'n' roll guy. He likes big guitars, big drums and big vocals with hair on 'em, and it was really a great experience.
Is that sound and his rock background what made you want to work with him?
He made these great records early on in his career that were the first things I ever heard where I started to know his name. He's a legendary as a guitar player, a great musician, and oh, he's a studio guy, too, and he's an engineer, and he got these great sounds. He worked on the Black Crowes' first two albums, and this band called the Four Horsemen, their first album ... and then on to Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam and Aerosmith and AC/DC and all this great stuff. He's able to have these great big vintage sounds, but it doesn't sound like it was recorded in 1970, you know what I mean? He's just good at what he does, and we knew that he would understand our kind of music as well, because that's kind of where he comes from. It was -- I think we got what we wanted with him.
Seeing [artists] live, you see exactly what they are, I guess you could say. And it's just a personal experience, when you see somebody in front of you playing the music.[/pullquotes]
You've said that your live show is where you guys really make your fans. What do you think it is about Blackberry Smoke live that really draws people in?
I don't know. I find it's probably that way with most artists, you know? Seeing them live, you see exactly what they are, I guess you could say. And it's just a personal experience, when you see somebody in front of you playing the music. It's a whole different idea than putting the CD in, and I don't know, I guess -- that's a hard question to answer. I've just seen it happen as far as having people tell me ... Like, some guy that might be a metal fan, he's like, "Saw you guys live ..." and our show is very guitar heavy -- we're a guitar band -- and metal guys love guitars, you know? So I've seen them be like, " I usually don't like this kind of music, but I like you guys," and I don't know why that is, but maybe they like our guitar playing? That could be it.
But we're not -- it's not that we've made any records that don't sound like us, you know what I mean? I go back and listen to the first record, and it still sounds like us. I mean, it sounds different -- we were different then; we were younger and in a hurry -- but as we play together, it seems like the music breathes more, and your playing and your singing will evolve, and I'm sure it will continue to here.
So do you have anything different or new planned for this tour?
Yeah, we've got some surprises. We want to always keep it fresh, not only for ticket buyers but for ourselves, so we're trying to incorporate new things. There's no choreography or anything, but short of that, there'll be new things for people to enjoy. And with the new album is a whole new batch of songs that work their way into the show, but at the same time, we'll be pulling older stuff as well. We always try and keep it a nice mixture.
You mentioned the metal fan as an example earlier, but I'm guessing the band pulls fans from a lot of different genres. Do you find that you have a pretty diverse fan base?
It seems to be so, yeah. The age range really varies, you know? ... It's all in what people find in it for themselves, I guess. They find different things. The funny thing, there's a song on the album called 'Rock and Roll Again,' and it's really just a three-chord rock 'n' roll song -- a simple three chord. That kind of thing feels good to me; it's that boogie-woogie thing, and there's not a lot of that that goes on these days. Rock 'n' roll bands even don't really play three-cord rock 'n' roll songs. That comes from Chuck Berry and the architects of rock 'n' roll -- Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Elvis [Presley] and Jerry Lee Lewis -- and they were taking that from rhythm and blues when it migrated from the south up to Chicago, and they added drums and electric instruments. There have been tons of bands over the years, the [Rolling] Stones being one, they were as well known for playing Chuck Berry tunes in the beginning as they were their own. They loved that type of American rock 'n' roll, not to mention Status Quo and the Georgia Satellites and all these bands ... It feels good; it's just that chuggin' rock 'n' roll thing.
Not to say that all the great music existed in the past ... [but] if we can keep that spirit alive, to where it's not all electronic, to where there's hands on the strings.[/pullquotes]
Anyway, my point is, this young guy [I met] in England said, "That song -- I like that song," and I said, "Thanks, man," and he said, "It sounds old." And he was probably 16, and I thought, well, that kind of playing is old, but it's rock 'n' roll, you know? It's like it was something foreign to him, and I thought, well, I need to buy you Chuck Berry's greatest hits. Give me your iPhone, and I'll download it for you. [Laughs] To me, it's simple. That's where so much of the music comes from, but they don't teach that in school, so ...
I think that's really cool that you guys might be somebody's introduction to that sound and style.
Yeah, I hope so. That would be great. I learned about the blues from the Stones and Cream and Led Zeppelin. They covered those songs, and they were quick to let people know. People who had a hunger for music, like I did as a teenager, they made those resources readily available as far as the information. They were like, "This is is a Robert Johnson song -- go find it." And you find that, and then you find something else, and you keep digging, and you keep going further and further back, and you find where it all started. That's good. If we can do that as well, perfect. That's great. Not to say that all the great music existed in the past ... [but] if we can keep that spirit alive, to where it's not all electronic, to where there's hands on the strings.
In addition to CD and digital, you're releasing 'Holding All the Roses' on vinyl, as you've done for past releases. What makes that important to you?
I got caught up in the resurgence of vinyl, and I was like so many people ... I had records and listened to records growing up with my family, and I had a lot of records that I hadn't listened to in years, and all of a sudden, I was interested in them again. And for me, I listened to a copy of 'The Whippoorwill' on vinyl and was blown away at the difference. It was full circle: Vinyl sounded like the room that we were recording in, so real and so warm and so organic. And I had spent hundreds of hours listening to mixes of the album getting it ready to release digitally, so my ears were numb to it. And then I heard the vinyl, and it came to life again. And I was like, "Oh my God, OK, the heart and soul and the mojo are in this vinyl. It hasn't been squashed by the digital format." And so the band kind of fell in line after me, and I don't know, at that point maybe it was like, "Here we go, you're jumping on the vinyl bandwagon," but I was like, "Guys, listen to this."
When you're growing up, you're not comparing. You're like, "This sounds good;" you don't have an MP3 to compare it to, but now ... And people like Neil Young and David Crosby have started to preach the idea that the MP3 is destroying music, you know? As far as the kind of music we all make where you're hoping to create some magic with human voices. Anyway, that's all complicated s--t, but it is right: There's a difference. And there are some engineers and studio guys that won't listen to an MP3; they say that it's un-listenable. I don't hear that; I can listen to it, and it's not painful to me, but the ones with the trained ear, or the audiophiles, they're like, "This is crap." But, I will say, all I know is, the vinyl sounds really good, and it's really big. The cover's really big, and that's really cool, too.