Blackberry Smoke Interview: Country Rockers Uncage ‘The Whippoorwill’
Blackberry Smoke‘s The Whippoorwill, the country rockers’ third studio album and debut project for Zac Brown‘s Southern Ground record label, was released today (August 14) to glowing reviews. Whether heartfelt ballads or uptempo party anthems, all of the album’s tracks effortlessly blend a myriad of influences from Southern rock to classic country, and showcase the band’s notoriously tight musicianship.
Lead singer Charlie Starr is confident the Georgia-based group has crafted their best set of songs yet, and gives credit to their label boss for giving them the freedom to make their own music, their own way. The Boot sat down with Charlie to talk about The Whippoorwill, the group’s future plans, and why there’s no time for holidays when you’re a band.
How did you become acquainted with Zac Brown?
About six or seven years ago, the first cruise that we were a part of with Lynyrd Skynyrd — we’ve done one each year — they were on that first cruise we were on. That was pre-nine No. 1 hits in a row! He was coming from the same place we were, swagging it out in clubs, and I actually knew a couple of guys in his band at that point but I’d never heard them. I saw them on that cruise and we all became friends. We had a blast. Zac was really, really cool. He was really complimentary. There was some mutual love and respect, being an Atlanta guy. After that, we got to do a couple shows with them on dry land, for the next year or so. Then, for him it just exploded, of course.
Having been on the same playing field with Zac for so many years, how was it to see his popularity increase so dramatically?
It was really cool for us, us meaning Georgia musicians, to watch Zac win all those awards, and have such a hot streak in his career and become the Zac Brown Band. He kept in touch, not like our pen pal or all the time, but from time to time when we’d cross paths he’d be like, “Hey, how’s it going? Do you guys need anything?” We would always be like, “No thank you, but congratulations.”
Were you actively looking for a label when Zac invited you to be part of Southern Ground?
We had found ourselves in a pickle with an independent label that we had signed with. That had happened a couple different times and it was pretty frustrating for us, because we work and tour and create and keep doing what bands do, and it just seemed like, on the business side of things, all these people we were working with were just falling apart, or falling like dominoes all around us. Finally, this last label,crumbled, and we were like, “Oh my God, why can nothing go right?” We were trying to make a new album because we were way overdue. We had been playing these songs live for a couple years, and that’s the long and short of it. It can be that way, and it’s frustrating.
What do you think made Zac interested in Blackberry Smoke?
It was kind of like he was making good on all those times he asked if there was anything we needed. He basically said, “I’ve always loved your band and I appreciate your hard work and everything that you do. If you need a home, why don’t you come shack up with me at my label.” It didn’t take a lot of thought. We were like, “That sounds fabulous. That sounds like a bunch of like-minded people working together for the same goal.”
Your music is obviously influenced by many different genres, including rock, country and soul music. How would you define Blackberry Smoke?
It’s really southern music. People will call us the southern rock band, and that’s fine. The band that that label was created for, or that term was created for, we love that music, of course — the Allman Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band, Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels and all those. But at the same time, they were very different, and they were bigger than that label and that term as well. But if it makes sense to people, that’s totally cool. It’s just southern music. Our main influences might not just be Marshall Tucker, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe — it runs the gamut for us — it’s just all kinds of stuff. That’s what makes us happy at the end of the day. So, let’s look at this album and be like, “Man there are a lot of different songs on here, and that’s cool.” The common thread that pulls them together being the south influence.
You’re known to have one of the best live shows out there. What makes your concerts so remarkable?
We do get people who come to our shows that say, “You guys sounded better tonight than the record I have.” That’s a compliment. I personally don’t look at them and go, “Oh so we made a bad record?” Everyone knows that feeling when you go see a band and they light it up even hotter than you expected. That’s our goal every night, not only for the people who have come to see us, but also for one another. You’re constantly trying to play so well that the other guys in the band are like, “Man, you did a great job. That was freakin’ amazing.” I don’t anyone to ever think that Blackberry Smoke is going through the motions.
Do you hope to have a song from The Whippoorwill on radio later this year?
I don’t know that we would even know how to go about trying to second guess what people might prefer on radio, whether it be a more rocking kind of song or a laid-back country type of song, or a back-porch bluesy kind of song. There are people who get paid lots of money to figure that out, and I’m not one of them.
If you could change one thing about the music business, what would it be?
The speed with which things are facilitated. I would make it faster. The waiting game is torture, and that’s red tape and paperwork. It’s like, “We work for a living. I don’t know what you guys do.” Sometimes I look at the business side of it and I’m like, “Really? Another holiday? Out of the office again? OK.”