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Interview with Georgia’s own Blackberry Smoke (Includes interview)

Major success has been a long time in coming for pleasantly underhyped Atlanta-based quintet Blackberry Smoke. Fifteen years of building up their now considerable fan base in the time-honoured fashion – through non-stop touring, word of mouth promotion and impressively well-crafted tunes – has finally started to pay off.

Upon its release, their fourth album Holding all the Roses, produced by acclaimed knob twiddler Brendan O’Brien, went straight in at number one on the Billboard Country Charts, bettering their previous effort The Whippoorwill, that peaked at a still very respectable number eight in 2012.

Mr. Charlie Starr spoke to me from Lincoln, Nebraska, where he and his buddies are enjoying a rare day off a week into yet another mammoth cross-country trek. I began by congratulating him on his first number one record. “Thank you very much, man. I was just talking to Brendan O’Brien last night and he said that that was actually his first country number one…”

“As soon as the record was finished, we felt like we had something special,” continues the thirty-something musician, who penned 11 of the album’s 12 tracks by himself (“Lay It All on Me” was co-written with Travis Meadows), in answer to the question of whether the high chart placing came as a surprise.

“We’re very proud of it and it’s a funny world we live in when a rock ‘n’ roll band has the number one country record.”

A sign, perhaps, that the bro-country dominance might be coming to an end? “God, I hope so! But that kind of thing, we don’t hang our hat on anything like that. It really is a night by night job – a way of life for us. You know, show by show, record by record and if people like it – if it does well – that’s just icing on the cake.

“What matters most to us are the people who are buying and listening to the music. They put it at number one and we’re so grateful that people are enjoying it. That means we’ll keep going. We’ll tour and promote this album and then make another one and continue to do what we love to do.

“It’s always a funny thing when you put a record out and start to see reviews and things like that. It’s interesting to see how people react… When you create something together that you love so much and then to see what other people think about it is really interesting.”

Which songs particularly stand out for the charismatic bandleader?

“I really like ‘No Way Back to Eden‘ – I love the way that turned out. It’s just got a special groove and a vibe, to me. I still listen to the album a lot right now and I think I’ll do that for a while, and then I won’t because we’ll be playing them every night! I like ‘Fire in the Hole‘ a lot… ‘Payback’s a Bitch’ I think turned out really well also. I’m just happy with all of it right now.”

It is not just the critics who love Blackberry Smoke, long time labelmates of the Zac Brown Band on the bearded one’s very own label Southern Ground (the band now reside at Rounder Records), legendary figures of American popular music have also been forthright in singing their praises.

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top joked, “The band is tight enough. Quit practising!,” while Gregg Allman enthused, “That band is gonna put Southern Rock back on the map.”

“When it comes right down to it, we’re really just playing the music that feels comfortable to us,” notes Charlie, when asked whether his group are “flying the flag,” as it were, for the above-mentioned genre. “We never said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna be a Southern Rock band.’

“It’s just the music that comes out of our fingers and mouths and all musicians are influenced – and what you’re influenced by comes out in the music that you play.

“To have Gregg Allman or Billy Gibbons or Gary Rossington or whoever say that is a huge honour, but I don’t think we’ve ever thought long and hard about considering what genre our music is. It just feels natural.”

As touched upon earlier, the five members of Blackberry Smoke (Charlie, guitarist and vocalist Paul Jackson, bass player/vocalist Richard Turner, keyboardist Brandon Still and drummer and main man as far as the band’s artwork is concerned, Brit Turner), who collaborated with the late George Jones on a memorable track called “Yesterday’s Wine,” hail from Atlanta, Georgia.

What is about that part of the world that has produced so many great artists over the years, from The Black Crowes and Blind Willie McTell to Outkast and Collective Soul?

“I don’t know,” ponders Charlie. “I think Bono said in the Muscle Shoals documentary that great music usually comes from close to a river and we’re right there at the Chattahoochee…

“He was talking about Liverpool and Memphis and Muscle Shoals. I don’t know, maybe there’s something to that – maybe there’s something in the mud?”

Holding all the Roses is out now.

For more information on Blackberry Smoke, visit their official website.

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