BLACKBERRY SMOKE ~ Little Piece of Dixie
Are Atlanta’s whiskey-drinking five-piece the modern voice of Southern Rock?
Words: Todd K Smith
“To stand out, you gotta earn your little piece.” ~ Charlie Starr
The Reno motorcycle convention of 2005 was a bust. The only good thing to come out of that stale showroom floor was a night of balls-to-the-wall southern fried rock under a banner that read “Blackberry Smoke ~ Too Rock for Country, too Country for Rock.” Having been tipped off to these five Georgia peaches from Ohio road warriors American Dog we knew there was a to be a surprise or two - so when guitars rose to the rafters in an overload of Marshall-induced feedback we knew the boys meant business. That was four years ago and the memory still burns. October 2009 and the beer-stained Little Piece of Dixie lands on our desk the same day as Skynyrd’s God’s & Guns. Needless to say Dixie went in the player first and, no lie, it was 1973 Lynyrd Skynyrd all over again.
Blackberry Smoke are no overnight sensation in fact, it’s amazing Charlie Starr (vocals, guitar), Paul Jackson (guitar, vocals), brothers Richard (bass) and Brit Turner (drums) with recently added Brandon Stills (keys) are still together. “Oh yeah, we’ve had our ups and downs,” says Starr in a thick southern draw when he call to chat about their new record. “But we live for the road so we just keep rollin’ on.” The road has been a good teacher for the gritty rockers. It was the road that brought together Starr and brothers Turner for a recording session in NYC. “The session tanked but we became friends over it,” continues Starr. The road brought Paul Jackson to the band and after a gig with the Black Crowes, got them christened Blackberry Smoke by a stoned out Chris Robinson. Along the endless mile they rubbed shoulders with many of rocks elite and established meaningful relationships with ZZ Top, Shooter Jennings and Cross Canadian Ragweed.
Being heralded as Southern Rock new young guns is fine with BBS, they wear it like a badge of honor. “We’ve been at this since…well for a long time,” shines Starr. “Our first record Bad Luck Ain't No Crime came out in 2003 and it’s done pretty well. Defiantly got us started in a big way. We did a couple EPs (New Honky Tonk Bootlegs, Little Piece of Dixie-mini) mainly to sell at our live shows. We had so many different things happen while making this new record and it took so long, EPs seemed to buy us the time we needed. Before we started recording in Nashville, we had demo 20-22 songs that we had written after the first album. We recorded those in Atlanta in two different studios. When we had two or three days in a row where we weren’t traveling or gigging we’d go write or record. We are always working, that’s what we do is create music.”
Though the band was based out of Atlanta they made frequent visits up to Nashville, not only to play with the big boys but also to meet and write with a host of acclaimed songwriters. “Through that time from 2006-08 we were meeting Nashville people who kept encouraging us to come up there to record,” says Starr. “Once we headed up there, we hooked up with other writers. We had never done that before. I never met someone and the next minute was writing a song with them. For a lot of writers in Nashville, that’s the time clock they punch everyday. That took some getting used to.” But the process eventually suited the band and the ideas and songs started to flow. “The writers that we wound up sticking with are friends for life now,” says Starr. “They’re the kind of guys that say, “Next time you’re up here, we’re writing!”
After a couple dozen songs made their way from paper to the stage and were tested live, the next step was to snag a producer who understood the band and their sound. “I’d heard of Dann Huff before I’d heard of his old band Giant,” reflects Starr. “I heard him play the guitar and couldn’t believe his skill. He had just finished doing a record with Keith Urban and instead of taking a break he came down to see one of our shows in Atlanta. We didn’t get to speak with him very much that first night. The club was real crowded and Brit (drummer) stepped off the stage and almost broke his leg. So we had quite the crisis afterwards. Dann left and promised to call the next day. He did, bright and early, said we were an exciting band to watch and agreed to record us. He wanted us to set up and play just like we do live.”
“He also wanted to re-record ‘Sanctified Women’ off the first record ‘cause he loved the open chord and grove between bass and drum. From then on we ran everything by him. With Dann we picked out eleven tracks that made it on to this record. We were so busy touring, we really didn’t have a chunk of time to spend with Dann and Justin Niebank the other producer. We’d go in for a couple days then back out on the road, then three weeks later go back in and record for another couple days.” Most of the songs had matured on the road but a couple, were new and ripe for the picking. Continues Starr, “Blues-rocker ‘Like I Am’ and the country-edged ‘Prayer for the Little Man’ we hadn’t played live, we’d only demoed them with acoustic guitar. ‘Prayer for the Little Man’ it’s a heart heart-tugger - we wrote it with Craig Wiseman, a guy whose written a string of country hits and really got into the emotion of the song.”
Each tune had it own particular story that made it fit the mood the band were after for the record. “Who Invented The wheel” and “Bottom of This” are classic examples using feel and clever lyrics to drive the song home. “I’d Be Lyin’ was co-written with Darrell Brown,” says Starr. “We had just met him that day and he’s a character, just vivacious and full of energy. We sat facing one another on a couch and the lyrics just started bouncing back and forth, I’d say one line then he’s say another. It’s almost like it wrote itself. Other songs I really put a lot of thought into.” Starr flashes back to something he’d heard as a struggling writer. “Harlan Howard, an old Nashville songwriter would always say to younger songwriters, ‘Write it better, no matter what you do, write it better’. People aren’t going to respond if your just saying it the same old way. To stand out, you gotta earn your little piece.”
A big addition to Little Piece of Dixie is the inclusion of “Up In Smoke” the group’s guitar-fueled anthem from last year. “We wrote that song with a guy named Randy Houser,” says Starr. “What I can remember is that it was one of those days when we were all really hungover. Nobody was fellin’ much like writing. We eeked out the chorus, then someone broke out a liquor bottle just to get us through - a little hair of the dog if you will. When I got home, I worked up the verses on the lazy boy. The next time we got together as a band we blasted it out at full volume and decided right then, it was a keeper. Crosstown publishing took it to EA Sports and got it included in the ’08 NASCAR game. It reaches a lot more people than we ever thought possible.”
Starr changes gear to talk about one of his favorite songs on the album. “Like I Am’ was a blues-flavored song I’d just written with Travis Meadows. When we set down in the room the day we wrote that song, the guitar riff came out first. We were playing acoustic guitar and that particular riff popped out. I immediately thought it was something Paul Kossoff would have played. It was that little thing in A that he did quite often - that suspended chord. Then Rich started playing bass and the drums came in. It immediately worked for us. We’re big fans of that Free/Bad Company sound. The other thing we did was polish off the record with ‘Freedom Song’. We liked the way Blackfoot and The Outlaws would do a jam song live. That is “Freedom Song” for us. In old bluegrass and fiddle circles, the signal to end the song is when someone sticks their foot into the circle. It’s usually the person taking the last solo. Sometimes it’ll go all night.”
Fans of classic rock as much as outlaw country, Blackberry Smoke know how to win an audience. A forceful rhythm section, two guitars and backing keys have injected massive crowd appeal into their determined songwriting. “We had the chance to play with Slash on a couple live dates,” says Starr. “He came up on stage and we did ‘Highway to Hell’ and ‘Honky Tonk Women’ - it was unbelievable. He was standing beside us, chainsmokin’, black hat on - man, he’s the real deal when it comes to rockstars. His presence speaks volumes. That how it’s done, man! If a band can’t deliver live then I don’t want it. We’re the kind of band to jump up in front of 10,000 people and grit ‘em down. We’ve waited so long to release this album, we want to get out there and promote it - win their hearts and see ‘em for the next forty years.”
Loyal fans don’t come more dedicated than southern rock enthusiasts. So it’s the news that Blackberry Smoke recently got the green flag on a mini-tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd that has put the band over the moon. “We’re doing seven shows with them for the end of October and the beginning of November,” exclaims Starr. “Man, it will be like a traveling Southern Rock tent revival.”
Website: Blackberry Smoke
Blackberry Smoke will be a feature attraction at the 2010 Sweden Rock Festival. Click here for more info.