Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke

by Leslie Michele Derrough

With four studio albums, three EPs and a live compilation, Blackberry Smoke has continued to blaze a trail through rock and roll, heavily impacted by their southern roots. Their sound is so undeniably a blend of country, blues and hillbilly jamming that a concert is more of an experience than a simple live rendering of their greatest hits. With the addition of rock flavors and the one-two punch of Paul Jackson's guitar and Brit Turner's drums, you're hooked for life.

"We've built our audience one fan at a time," Turner said about the band's evolution, which began in Georgia. "We've worked a lot of years," vocalist Charlie Starr told me during a 2011 interview for Glide magazine about the band's struggle to be where they are today. "We started traveling immediately when we formed the band. We hadn't been together a month and we were out on the road for a month opening for Jackyl." An interesting ticket for sure, and one that shows their versatility: One day they can play a festival with Big Freedia and My Morning Jacket, and the next be honoring George Jones at the Ryman. It's just the way they roll.

Their 2015 record, Holding All The Roses, was produced by Brendan O'Brien, who is known for his work with Pearl Jam, AC/DC and Soundgarden. It debuted at #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and made it into the Top 10 of the Rock Albums chart as well. "I think that this record does a really good job of conveying what we do and what we're about," Starr stated upon the record's release.

We talked with Starr about his creative processes and some of the songs that have become staples in the Blackberry Smoke setlist.
Leslie Michele Derrough (Songfacts): I understand that you come from a big musical family. Did you ever think for a moment that you would do anything else but music?

Charlie Starr: Yeah, I worked on cars for a long time and music was just a hobby. Obviously, the goal was to make music for a living, but the reality was working on cars for a long time [Laughs]. It took a while - a lot of dedication and hard work.

Songfacts: What was the turning point where you decided to do this for a living?

Starr: Well, when we formed Blackberry Smoke and we bought a van, we decided that we were going to quit our jobs and do it. It's easier to make that decision when you make it as a committee.

Songfacts: Was there a special moment that inspired you to write your very first song?

Starr: I had a girlfriend and I wrote a horrible song for her [Laughs]. I was about 15.

Songfacts: And you haven't recorded that song, I assume.

Starr: No, no, no

Songfacts: What was the first song that you wrote that you played live professionally?

Starr: Gosh, I can't remember. I had a couple of bad songs back then. I was about 18 years old and I had a band and we played them in bars, but I can't remember the names of those.

Songfacts: How do you create songs?

Starr: It can happen different ways. The guitar riff can come first or melodies but the thing about technology these days is you've always got a little machine in your hands, your cell phone, where you can put ideas down no matter where you are. But I do it different ways.

Songfacts: I heard you really don't like to write on the road though.

Starr: It becomes necessary but it's just harder because each day is geared towards the performance that night. So you've got soundcheck to do and there's not a lot of downtime on our show day. If so, we're probably eating or going to record stores. It's easier to just go home and do it.

Songfacts: Do you remember what the first song was that you heard where the lyrics really popped out to you?

Starr: I think it was "Sympathy For The Devil," and I was old enough to actually understand what that song was about. That's the kind of song you hear so many times throughout your life on the radio or in your song collection of music, you sort of stop listening really. You're hearing it, but you may not be listening. We performed it at a show and Kevin Kinney from Drivin N Cryin sat in with us and we shared the vocals. We were talking about how the lyrics to this song are just incredible, what a statement.

Blackberry Smoke received their earliest attention in the north, playing in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. When they'd come back home to play in Georgia, "we'd play for nobody," Starr said. With little or no radio airplay, "It was tough, discouraging, but then little by little we just kept working and we traveled all over."
Songfacts: The south is such a big ingredient in your music. What do you think is the heartbeat of the south that keeps that vibe and that sound in your music?

Starr: Oh it's definitely the imagery and the folklore that is passed down from generation to generation. Jokes, the way people speak, everything about it.

Songfacts: So many of your songs sound like they are inspired by real people in real situations.

Starr: It is and it can be a composite. If you run out of interesting stuff then you have to start making it up.

Songfacts: The crowd always goes crazy for your song "Up In Smoke."

Starr: Randy Houser, he's a co-writer on that song. He sat down and said, "Let's write a song called 'Blackberry Smoke'" and I said, "No, that's a horrible idea." So we wound up writing "Up In Smoke." It's not necessarily a deep statement. It's really just a road song, a fun song. It's not altogether complicated - you have to have songs like that. You have love songs and sad songs and murder songs, and then you have fun songs, and that's one.

Songfacts: Who was "Angeline" based on?

Starr: That was a friend of mine years ago, a drummer that I used to play with. That was his girlfriend and it was based on her. That wasn't her name, actually, but he was an older guy, older than I was at the time. I was in my late teens and he was probably in his late 20s. He had a young girlfriend and she left him and took off. That's where that came from.

In 1959, George Jones had his first hit single with a song called "White Lightnin" written by JP Richardson, who was better known as The Big Bopper. Jones would go on to have 12 more #1 country hits over the next 30 years, most notably "He Stopped Loving Her Today," "She Thinks I Still Care" and "Yesterday's Wine," a duet with Merle Haggard. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and passed away in 2013 at the age of 81.
Songfacts: You recorded "Yesterday's Wine" with George Jones and Jamey Johnson in 2009. What kind of moment was that for you?

Starr: It was intimidating, to say the least, as he was the world's greatest country singer. I think most people can agree on that. But he was very gracious and a jolly fellow. We got the work done quickly. It all happened really quickly. I wish that it had lasted longer, actually, but it was just one afternoon and then he finished it and said goodbye. We do have a video of it all, and it's great to go back and watch that. It was such an honor to get to work with him.

Songfacts: Didn't you get to sing with him live?

Starr: Yeah, it was his last show at the Ryman and Jamey Johnson and I were going to go down and do a trio at George's show that night, and Jamey wound up not being able to go - he was held up somewhere else on the road or something. I didn't know George really that well and I thought, Oh well, I guess we won't do it. But his management said, "No, come on down and do it anyway."

We just did it without Jamey, and it was great. I was just terrified. It was a sold-out show at the Ryman, and his show, so his fans had no idea who I was. And he didn't do a real good job of letting them know who I was, so it was a little bit awkward. I walked out onto the stage and you could hear a pin drop, like, "Who is this guy? What is he doing up there with George?" [Laughs]. But it turned out to be a good thing.

Songfacts: I bet it was an honor.

Starr: It was, and he sang it beautiful.

Songfacts: What can you tell us about "Prayer For The Little Man"?

Starr: That's another composite kind of song. It comes from divorce and sharing custody of children. All of it comes from my experience and growing up that way. That line, "phone calls in the hallway," and all that kind of stuff, that was from experience.

Songfacts: What about the song on the last album, "Too High."

Starr: It's kind of a dark subject. It's about making methamphetamine. People getting wrapped up in that lifestyle. These are really good people that I grew up with, and then I watched them get sucked into that lifestyle. It changes who you are, or seems to. Some people come out on the other side but not all of them.

Songfacts: In what ways do you think Blackberry Smoke has evolved the most since the first album you made, and how is that showing up on the latest album?

Starr: Each record, musically, is more and more cohesive in my opinion. And we've settled down quite a bit. I look at the first record and see we were really in a hurry. There was a lot of passion and energy there. And as you get older you find your groove a little more.

Hopefully, the songs get better and the music as well. The whole package. But the goal is to make a better record each time. I don't know if we necessarily do that, but we try. And we try not to repeat ourselves, make music that continues to be interesting for our fans and ourselves - trying not to be formulaic.

Songfacts: You guys did "Workin' For MCA" for the Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute concert in 2014.

Starr's father was a bluegrass guitar player who taught him his first chords when he was 6 years old. After quickly losing interest, it was when he heard rock bands like Aerosmith and Van Halen at 11 that sparked his desire to make music.
Starr: It was live and a tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. We picked it off a short list. We actually picked initially "The Ballad Of Curtis Loew" but John Hiatt had already picked it so we were like, Okay.

Songfacts: What can you tell us about "Shakin' Hands With The Holy Ghost" from The Whippoorwill album?

Starr: That is one of our songs that harkens back to the wilder days when we were younger. There was lots of temptation around, of the female persuasion and the narcotic persuasion. But that's a party song. There are some specifics but I can't really tell you because that's a secret [Laughs]. You can't give away everything, right?

Songfacts: Who are your Three Wise Men of songwriting – the three songwriters who have inspired you the most?

Starr: That's tough, only three. Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt... can I count Lennon/McCartney as one?

Songfacts: Yes.

Starr: Okay, and Bob Dylan. Those people write songs that serve different purposes as far as influences go.

Songfacts: You've toured with ZZ Top. Did they ever ask you to come onstage and sing a song with them?

Starr: No, Billy's gotten up and jammed with us before but they have the thing that they do at their show. Jeff Beck would get up and play with them but none of us are Jeff Beck [Laughs]. So we'd just enjoy their show. But we've toured with them before, years ago back in 2008-2009, and we have been working hard since then so now we see a lot more Blackberry Smoke T-shirts out there. It's a great experience to tour with them. It's a good fit.

January 20, 2016
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Group photo by Matt Mendenhall; live photos by Leslie Michele Derrough

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Comments: 13

  • The Smoke Will Spread from Monroe Michiganlove these guys very great musicianship the whole band is pure talent underated and there one of the best bands out to
  • Hank from KyBlackberry Smoke are a gift from the heavens. They have gave me a new interest in music that I had lost over time. With all the fake music out there you have to weed through the bulls--t to find the artist that are truly speaking to you.
  • Ron Wilkinson from Syracuse, NySome of the best music being played today. If you get a chance, check out them live. You won't be sorry. Rock'n'roll at its finest!
  • Lyle Maurico from Woostock GaGreat interview! Blackberry Smoke is the most genuine rock-n-roll band to come along in decades.
  • Jackie Studdard Jackson from Elmore City OkThat was great we need more of it BBs is fantastic group need to hear more why don't they have air time I don't understand
  • Laura from GeorgiaBeen following these phenomenal artist since meeting them on the smc cruises..great band..true and genuine family men and great talent. Great article ! Fan for life !! Once you see BlackBerry Smoke live ... you're hooked :)
  • Robin from EatontonGeorgia LOVES BBS!
  • Kim Strohacker from Davie County, North CarolinaGreat article. We have been following these guys since the Simple Man Cruise V where we first saw them......a class act. And will be on Outlaw Cruise for our next experience. Thanks for the interview!
  • Bob White from Fresno Ca.Love It!
  • Peg Iodice from UsaGreat interview with Charlie Starr and Blackberry Smoke is awesome.
  • Pavel Horáček from Czech Republic Thanks you for great interview with my favorite BBS with Charlie Starr
  • Tanila from Johns Creek, GaWhat a great interview! I really enjoyed it!
  • Tanila from Johns Creek, GaWhat a great interview!!!
see more comments

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