published Thursday, November 29th, 2012

Blackberry Smoke returns to Scenic City tonight at Track 29

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    Members of Blackberry Smoke are Charlie Starr (guitar/lead vocals), Richard Turner (bass/vocals), Brandon Still (keys), Brit Turner (drums) and Paul Jackson (guitar/vocals).
    Matthew Mendenhall

IF YOU GO

* What: Blackberry Smoke with Drake White.

* When: 8 p.m. Thursday.

* Where: Track 29, 1400 Market St.

* Admission: $15 in advance, $17 at the door.

* Phone: 521-2929.

* Venue website: www.track29.co.

DISCOGRAPHY

2012: "The Whippoorwill"

2009: "Little Piece of Dixie" (LP)

2008: "New Honky Tonk Bootlegs"/"Little Piece of Dixie" (EP)

2004: "Bad Luck Ain't No Crime"

By the time fans were able to get their hands on Blackberry Smoke's latest album, the band was almost more relieved than proud.

The Atlanta-based country rockers' third studio release, "The Whippoorwill," initially was stuck in a seemingly endless limbo after a series of "label debacles," according to lead singer Charlie Starr. It was released finally on Aug. 14.

In 2011, Blackberry Smoke was one of the first artists to be signed to country superstar Zac Brown's Southern Ground Records. After the move, Starr said, he and his bandmates thought they would finally get into the studio, but Brown asked them to come out on the road with him first.

The tour put them in a bigger spotlight than they could have expected to stand on their own, but the chance to play to larger audiences was blunted by the prospect of yet another delay for recording.

"We had fans who were starting to get almost angry," Starr said. "They were like, 'What are you doing? You're not doing what a normal band does, which is make an album and tour.' "

It wasn't until late last year that Blackberry Smoke finally got the chance to lay down new material at Echo Mountain Recording Studio, an Asheville, N.C. -based facility set up in a former Methodist church sanctuary.

Five days of hectic recording later, they finished tracking and overdubs. The final mix of "The Whippoorwill" was done by May, but Starr said the band was told it wouldn't be available for three months.

The tracks had turned out nearly perfect, he said, and the clamoring of fans had reached a fever pitch. Enough was enough, Starr said, and the band insisted on selling the album at shows.

Blackberry Smoke last played in Chattanooga as secondary-stage artists at Riverbend, where the album was available to buy. Material from "The Whippoorwill" will join cuts from the band's back catalog at the show tonight, Starr said.

So far, fans have responded well to the new material's introspective -- yet rousing -- tone and a sound that touches on regional styles ranging from Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque Southern rock to hill-country blues.

And fans seem to have forgiven the seemingly endless delays, Starr said.

"I'm 100 percent satisfied," he said. "I don't think we could have made a better album at the time. I hope that it's Southern in the best way possible."


Q&A

Casey Phillips spoke with Charlie Starr, lead vocalist in the Atlanta-based southern rock group Blackberry Smoke, about why their latest album was delayed and what it was like playing Madison Square Garden.

CP: “The Whippoorwill” came out Aug. 14. What’s the reaction to it been like from fans?

CS: It’s been great. It was a long waiting period for us and for fans and friends. We had been dying to make a new album for a long time as we went through some disappointing label situation debacles.

The fallout from one sort of put us in limbo for longer than we wanted to be in limbo, that’s for sure. That’s right when we signed with Zac Brown’s label, Southern Ground artists. We were wanting to go into the studio immediately to make our new album. We were chomping at the bit, but he said he wanted us to go on the road with him first. We went out did a string of dates with him, which was great. At the end of that tour, we went in the studio.

We had fans who starting to get almost angry. They were like, “What are you doing? You’re not doing what a normal band does which is make an album and tour.” There were songs were playing that would be on it at our shows, and they knew them already from YouTube videos. As exciting as it’s been, it was almost more a relief to finish it. It’s like, “God, now we can move on and, hopefully, have our schedule run like it’s supposed to.”

But no, it’s been really great, and we’re very happy. People love it, and that’s the point.

CP: What was it like to hear it mastered?

CS: When I got the finished product in my pocket, it was not to be released to the public yet for another three months. We pretty much pitched a fit over that. We were like, “There’s no way we’re going to wait another three months. It’s done; it’s ready. People who spend their money to come see us want it, and we want them to have it.”

We started selling it at shows only about three months before it came out. That had a two-pronged effect. It made the people who could get it so happy, and the people who couldn’t make it to a show to get it were furious. That was unfortunate at the time, but it’s all water under the bridge now, of course. Everyone got a pretty good shot to get it. At the time, we felt like it was the least we could have done.

CP: How long had the songs existed by the time you finally recorded them?

CS: Two or three of them, we had been playing for a couple of years. Those were songs we didn’t record for our last album, so they would have been outtakes, had they been recorded then.

That’s another thing about “The Whippoorwill,” when it was ready and not yet released, there were songs on it that nobody had ever heard and we hadn’t played live. We were dying for people to hear those songs.

CP: Such as?

CS: I think we purposefully did not play the song “Up the Road” until the album released. “Crimson Moon” was another one we didn’t play until the album was available. That was done for that reason, too. With people who had never heard us before, it didn’t matter, but for our die-hard fans who come every time we’re within four hours of their house, it was cool for them to get a couple of treats.

CP: What were your hopes going into the studio to work on it? What, if anything, did you want to do differently or better than on “Little Piece of Dixie” or “Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime?”

CS: Well, it seems to me that studio work is not just about playing live because we all play live. I actually heard Tom Petty make such a good point about this in a documentary that having the luxury of exploring the studio’s capabilities — sound wise and vibe wise — is an apple versus and an orange compared to playing live.

I think it’s a good way to look at it. Playing live is a snapshot each night, that’s a Polaroid. Playing in a studio album is your portrait or a painting; it lasts forever, and people can hold it in their hands until Doomsday.

We didn’t have a whole lot of time. We never seem to. We basically tracked the entire album in five days and a couple of days of overdub. We had a very clear, linear vision. As it worked out, just playing live in the studio was the vibe for this one because the studio itself, Echo Mountain Studio in Asheville, N.C., is a beautiful church with a sanctuary. It was a space with huge stained glass windows, and it just lent itself to a big live sound.

It’s all beautiful natural reverb. Once we got in there, we were like, “OK, this makes so much sense, especially with these songs this time.” They’re big songs. A lot of them are meant to be heard that way, as opposed to a tight, compressed environment.

CP: How satisfied are you with the results?

CS: I’m 100 percent satisfied. I don’t think we could have made a better album at the time. Each year that goes by and each album we’re involved with is a snapshot of us at the time. That’s how we play the songs right then.

It’s funny, playing songs on an album, they will evolve as time goes by and as you play them as well. I’m not a perfectionist, per se, but there are things on all of our albums that listen to now and I’m like, “Man, I should have done this or that.” I’m sure every musician is like that, but right now, I can listen to “The Whippoorwill,” cover to cover, and I’m satisfied.

CP: When were these songs written and what kinds of things were inspiring you? Listening to it, it struck me how southern it is, in terms of the topics you sing about and the specific places and things you mention.

CS: I had gone through a bit of a cycle writing before we went in the studio and decided on the 22 songs we would attempt to finish, recording wise. There was a definite Deep South cycle for me, lyrically.

The whole “Let’s get drunk and make babies” thing gets a little old from time to time. I mean, how many party songs can you write? It may be age. You get to an age where you reflect a little on what you’re made of. I started thinking about the things I’d learned in life and where I learned them.

Then, the more I looked at it when I put them all in the bucket and was sifting through them, I realized there was a lot of pseudo-religious imagery that was going on. It wasn’t purposefully done, just a happy accident. To me, that stuff is more interesting, from time to time, than a liquor-drinking song. Yeah, I hope that it’s Southern in the best way possible.

CP: Have any songs emerged from the album as crowd favorites?

CS: I hope all of them have. [Laughs.] People really seem to really be loving “Sleeping Dogs” and “One Horse Town” and “Ain’t Got the blues.” “Ain’t Got the Blues” was one of the last ones I wrote for the album. It feels good. That’s the whole premise of it anyway: That everything is right in the world at the time.

CP: Some of the tracks, like “Ain’t Much Left Of Me,” “Sleeping Dogs” and “One Horse Town” have some hook-y lyrics and seem naturally anthemic, which makes them sound very radio-friendly. Have you gotten much airplay so far?

CS: I think there’s some sporadic airplay around the country. Actually, “Pretty Little Lie,” funnily enough, has been picked as the first single and will be released at the first of the year.

We’ve never been a singles type of band; we are, for all intents and purposes, an album band. We want to make a good album. Me and the drummer, Brit (Turner), were talking about, “Do you remember the days when you went to buy so and so’s new album and every song was good? You didn’t put it on to hear one song and the rest of it was a bunch of filler or there wasn’t an AR guy standing there saying, ‘You don’t need any more songs. This song is a hit, and who gives a shit what else you put on it?’

You want it to be a sit-down-listen-to-the-whole-album experience, and when you finish it, you go, “Wow. That was a journey.” [Laughs.] I would think that’s what everyone tries to go for, but I guess not.

When people talks about singles or ask me what I think the first single should be, I’m like, “I don’t know. You tell me. That’s your field of expertise. Far be it for me to second guess what someone wants to hear on the radio, especially in this day and age.

CP: Besides the release of the album, how has this year treated you?

CS: It’s been great. We’ve never really stop touring for the past over 10 years. That’s our job; we don’t get paid if we don’t. That’s not to say that it’s more of the same because the shows have grown, the shows we headline, and it’s always a great experience to get to go open for whoever and play at a sold-out arena.

We just played a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden last Saturday. That’s the kind of thing where you literally pinch yourself and go, “This is crazy. When I was 12 years old with a tennis racquet in the mirror, did I really think this was going to happen?” And it is happening.

Eventually, we want to be the ones who are putting those asses in the seats. Hopefully, it will continue to grow, and we’ll be so lucky.

CP: What would you say has been the year’s highlight?

CS: Madison Square Garden was the highlight. We were opening for Zac Brown. It was funny because we played the Meadowlands the next night in Jersey. The Madison Square Garden night was such an exhausting day. The energy level was through the roof for everyone. It was just electric.

So the next night, it was like, “OK, is it really possible to keep the excitement level so high when it was that high last night?” I was like, “What? Are we turning into arena snobs now? Does the Meadowlands not measure up to Madison Square Garden?” [Laughs.]

But of course, everyone had stayed up until 5 a.m. the night before, so the next day, it was like zombies walking around. Of course, it was still electric because it was yet another huge arena show. They look good and sound good; that’s the experience you get addicted to.

CP: After playing those big shows, is it hard to go to shows like in Chattanooga, where you’re headlining but are playing for 1,500 people?

CS: No, it’s not. Opening slots, we only get 35 to 40 minutes to play, and that’s hard for a band that has played two-hour shows or longer of our own for years. I won’t say that we look forward more to our shows, but what we do look forward to so much more is not having the handcuffs of the time limit.

It’s hard to write that set list for 35 minutes and then pick out what not to play. We genuinely like to play every song we’ve recorded. It’s not easy.

CP: You last played in Chattanooga at Riverbend, right? Was that your first time in the city? How was the experience?

CS: We played Rhythm & Brews several times and probably elsewhere, too. I love it so much. It’s not so far from home for us, so we see a lot of familiar faces.

It’s a great place for us to play. People seem to really get it. Hopefully, the music resonates.

I’ve never been much of an abstract lyricist. It doesn’t feel so natural [to fictionalize], most of the time. It’s easy to stretch the truth a little or paint the truth a little brighter, but I’m not up to writing the novel yet.

CP: What do you expect to be playing for your show at Track 29? Are you focusing pretty heavily on “The Whippoorwill” or will you be pulling from the other albums as well?

CS: We’ll pull from all of them, really. Night to night, it’s just different based on whatever we’re feeling like playing that day. It all depends on who wants to play what.

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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