Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr on modern country – “It’s heartless”

Southern rock giants Blackberry Smoke are taking steps forward with the latest album release Like An Arrow. They recently played two sold out shows in Stockholm (Münchenbryggeriet) and Gothenburg (Pustervik) and have been visiting Sweden on a regular basis for the last couple of years. The frontman Charlie Starr is a humble and pragmatic guy with the biggest sideburns in showbiz. He met Rockbladet in the tour bus just outside Debaser Medis at their visit in Stockholm 2015. 

Annons
Annons

What do you between the gigs and soundchecks?
"We do different things. I go to record stores and music stores looking for guitars. Some people go out drinking but not me I'm not drinking anymore. I'll let them do that. As a vocalist it's not as easy, the older you get. I'm 41 so… I used to go out and party and still sing but you get older, it gets harder. No alcohol for 10 years. And I am trying to quit smoking as well and that's fucking hard. Definitely harder than not drinking."

What did the name Blackberry Smoke come from?
"Chris Robinson from Black Crowes gave it to us. He's a friend. We were in the beginning trying to come up with a band name and he helped – 'What about Blackberry Smoke?'

You write almost everything, how is the songwriting process?
"Normally I write almost everything at home when I have time off. I have a house out in the country where it's quiet. My wife can get busy elsewhere and let me work. But I also write stuff on the road in the bus. When inspiration strikes you have to take advantage of it. I've co-written some songs over the years with friends outside the band, songwriters. I am not crazy about that except for one guy, his name is Travis Meadows. He and I have a kinship as songwriters. I was not interested in technology before, I was old school and was making demos on acoustic guitar, shaker and congas. I've got pretty much every Blackberry Smoke song in that format. But this year I got a new laptop and Garage Band has been updated and the drums sound in it are incredible! There are real drum sounds. When I first played this to our drummer Brit he was like 'Who is this, are you replacing me???'

Charlie plays Let It Burn from Garage Band and it sounds amazing. "The only sound I make is the singing. I was able to sit here in the bus with a lot of sounds around me and make this. So it's fun for demos."

Are the other guys interested in writing songs?
"Not as much as me. That usually falls on someone in a band or maybe two people. Nobody ever comes forward with complete songs. But Brandon, the piano player, we have co-written a couple of songs. He comes up with a piano or organ melody.

So you have a complete song that you bring into the studio?
Yes, but sometimes we tweak arrangements or make small changes. But we have always been, as far as on record, we sort of come from the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers school of arrangements. Which is in essence like the Beatles and the Stones. It's economical, less is more. So we don't have any 10 minute long song, we haven't written our prog masterpiece. Just rock and roll songs. The difference between Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers was that Allman was more of a jam band and Skynyrd was more song oriented. We lean more to Skynyrd in that mindset. "

But then you need to write Blackberry Smoke's Free Bird?
"Yeah, people say that a lot. How do you do that? Haha, I wish I had the recipe for that!"

Influences more than Lynyrd Skynyrd?
I grew up playing bluegrass music and hillbilly music. Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. That came from my father. But my mother, she liked the Stones, Beatles, Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart. And then I found Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. We never sat down and said we would become a southern rock band. We are just a rock 'n' roll band from the south. I think it's just the way it sounds when we play together. We definitely never said that we wanna be like anybody."

Are you into the more modern type of country?
"Not really, not radio country. In fact I hate it. I don't think I dislike any music more. It's so predictable and so cheesy and formulatic. It's heartless. There are exceptions – Sturgill Simpson, Jamey Johnson, Dale Watson and Dwight Yoakam. There are a lot of bands making great music but they are not commercial acceptable.

We talk about the Grand Ole Opry-thing wich is very commercial, slick and boring. A musical historical thing to visit if you´re in Nashville though.

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Do you have time to see any concerts?
"I went to see Slash on Download. And Billy Idol, Kiss and Mötley Crue. I watched Backyard Babies at Sweden Rock and they were great, I have not head them before Merle Haggard was the last concert. You need to see those old guys before it's too late, like Willie Nelson." .

Merle Haggard passed away a couple of months later. None of us got to see the great Johnny Cash which is sad of course.

What do you think about the music industry today with streaming services like Spotify and so on?
"For a band like us it helps and it hurts. It helps because it makes our music more available for people who are not aware of us. But in these days you cannot hang your head on record sales anyway, as far as making a living. We would love to sell a couple of million copies of our records. But Dave Grohl made a nice point, he said 'When we make a record it's really just to make our fans happy and make them continue to wanna see the shows'. And I agree with that but when I look at our royalty statement and I see how little Spotify pays for playing our songs it's a little insulting. We don't get that much radio plays a part from Sirius XM satellite radio channel with Outlaw Country. The have been supporting us. We are gonna attend their Outlaw Cruise with Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, Bobby Bare and Shooter Jennings. Steve Earle is one of mine biggest songwriter influences."

Merchandise is a bigger business today than record sales?
"Yes, it is. Brit is doing all our merch so it stays in house. That's important you know, cause it's all part of the process. The image of a band is important, some people may not think so but it is. Someone spends their money on a t-shirt with your name and logo on, it's very flattering. The are a walking billboard for your music. Brit does a great job with our merchandise which we all are very proud of.

The setlist for each night, who decides that?
"I write it a couple of hours just before the shows usually, We switch it a bit you know, to play different stuff each night. And there is a lot to choose from. We don't necessary play a completely different set of songs every night. You find things that go very well together. There are so many different songs that people would be irritated if you didn't play. You find a few songs that you are very fond of opening with and some that you're really fond of closing with. And then just fill in the blanks in-between. It would really be a bummer to play the exact same shit every night. And a lot of bands do that. Some people don't mind but we have a lot of people that come to multiple shows. I think that's because they know that we are not going to play the exact same thing every night. Especially in the States where people are following us around a la Grateful Dead. If you look at a Dead show in the 70's they kind of did the same thing, opening with the same song and closing with the same songs and mixing it up between. It gives people something to look forward to maybe." 

We talk about the difference between the setlists of AC/DC and Springsteen where the former has pretty much played the same bunch of songs since 1981 and the latter changes eveything from show to show. "With AC/DC's type of production with the bells and the canons and so many people are working behind the scenes it's probably diificult to change so much." Neil Young played like 15 songs that nobody has ever heard of and closed with one hit some years ago in Stockholm I tell Charlie and Neil has been doing the same thing before: "Right before he released Tonight's The Night. He played that whole album and people wanted to hear Old Man and Heart Of Gold and he actually got booed. But in the end he said 'I know you people came here to hear some songs that you have heard before' So he played the same songs again haha. Then some people left the show. He always does what he wants to do."

What song are you most happy with?
"It changes, from the album Holding All The Roses it's Woman In The Moon and the title song Holding All The Roses. One Horse Town. Ain't Got The Blues, Shakin' Hands With The Holy Ghost. Don't really have any that I'm sick of. The very first song that I wrote for the band was Sanctified Woman. It was on our first album and on our second album. I still like to play that song.

Is the last album (Holding All The Roses) the best one?
"They are all good for different reasons to me. I really like the album, how it turned out, I like the production a lot. Brendan O'Brien brought enough polish but yet enough dirt. I had a European journalist make a really good point not long ago: ''The Whippoorwill is like Powerage and Holding All The Roses is like Highway To Hell'. One is very under produced and the other one is more produced. But it 's still no synths on it and still real tones, light and shade. But we were able to catch some really interesting moments.

You are a very fan based band with a great fan community. Are you involved and read the discussions going on in social media?
"Personally no, but the band is. I am a little bit of a hermit. There's a lot of negativity going on on those sites and I am not into that. I really wanna be left alone than being wrapped up in a bunch of negativity. I mean there is a lot of positivity too but I don't know, I just wanna be a little more private. But social media is essential for the band, not for each individual member but for our band and music. Today bands are more available. Today when I look back before Facebook and so on, how the hell did people know where Guns 'n' Roses were gonna play? Word of mouth. Maybe that was a bad example, but how did they know where Allman Brothers were gonna be 1970. Newspapers, radio."

So today it's much easier for a band who is not played on the radio to get a fan base?
"Yeah, absolutely. We are a great example of a band persevered without the help of radio."

Do people in the US see you as a rock band or a country band? (Holding All The Roses and later also Like An Arrow was topping the country charts.)
"People feel the need to label you as a band. Our fans don't. It does not matter for us. We don't sound as modern rock so people often see us as country. Lynyrd Skynyrd's Second Helping album was released today? It would probably been on the country charts. Sweet Home Alabama should have been a country hit."

SKRIBENT: Fredrik Blid (fredrik.blid@rockbladet.se)
FOTOGRAF: Kristin Carlsson (kristin.carlsson@rockbladet.se)​
INTERVJUARE: Fredrik Blid & Kristin Carlsson

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BANDFAKTA – BLACKBERRY SMOKE

MEDLEMMAR
Charlie Starr – Sång och gitarr
Paul Jackson – Gitarr
Richard Turner – Bas
Brit Turner – Trummor
Brandon Still – Keyboards

DISKOGRAFI
2004 – Bad Luck Ain't No Crime
2008 – New Honky Tonk Bootlegs (EP)
2008 – Little Piece Of Dixie (EP)
2009 – Little Piece Of Dixie 
2012 – Whippoorwill
2014 – Leave A Scar (Live)
2015 – Holding All The Roses
2016 – Like An Arrow

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