Blackberry Smoke brings Southern spirituality, Allman Brothers vibes to CMAC
After 20 years of writing its own history, you’d think people could talk or write about Blackberry Smoke without referencing The Allman Brothers Band. Or Lynyrd Skynyrd. Or The Marshall Tucker Band.
Charlie Starr pays no mind to our need to place his band in such a box.
“Not really,” says Blackberry Smoke’s lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter. “Because I love those bands, so dearly.”
One man’s heaven is another man’s hell.
“It’s like, ‘Well, it could be worse, you know,’” Starr concedes. “They could say, ‘You guys remind me of the Bay City Rollers.’”
Speaking of “Saturday Night” — you kids can Google that dated reference — Blackberry Smoke headlines the “Spirit of the South Tour: A Celebration of Southern Rock and Roll Music,” at 6 p.m. Saturday, July 31, at Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center.
Beyond the Nashville country rock of opening act The Wild Feathers, the show is actually an Allmans festival. The supporting act, The Allman Betts Band, features Allman Brothers Band progeny Duane Betts (son of Dickey Betts), Berry Duane Oakley (son of Berry Oakley) and Devon Allman (son of Gregg, although the two didn’t meet until Devon was 16). Gaze at Allmans regalia at the on-site portable museum. “Special guests” are promised. Stay for the closing jam with various band members.
Starr has no qualms about Blackberry Smoke being mentioned in the same breath as his elder Southern rockers. But that’s not quite on target as to where he, and the other guys in the band, came from. In his formative years, Starr played bluegrass, traditional country, and gospel. And all the Blackberry Smoke guys listened to The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and Led Zeppelin.
“We were children of the radio in the late ’70s and through the ’80s,” Starr says. “And so we got heavy doses of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. And even, remember in the ’80s, when John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty kind of ruled the radio as far as rock and roll goes. Until the lipstick bands came along.”
Radio was how we once trained our rock stars.
“I remember seeing Tom Petty in an interview years ago, and somebody said, ‘What’s your biggest influence?’ And he said, ‘The radio.’ And I kinda thought: 'Wow. Me too, kinda.'”
Influences and associations drift in and out of Blackberry Smoke’s seven albums. Gregg Allman sings “Free on the Wing,” the last song on the band’s 2016 album “Like an Arrow.” Allman didn’t make a lot of guest appearances on other musicians’ albums — Cher might be an exception. “So I was totally prepared to be told, ‘Nooooo, thanks,’ you know,” Starr says. “But to our surprise, he said, ‘Yeah man, I love that song, I’ll do it.’”
And Warren Haynes, the guitarist who joined The Allman Brothers Band to pull it out of its early-’90s malaise, appears on Blackberry Smoke’s latest album, the aptly titled “You Hear Georgia.”
Blackberry Smoke had been a tour-hound band, playing a couple hundred shows a year, until COVID-19. Over the past 15 months, grounded with his family, Starr discovered that he was “a horrible teacher,” he says, to his two children. But he also discovered he’s a bit of a farmer, growing a couple of nice gardens.
At least the kids got some healthy vegetables.
Now Blackberry Smoke is back on the road. Cautiously. And who knows for how long? Starr concedes that this pandemic is ripe for a return.
So as the band opens this tour — CMAC is its second gig — the guys chat about college football, movies, their families, their dogs. Starr has political views, but generally keeps them to himself. “The ridiculousness of the fighting in this country over every and anything imaginable,” he says.
“What is the use in celebrating or glamorizing the division in our country?”
Perhaps these divisions can be healed. Starr’s parents were divorced, yet he talks about enjoying a “loving childhood,” and lessons properly learned.
“I believe in compassion, number one,” he says. “I believe in being good to people, no matter who they are.
“I wasn’t taught to hate people. I know people that I grew up with that came from a very racially tense situation, and I was fortunate I didn’t get that. I don’t think it was odd, I knew plenty of people who didn’t either.
“But I wasn’t taught to hate people because they’re different, whether it was the color of their skin or where they come from or what they look like. And I was taught to love all music. And I was taught to read books. And appreciate art. I’ve got a lot of friends who didn’t, or weren’t, and that’s unfortunate.”
Born in Alabama, now living in Atlanta, Starr speaks of the spirituality of the South. “I love the stories, and the music, and the art, and the culture and the food,” he says. “And the idea of Southern hospitality, you know what I mean? I even love the idea that things move a little more slowly in the South. People take their time. They speak a little more slowly. You know it’s hot, it’s got a little bit of a groove to it.”
And yet, there’s this thing about the South that sometimes emerges in his songs. The darkness and light. The good and evil. Conflict that drives the best Southern literature. Heaven and hell.
There’s even a song about Sampson and Delilah on the new album. The lesson there, going back to Starr’s childhood in Baptist country: Don’t tell Delilah that the secret to your strength is in your long hair.
“I didn’t want him to tell her! Because I knew she was bad!”
“There are a lot of negative things that come from organized religion, we’ve all seen that for centuries,” Starr says. “People have probably fought and bled and died more for religion than anything.
“But the Bible Belt South, it creates a lot of soul, I think, within people. They seem to get deeper with each other.”
The word he uses is “spiritual.”
“That in itself is people searching for something, to better themselves,” Starr says. “Or to feel better about everything.
“That’s the right and wrong that we’re taught. And the scary stories that I was told, in Sunday school and church — ‘The devil’s gonna get you if you do that kind of thing.’”
He mentions Son House, the old Mississippi bluesman who fled his conflict of God and the devil by disappearing to Rochester, lost for years. “Preachin’ Blues,” that’s the song that defined House’s personal conflict, Starr says. “Should I sing the blues or should I preach?”
There is a root of that in Blackberry Smoke as well.
“The imagery is there in some of my lyrics,” Starr says. “And only because I enjoy it. I’m not trying to be blasphemous, I’m not trying to be devout. It’s something that’s just there, it’s in my brain, and it makes for good storytelling. And I’m not saying that to belittle it. It’s powerful.”
But the darkness isn’t something that can be pinned solely on religion. It’s everywhere, creeping up on us. COVID-19. Social media. Starr recalls years ago seeing David Bowie being interviewed on television. This new thing, the internet, was emerging. Bowie was asked: Isn’t this great?
“And David Bowie says, ‘Yes and no. I think it sounds really, really dangerous.’”
“And he said, ‘That’s too much power,’” Starr recalls of Bowie’s reaction. “‘Too much power and information for people to try and harness.’
“I think he saw Facebook 20 years before its existence. And how something like that makes people turn on one another. It’s disgusting.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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