Blackberry Smoke expands musically on new album

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Blackberry Smoke stays true to the core of classic rock ‘n’ roll at the Pavilion on June 16. Publicity photo Blackberry Smoke stays true to the core of classic rock ‘n’ roll at the Pavilion on June 16. Publicity photo

Bands rarely come as well-rounded as Blackberry Smoke. For fans of open-minded Southern rock, the five-piece outfit covers all the bases—pensive highway songs, distorted, arena-ready scorchers and bluesy explorations doused in Dixie grit. The group emerged from Atlanta in the early 2000s, and, as required by independent bands since the turn of the century, hit the road relentlessly. Early favor came from jam band fans attracted to the group’s sonic kinship with the Black Crowes and Gov’t Mule (Crowes lead singer Chris Robinson named the band Blackberry Smoke), but in subsequent years, the versatile act’s stylistic leanings have been harder to pin down.

“We make the music that we make, and wherever it lands for people, that’s cool,” says frontman and lead guitarist Charlie Starr, when asked to describe his band’s sound during a recent phone interview. “From the inception of the band it’s been questioned. It’s too confusing to try and figure out where we fit; I gave up a long time ago. We used to have a T-shirt that said, ‘Too country for rock ‘n’ roll, and too rock ‘n’ roll for country.’”

Acceptance has gradually expanded as time has gone on. With little radio exposure, the band has now notched two Billboard chart-topping country albums (2015’s Holding All the Roses and 2016’s Like an Arrow), and the group’s latest, Find a Light, should only broaden its appeal. Released in April, the new record covers a wide breadth of influences—from freewheeling ’70s rock to stripped-down, front porch folk. 

“It’s way more enjoyable to make a record that’s all over the place,” says Starr. “I think it’s interesting for the listener, as well. My favorite records growing up were exactly that way—from Exile on Main Street to Physical Graffiti.”

Strains of those masterworks by the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, respectively, can be heard in the dusty jangle of “Run Away From It All” and the bluesy muscle of opener “Flesh and Bone.”

Starr started the album in co-writing sessions with Keith Nelson of Buckcherry, then the band knocked out the recording in two weeks at an Atlanta studio. In the past, the group has worked with notable producers, including Brendan O’Brien, but this time decided to rely on its own instincts. Despite not using a producer, the band was open to collaboration on a few of the new album’s standout tracks. Nashville songstress Amanda Shires delivered sunny backing vocals in the breezy acoustic strummer “Let Me Down Easy,” and pedal steel wiz Robert Randolph worked his fleet-fingered magic on the fiery gospel rocker “I’ll Keep Ramblin’.” Randolph originally wrote the music for the latter as an instrumental, and Starr added lyrics. 

 “Mother Mountain” features The Wood Brothers harmonizing with Starr through a halcyon folk song that exemplifies Find a Light’s consistent lyrical theme—staying optimistic while being reminded about our country’s pervasive state of political divisiveness. As Starr puts it: “Our culture is saturated with negativity daily, thanks to the media and social media. I guess I was thinking, ‘There’s nowhere to go but up.’”

Blackberry Smoke joins JJ Grey & Mofro for co-headlining dates, including a stop at the Sprint Pavilion on Saturday night, before taking on opening duties on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s farewell tour. Starr says witnessing Skynyrd fans enjoying the band live for possibly the last time has been a poignant experience. “They wrote songs that continue to move people, across generations. How many bands can say that?”

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