Blackberry Smoke turns 20 with new album and tour

Atlanta's Blackberry Smoke is celebrating their 20th anniversary with the new album, "You Hear Georgia." Courtesy of Joe Lopez
Atlanta's Blackberry Smoke is celebrating their 20th anniversary with the new album, "You Hear Georgia." Courtesy of Joe Lopez

Credit: Joe Lopez

Credit: Joe Lopez

The Atlanta band blends rock, soul and blues on ‘You Hear Georgia.’

Over a swampy, stinging guitar line, Charlie Starr belts the first line of “You Hear Georgia,” the title track of Blackberry Smoke’s seventh studio album:

“You hear Georgia when I open my mouth/ Don’t make no difference what I’m talkin’ about/ I let you in and then you throw me out/ You can’t see nothing past this shadow of a doubt”

As a native Southerner, Starr has endured his own prejudices, as has Blackberry Smoke.

“To an extent, I think when people think of a — quote, unquote — ‘Southern rock band,’ they probably think we’re a bunch of ignorant goofballs,” Starr said recently from his Brookhaven home.

But the song was actually inspired when, during last year’s coronavirus lockdown, Starr watched a man on the news being interviewed for a story with serious undertones.

Atlanta's Blackberry Smoke is celebrating their 20th anniversary with the new album, "You Hear Georgia."
Atlanta's Blackberry Smoke is celebrating their 20th anniversary with the new album, "You Hear Georgia."

“He had this thick Southern accent and his accent made me smile. He didn’t say anything wrong or stupid, but I thought, I wonder if people around the world are hearing what he says or how he says it?” Starr said. “Ever since I was a young boy, I watched movies that paint Southerners to be bad people or full of hate, and I’ve met good and bad people all over the world. And that’s not the South I grew up in. I didn’t grow up with hateful or ignorant people. So, maybe this is a love letter to the way I grew up.”

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The song is among 10 new offerings from the Atlanta-based band, which also includes Brit Turner on drums, Paul Jackson on guitar, Richard Turner on bass and Brandon Still on keyboards. In addition to guests Jamey Johnson (on the country twanger “Lonesome for a Livin’”), Gov’t Mule/Allman Brothers Band maestro Warren Haynes (on the blistering “All Rise Again”) and background vocals from The Black Bettys, Blackberry Smoke recruited Dave Cobb, a fellow Georgian as well as Grammy-winning ace producer, to steer the record.

Cobb was adamant about not tinkering with the band’s signature Southern rock-blues jam sound, but, he said, “I just wanted to make the best record we could make.”

Starr and Cobb first talked about three years ago, but crisscrossing schedules presented too many obstacles to work together.

At the end of 2019, Cobb invited the band to his Nashville studio on March 20.

“We planned to go up to Canada for a tour and come back and go right back into the studio, which is the best time to record because everyone is ready,” Starr said. “But then we know what happened. And we all came home.”

Atlanta's Blackberry Smoke will play Ameris Bank Amphitheatre Aug. 21 as part of their "Spirit of the South" tour featuring the Allman Betts Band, The Wild Feathers and Allman Brothers Band drummer, Jaimoe. Courtesy of Evan Bartleson.
Atlanta's Blackberry Smoke will play Ameris Bank Amphitheatre Aug. 21 as part of their "Spirit of the South" tour featuring the Allman Betts Band, The Wild Feathers and Allman Brothers Band drummer, Jaimoe. Courtesy of Evan Bartleson.

Credit: Evan Bartleson

Credit: Evan Bartleson

Last May, Cobb invited Blackberry Smoke to head to Nashville and record at the historic RCA Studio A, which Cobb has commandeered since 2016.

With COVID-19 protocols instituted — though Starr jokes that sometimes while listening to playbacks, band members would forget their masks were hanging around their necks — Cobb and Blackberry Smoke knocked the songs out in 10 days.

The Georgia connection between Cobb and the band presented an additional layer of comfort between producer and band, and also a shared language.

“It’s always good to brag on your home state, and I’m super proud of it,” Cobb, a Savannah native who grew up in Roswell, said. “I think of it quite often, how much great music historically has come from Georgia. You have the Capricorn Records story and Ray Charles and Little Richard and Otis Redding and The Black Crowes. All of this incredible music that is not just Southern rock, but country and gospel and soul. Blackberry Smoke has some of all of that in one band.”

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While “You Hear Georgia” was ready to drop last summer, Blackberry Smoke opted to delay its release until they could resume their road warrior status.

“It was hard to sit on for a year, but we’re a touring band, and it would have been a mistake to release it (last year) and watch it fade,” Starr said.

While Blackberry Smoke returned to a few stages last fall — including a “Live From the Drive-In” installment in the parking lot of Ameris Bank Amphitheatre in Alpharetta — a true recommencement of touring didn’t occur until February and March with a string of shows in Florida, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.

Blackberry Smoke, led by singer Charlie Starr, energized the crowd on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in the parking lot of Ameris Bank Amphitheatre in Alpharetta. This was part of the "Live From the Drive-In" concert series produced by Live Nation. Robb Cohen/For The AJC
Blackberry Smoke, led by singer Charlie Starr, energized the crowd on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in the parking lot of Ameris Bank Amphitheatre in Alpharetta. This was part of the "Live From the Drive-In" concert series produced by Live Nation. Robb Cohen/For The AJC

Credit: Robb Cohen for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Robb Cohen for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

On July 30, the band will finally launch their “Spirit of the South Tour: A Celebration of Southern Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The outing — with The Allman Betts Band, The Wild Feathers and a special appearance from founding Allman Brothers Band drummer, Jaimoe — was delayed twice last year (originally booked at the Fox Theatre, the Atlanta date will now take place Aug. 21 at Ameris Bank Amphitheatre). Starr has one word to describe how he feels about the tour finally jumpstarting: “Relieved,” he said.

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“We were excited about playing it at the Fox since we’re an Atlanta band, and that’s what you do,” Starr said. But the return of Broadway in Atlanta — and, notably, the arrival of “Hamilton” on Aug. 22 — caused too many scheduling snafus, so the decision was made to move the concert to an amphitheater.

“It being a summer show, it will probably play well (outside), anyway,” Starr said, his optimism apparent.

The Allman Brothers Band Museum at The Big House will also offer a free mobile setup at each concert site, featuring rare archival items (handwritten lyrics, photos, clothing) and meet-and-greet opportunities with Jaimoe; $1 of each concert ticket will be donated to preserve the museum, which is located in Macon.

Each band will perform a set — The Wild Feathers, The Allman Betts Band and then Blackberry Smoke — with a collective jam at show’s end. (Jaimoe’s participation hasn’t been determined, though he is expected to play during the all-musicians encore.)

“We’ll just celebrate Southern music in that last set, from Otis to Little Richard to The Allman Brothers to Lynyrd Skynyrd,” Starr said. Then he laughed. “If I weren’t part of the tour, I would buy a ticket.”

CONCERT PREVIEW

“Spirit of the South Tour” with Blackberry Smoke

Also with The Allman Betts Band, The Wild Feathers and Jaimoe. 6 p.m. Aug. 21. $25-$55. Ameris Bank Amphitheatre, 2200 Encore Parkway, Alpharetta. livenation.com, 800-745-3000.

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