Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr on how to ‘Be Right Here’ with the music

With a new album and just-launched tour, Atlanta band is taking new tunes to fans in U.S. and Europe
Blackberry Smoke's large catalog of songs swing from rock mixed with Delta blues to Chicago blues to jazz to country. Asked how the band attracts such a varied audience, lead guitarist and lead singer Charlie Starr says, "I truly have no idea."

Credit: Andy Sapp

Credit: Andy Sapp

Blackberry Smoke's large catalog of songs swing from rock mixed with Delta blues to Chicago blues to jazz to country. Asked how the band attracts such a varied audience, lead guitarist and lead singer Charlie Starr says, "I truly have no idea."

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

Atlanta’s Charlie Starr and Blackberry Smoke are kicking off an extensive tour covering the United States and Europe to debut their just-released album, “Be Right Here.” Shining bright as ever, Starr is the primary songwriter, lead guitarist and lead singer of a band that refuses to be stereotyped or pigeonholed.

While from the South and inarguably capable of rocking the foundation of any venue, Blackberry Smoke is not simply a Southern rock band. With a vast catalog of songs that swing from rock mixed with Delta blues to Chicago blues to jazz to country, it’s hardly surprising that their varied audience ranges across multiple generations and several continents.

Days before the start of the tour, Starr took time out from his hectic schedule to talk to ArtsATL about the joys and challenges of parenting while raising his own generation of musicians. He also discussed the making of the new album, friendships, Brit Turner’s recent health scares bringing the band closer together and the reminder to truly “Be Right Here.”

Blackberry Smoke's new album "Be Right Here” was produced by Dave Cobb, who has worked with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Brandi Carlile and the late John Prine.

Credit: Andy Sapp

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Credit: Andy Sapp

Q: Dave Cobb produced this album. How do you think his involvement affected its outcome?

A: For starters, he happens to be just a wonderful human. He produced our last record, and we’re really comfortable with him. I can just look over at him and share a grin. He was extremely important to the way this record sounds because he is right there with us — just inside the songs with us. He’s very hands-on. And, though he’s not holding a string instrument, it’s like he’s in the band. His passion for it and the speed at which he works is fascinating. I loved every second of recording the record. It bummed me out when we were done.

Q: The fifth track, “Azalea,” is accompanied by a distinctly nostalgic video. How involved were you and the band in the making of the video?

A: Pretty much zero this time. Because we were all kind of spread out, it didn’t lend itself to us filming. Our videographer, Andy Sapp, said he had just hours and hours of 8mm film reels of small towns across America, which he thought could work well for some of the songs — that one in particular. That was all him.

Q: How much input does the band have in deciding your opening acts?

A: That one we’re more hands-on with and have been for most of our career, really. We’re fortunate that we have tons of friends and are also constantly meeting new friends who play great music. And we just love great music. We’re lucky in that there are endless options. We generally say, “Who hasn’t come out with us yet?” I look at it like it’s a good problem — that there are so many musicians out there making great music.

After Brit Turner experienced heart issues, it "made the time we were spending together more precious" for the drummer's bandmates, Charlie Starr said.

Credit: Andy Sapp

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Credit: Andy Sapp

Q: Your upcoming tour is covering numerous cities in the United States, as well as many abroad. To what do you attribute the band’s ability to have such vast appeal to such varied audiences?

A: I truly have no idea. I wouldn’t know where to begin to start second-guessing what people might like. Joe Bonamassa is a great friend, and he also has a very varied audience. He was interviewing me for his podcast and asked me, “Do you tailor-make your playlist for your audience — for the situation? Or do you do like the Blues Brothers and say, ‘Screw it and go for it?’” I told him that many years ago I used to try to plan for the audience . . . but it was a massive failure every time. So now, for the past 20 years or so, I just say, “You know, this is what we do. You either like it or you don’t.”

Q: I know you have an extensive vintage guitar collection, which you regularly rotate and play on the road. Might we see any new additions on your upcoming tour?

A: Maybe. You’ll just have to come out and see!

Q: Speaking of vintage guitars, since its recovery, the owner of Duane Allman’s 1957 Les Paul Gold Top has allowed the guitar to be played by a select few from time to time — rather than see it trapped behind glass. Except for players in the Allman Brothers camp, it’s estimated this privilege has been bestowed upon you more than anybody else. How does that make you feel?

A: I’m honored. Simply honored.

Q: Blackberry Smoke has had to make some tough decisions regarding shows around Brit Turner’s recent health. Did those experiences find expression on the new album “Be Right Here?”

A: Yeah. I think so. When we recorded the album, Brit was just coming off the heart attacks. And so I think it pulled us all closer together as friends because you really don’t go around thinking about mortality. So it gave the proceedings a little different feel. I think it made the time we were spending together more precious. And regarding having to play shows without Brit, obviously, it’s not something we wanted to do — but we didn’t have a choice because we had to keep working to feed our families. And it’s what Brit wanted. He said, “Get to work. Continue to work.” But to your point, it was indeed a very hard thing to do.

All in the family: Starr harmonizing with his 10-year-old son Canaan.

Credit: Photo by Rick Diamond Photography

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Credit: Photo by Rick Diamond Photography

Q: Your youngest son, Canaan, has joined you and Benji and sang alongside you. I know your dad was a major influence on you, musically, at an early age. When did Canaan get the bug?

A: I think the same way it happened for me. When I was only about 5 years old and would hear my dad sing and play, I knew I wanted to do that, too. Canaan is 10 now, but even when he was just 5 or 6 and he started to sing songs, I would say to myself, “Well, he’s singing in key.” He understands pitch — even to the point where he’d say, “Dad, you’re not singing in key.” [Chuckles.] Early on, when I put music on in the car, he latched onto a few bands — not because I said to listen but because he decided it was great.

Q: Which bands did he love?

A: The Rolling Stones, Oasis and AC/DC. I didn’t say a word. He’d hear one song and say, “Dad, play that again; play that again; play that again.”

Q: Your eldest son, Christian, joined you onstage at Blackberry Smoke’s Annual Brothers & Sisters Holiday Homecoming Show, as did Paul Jackson’s son, Spencer. Has he also followed your footsteps into a career of music?

A: Absolutely. Christian writes songs, sings and plays guitar. He lives in Nashville and is making his way up there with his music. I can’t get away from it. There’s music everywhere in my family.

Q: What kind of feelings are conjured up for you when you think of your boys being musicians?

A: I’m proud. And I must say, I’d be disappointed if they didn’t want to have music in their lives. But it can be a challenge.

Q: For example?

A: From time to time, Christian will ask about my opinion of how things are now, compared to when I was his age. And the only answer I can really give him is that I don’t know which path I’d recommend taking because it’s such a different ballgame now. And that reminds me of when I used to ask my own dad such questions. He’d always say, “There’s a disclaimer to the answer because we’re living in a different time now.”

Q: Twenty years from now, what would you like to see happen for yourself?

A: In 20 years, I’d like to be healthy and still doing this.


Brenda Stepp is an Atlanta freelance writer who has written extensively about the jam-band scene.

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Credit: ArtsATL

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Credit: ArtsATL


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