Part Lynyrd Skynryd and part The Black Crowes, with a nod to ZZ Top and Waylon Jennings, Blackberry Smoke have quietly put together five solid albums over the past decade and a half, each building on the momentum of the last.
Their 2015 album, Holding All The Roses, and the 2016 follow-up, Like an Arrow, both hit number 1 on the U.S. Country Album charts and also found their way into the Top 10 on the Rock Charts, helping propel them to bonafide headlining status despite not having a true signature single.
With the release of their sixth album, Find a Light, the band hopes to continue to the momentum.
Blackberry Smoke is often compared to fellow Georgia band The Black Crowes, so it’s interesting that a member of that band came up with the name Blackberry Smoke. Singer Charlie Starr explains that it was kind of a fluke name that just stuck.
“We were at the end of our rope trying to come up with a name that was cool and, most importantly, hadn’t been taken,” he told Pure Southern Rock. “We thought of everything and thought before we settled with calling the band 12345678?, we would ask friends in bands that were established if, since they became famous, had they thought of a better or different name.
“Steve Gorman of The Black Crowes thought we should name the band, ‘Richard Turner Explodes,’ but Chris Robinson gave us several ideas and then said, ‘What about Blackberry Smoke’? We loved it and still owe him ten thousand or ten million for the name, I can’t remember which.”
Blackberry Smoke are road dogs, performing 150 to 200 shows a year. But apparently, that doesn’t keep them busy enough, since they also have taken on the task of running their own record label, 3 Legged Records, which released their last two albums.
Starr says they decided to take on the extra tasks of record label executives because the old model of working hard, getting signed to a major label, and letting that label do the work of promoting you and paying you simply doesn’t make sense for them anymore. Their new philosophy is rather blue collar, an approach much of their fan base likely appreciates.
“The music business has changed exponentially over the years,” he told Louder Sound. “The need for us to be signed to a major label is just not there anymore. And I’m just speaking about us. Needs are different for different people, but we have been able to slowly grow our fan base and our touring business over the years to where it works for us. And we know that when we make a record we are pretty sure our fans are going to want it. For lack of a better way to put it, we are working within our own limitations.
“Also,” he continued, “most major labels have never come knocking on our door. So, we’re like, ‘OK, I guess we’ll just do it ourselves.’ I guess that would take away any expectation we would have of having a huge hit or something like that, but we’ve done pretty well without that for so long it’s just like, OK. You know, if something huge happened, we would welcome it, but that’s not the way we really live our lives. We just do this job, make this music that we love, and take it to people. It seems like a nice, streamlined way to do it. Tons of bands do that these days. Like I said, the climate has changed so much in the music industry that, more times than not, artists just wind up owing a big label a lot of money. We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to owe people. We want to pay our debts and move on.”
The songs on Find a Light show Blackberry Smoke emitting hints of a wide range of influences, some of which are somewhat unexpected. But it also finds the band purposely digging deeper lyrically than they have on previous offerings.
“There’s only so many party songs you can write,” Starr said, “so it seems interesting to try to be a bit more complex. Sometimes you’re writing from experience and sometimes you’re playing a part or trying to detect how someone else might be feeling. It’s something that I’ve grown to love more than I used to, trying to be a little more complicated.
“For example, ‘Flesh and Bone,’ I guess you could say, is about everyone, as we get older, realizing everything we enjoy is bad for you. That’s a cruel joke of the cosmos. ‘Why can’t I eat this or drink this?’ Everything that’s good for you seems to suck. But that’s part of getting older, I guess.”
It’s hard not to root for a band that’s been able to be successful by simply listening to what their fans tell them they want and by doing with what feels good to them, with little thought toward how their music will be received by critics.
“We’ve never wanted anything more than just to be able to make a living and travel the world and play this music that we love and do it our way,” Starr told Louder Sound. “We make the records that we want to make. We never have anybody that we have to answer to that would say, ‘I don’t like this. This is not going to sell. This is not a single. You need to cut your hair. You need to do this.’ We’ve been able to stay afloat without needing that.
“Yeah, it may be just the ticket for some people, or maybe for very young bands or for an artist who really feels that they need to be developed. But we are all getting older now and we kind of figured out what it is that we do comfortably. And we hope we do it pretty well. It seems to make some people happy, so forward we go.”