Blackberry Smoke: Charlie Starr talks to guitarguitar
Published on 20 May 2021
It’s mid-morning in Maryville, Tennessee when we catch up with Charlie Starr, lead vocalist and guitarist of Blackberry Smoke. The great rock n roll band from Georgia are in the middle of a large tour and our scheduled conversation had to be delayed for a day due to Wi-Fi problems in deepest Charleston. Today is fairing a little better, and so we join him on Zoom as he commandeers the rear lounge of Blackberry Smoke’s plush tour bus to chat about their forthcoming record, You Hear Georgia.
Bursting full of riffs, melodies, harmonies, great guitar playing and classic songwriting, You Hear Georgia is perfect Southern Rock, with no less than three full time guitar players supplying light and shade to Starr’s songs. There’s even a guest appearance by none other than Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers Band, so we just had to know more! Charlie was happy to oblige...
(Photo: Jo Lopez)
Guitarguitar: So, it was North Charleston last night on tour, yeah?
Charlie Starr: Yeah, it was great.
GG: These must be quite different shows for you, compared to a normal rock gig. These are all seated, groups of four and so on. How is that for you as a performer?
CS: Well, it’s different but we’ll take it! (laughs)
GG: Is it a different kind of energy, in terms of: people will be sitting down, they’re having their drinks brought over to them... it’s quite removed from a typical sweaty rock show, right?
CS: It’s like dinner theatre! But, truth be told, some of the shows that we’re playing – and it depends on the city and the state as far as a lot of the regulations go – but a lot of places here in the US are completely open. So, we’ve done a lot of shows now that are back to normal completely.
GG: Oh, wow! So, tonight’s show in Tennessee...is that where you are tonight?
CS: Yeah, tonight is Maryville Tennessee, tonight and tomorrow night and they are wide open, so about 2000 people, And y’know, at this point I think in the US, with the vaccine, and now the mask mandates are being dropped, it’s about, well, if you’re an adult and if you decide ‘I wanna go to a rock show with two thousand other people, I have the right to do so’. I know some people who are not comfortable: it’s all a personal choice. For the most part, I would say that Blackberry Smoke fans are like, ‘Let me outta here! I’m going to a show!’ (laughs)
GG: And how has it been for the performers, from the other side of the fence? Is everything feeling nice and safe?
CS: Yeah, we’ve been really fortunate, everybody’s been healthy and safe throughout all this: making a record and playing drive-in shows. We had a couple of false positives in our group, because we were all getting tested before we would get onto a tour bus. The false positives obviously scared the people that received them, but both times they had no symptoms and so waited the recommended days, went back and it was, ‘Oh, I’m negative!’
"I don't write abstract lyrics: it's all little stories, I guess you could say"
GG: Great! Back to it, haha! Good news. So, the new record: you guys must have recorded it during lockdown then, right?
CS: Yeah, in late May last year. We recorded it in ten days: five days of tracking and five days of mixing. Then it went to mastering. So, when we were done, you know, that was two weeks, basically. I remember the thought process was, ‘Well, when should we release this?’ In the typical 90 days kinda thing, as far as the promotional aspect of the thing but then we were like, ‘shit, no one knows what’s gonna happen’! And our band, we don’t really have support of radio and we don’t work with a major label or anything like that, so it’s like, the way that we promote our records is strictly touring. So, it was decided that if we put it out now (last summer), it’ll just be like throwing it into a black hole. So we said, ‘There’s no hurry, we’ll wait’, so we waited almost a year.
GG: Wow, yeah. It’s interesting speaking to artists during this strange time period. There are a lot of people who’ve been sitting on an album for nearly a year, like yourselves, and I wanted to ask about your writing process, but I’m assuming that for you, these songs were all done last year! Have you been writing since? And do you have new material that you’re waiting to record?
CS: Yeah! I definitely have! I dunno if I have enough good stuff for a whole record yet, maybe, but that doesn’t stop. And for You Hear Georgia, after recording it, it was obviously brand new for a minute, but you know, I don’t even look at it as being ‘old’ because I’m excited for people to hear all these new songs for the first time. And we haven’t played them at shows yet, either!
GG: Of course!
CS: We’re playing them as they’re heard; as they’re released. It’s really thrilling.
GG: That is so cool. So, with the writing process, I’m assuming you’re the principal songwriter. Is it mostly a case of sitting down with the acoustic guitar, paying chords and working up melodies? And do you set aside specific times to write?
GG: I really don’t set aside time until I feel like I’m inspired, you know? I don’t have a writing regimen, but if I sit with a guitar and something occurs to me – if the spark is there – I’ll say, ‘Oh, this is cool, I wanna finish this out!’ But usually for me, when a cycle starts like that, they’ll start to come all at once. My phone gets filled up with ideas and I just take ‘em one at a time.
(Photo: Jo Lopez)
GG: Yeah, yeah! And at that point, is that when you bring them to the other guys for them to be fleshed out, have arrangements happen and so on? Is it like that?
CS: Yeah, I’ll make demos, which is a lot of fun. I got a little home studio setup. It’s always interesting too, because you pick up a guitar and write a song. You write lyrics, melody, riff, musical changes, and that’s the song: you just wrote a song. You take it and play it with 5 other people, and it’s funny how, when you’ve been in a band for 20 years, you really know what the other people are gonna play! (laughs) I can already hear it in my brain! I can visualise just how they play, so even making demos, I’ll be trying to play like those guys!
GG: Sure! Yeah!s
CS: I saw an interview with Pete Townsend where he was making demos for the Who’s Next record. I heard some of the demos and they were fantastic. He said, ‘I tried to play like those guys would play, but I can’t’. So, you take it, and then it sounds like...you know, my demos sound like me but when we record the songs, they sound like Blackberry Smoke.
"I have a real affinity for single pickup guitars: Les Paul Juniors and Esquires."
GG: I can’t wait to ask you about the whole 3 guitar payer thing, but we’ll get to that in a second!
GG: But first, the new record, You Hear Georgia. I’ve listened to it a few times and it’s beautiful sounding. Thematically, I guess I don’t know it well enough yet to ascertain the particular meanings, but is the overall theme about being a Southern American, from Georgia?
CS: No, not really, there’s no one theme. I mean, that song, You Hear Georgia, we just thought that would be a good title for the record. It’s not a concept album or anything. But that song, it’s not even about, ‘Hey, look at me, I’m proud to be from Georgia’, it’s more like, ‘Don’t judge me because of where I come from’.
CS: Simply put, that’s it. Sick of that. Sick of people making a kneejerk...formulating an opinion over how someone speaks, what they look like or where they’re from, you know?
GG: Yeah, most definitely.
CS: It happens a lot.
GG: Certainly! I won’t claim to know how things are in the States, but that’s very much how things are over here as well. It’s timely! Sadly so, but it’s a timeless theme.
GG: But that’s what rock n roll’s about!
CS: That’s right!
GG: So, for the other songs on the record, if there’s no overarching theme, do you tend to write about all kinds of things that inspire you and it’s simply a case of the best songs that everyone likes are the ones that make it?
CS: Yeah, pretty much! If you look at it as a whole, like 18 songs, we actually only recorded 11 because we didn’t have time. But before, we took a pile of 18 songs and looked at them all and cherry picked the ones that would make the best record. Topically, they are all over the place, but I don’t write abstract lyrics: it’s all little stories, I guess you could say.
(Photo: Rick Diamond)
GG: Okay! I might be wrong about this, but it interests me since you’re the singer as well: I was playing along with your record yesterday as I was listening to it, and it seems to me that quite a lot of the songs are either in the keys of A or in G. First of all, is that even correct? And do those keys get chosen because they suit your voice?
CS: Well, I love those keys to sing in: they’re friendly. But, I think that there’s one in F, one in B flat...
GG: Right, okay...
CS: ‘Hey Delilah’ is in E, ‘Old Scarecrow’ is in E, so I got you there! (laughs) They’re not all in A and G! But I do love A and G! Also, AC/DC loved A and G so those are good keys.
"We don't really have support of radio and we don't work with a major label. The way we promote our record is strictly touring"
GG: Cool man, fair enough, haha! Now, you have the great Warren Haynes on this record!
CS: And that’s in F sharp!
GG: There you go, I’m talking out my ass! Hahaha! Do you and Warren go back a long way?
CS: Yeah, for quite a few years. We’ve played a lot of shows with Gov’t Mule (Haynes’ band - Ray) and a few with the Allman Brothers Band (with whom Haynes has played for years – Ray) back several years ago. Warren’s a great friend. I can’t say enough about his musicianship: he’s a guitar hero and a legend of songwriting, legend of singing. His name is firmly stamped on the history of the music that we play.
GG: Certainly. And he’s a very good fit for your sound, vocally too: the two voices work really well together.
CS: Yeah! I thought so, this is the first time we ever did any recording work together. He was gracious enough to be a part of it. We wrote the song together back in maybe April of last year, but it was so great to have him play and sing on it.
GG: It’s a great song. So: 3 guitarists!
CS: Yeah, 4 on that song!
GG: Hahaha, yeah exactly! So, obviously there are riffs, chord progressions, lead parts and so on. How do you guys manage who does what for any given song?
CS: We work it out, you know? I’ll have the riff, the idea that drives the song and then Benji and Paul will, you know...Paul and I have been doing it for 20 years together, so he finds his variation on what I’m doing. Sometimes I’ll say ‘hey, don’t actually do what I’m doing, do a little weaving thing’, you know? Benji comes in with a third part, which is the toughest part, you know what I mean? There are times when you do wanna wall up on one thing, but you can’t have a whole album like that. Well, maybe you can but we like the weaving thing. But we learned from Lynyrd Skynyrd, who are probably the most interesting three electric guitar band ever because they would rarely play the same thing and yet they made it work. They stayed out of each other’s way!
GG: Oh definitely! I watched the live video for the track you guys did with Warren and I wanted to know about the three guitars because it doesn’t ever sound overt: it’s very cleverly done. There are lots of nice textures and, as you say, examples of the Ancient Art of Weaving, so yeah, it’s really well done.
CS: If you listen to the record, I think I’m in the left speaker, Paul’s in the right speaker and Benji sits a little above, like a kind of obtuse triangle! I dunno if that’s the right word: my geometry may be incorrect there (laughs).
GG: I can picture it! I did a bit of research into some of the guitars and amps you’ve been using. I saw the Esquire you were using, and you also seem to be a fan of the hollow body Gibsons. Is it the good, classic American guitars that you guys prefer?
CS: I do, yeah. We all do to a certain extent, but I have a real affinity for single pickup guitars: Les Paul Juniors and Esquires. I don’t really play new guitars often. There are some exceptions, but I just love vintage guitars, it’s my passion.
"You Hear Georgia is like, 'Don't judge me because of where I come from. Simply put, that's it."
GG: Yeah. Do you take vintage guitars on tour with you as well?
CS: Oh yeah!
GG: Haha, good guy! Nice! Okay, so, if you wrote a song on, say, an Esquire, would you then record the song on an Esquire? Do you tend to follow that pattern?
CS: Yeah, I think usually the riff will dictate, you know. There are some times where I’ll try something else in the studio and just try until you land on it: the correct recipe.
(Photo: Jo Lopez)
CS: But I really get married to certain songs on certain guitars. Sometimes you’ll play the riff for a song on a different guitar and go, ‘No, that’s not right!’ (laughs)
GG: With 3 guitarists then, if you are playing an Esquire, for example, does that indicate that Paul and Benji should pick something else to play on, something that’s not a Fender single coil?
CS: I don’t think so: I guess maybe that’s a good way to think about it. The Georgia Satellites were always the kings of that, it was always Rick Richards on a Gibson, Dan Baird on a Fender. They always kept that recipe. But I think there are some songs where we were like, ‘let’s all play Teles’, you know? Tele-tastic!
GG: Well, if there’s one guitar that can do it all, you know? If fact, before I move on, do you keep the same string gauge from guitar to guitar? Even with different scale lengths?
CS: It’s the same, I play 10-46. There’s one guitar I used on the song Flesh and Bone off our last album that’s tuned down a whole step, so it’s in Open F instead of Open G, and I have to use a hybrid set with fatter wound strings so they’re not so slinky and go all crazy.
GG: Yeah, makes sense. And what about picks?
CS: I like just heavy, celluloid picks. They’re like a Fender Heavy from when I was a teenager. That’s what I like. Just good old heavy picks.
CS: For acoustic flatpicking, there’s a company called Bluechip. This is a 55 (55/1000 inch, so 1.44mm), it’s almost as fat as a piece of bologna, you can’t bend it.
GG: That’s a great comparison haha! So, one other gear-thing I wanted to ask you is about combinations. The tones on the record are really good, and on the article I read, you were quite clued up on knowing which guitar you wanted to use with which amp. Do you think, generally speaking, a lot of guitar players underestimate the art of matching a certain guitar to a certain amplifier to get a particular tone?
CS: Uh, maybe so! I mean, I think it’s all just a preference thing. It’s really funny to me: when we make a record, I take tons of guitars, tons of amps, tons of effects and gear. It’s just fun! I love the chase, you know! And as I say that, two great examples of two guys who made fantastic records with one guitar and one amp: Van Halen’s first record and Appetite for Destruction. Slash played that Kris Derrig Les Paul replica through one Marshall and apparently Mike Clink (Guns n Roses producer) came in and said, ‘Don’t move that microphone! That’s the sound!’ So, every part on the record is that. It’s all just about how you wanna go about getting it done, I guess.
(Photo: Jo Lopez)
GG: That’s true, that’s true. Talking about getting it done, you were talking about single pickup guitars and gauge 10 strings. I know you’re a big Billy Gibbons fan: I can never get over the fact that he uses, like, gauge 8 strings or even lighter...
CS: I think it’s 7s.
GG: 7s, right, and he’s got the peso for a pick! A big thick chunk of metal! I’m thinking that’s a terrible idea! And yet, he’s the King, right?
CS: He makes it work! (laughs)
GG: Exactly! So, we are nearly down here, Charlie! Thank you for your time! I guess we’ll wrap it up by saying that the record’s out on the 28th May and I was gonna say ‘Do you have plans to tour?’ but you’re already on tour! So, what’s next after the release?
CS: We have a summer tour in place, and cross your fingers, it’s all gonna be fine.
GG: Any plans for coming across to Europe and the UK perhaps?
CS: Most definitely. Nothing in place this year of course but we definitely gotta get over there as soon as possible.
Sounds like a plan! Charlie and the boys from Blackberry Smoke seem to be on an unbeatable roll just now, touring right through the year. We wish them a fantastic, and safe, time, and hopefully we’ll be seeing them over here in the not-too-distant future!
In the meantime, make sure to buy/stream/listen to You Hear Georgia when it’s released on the 28th. You can get more details from clicking through to this link or heading to the official Blackberry Smoke website.
We’d like to offer our thanks to Charlie for giving up his precious tour bus time for us, and to Michelle Kerr for putting us in touch. Thanks, as always, to yourself for reading another of our guitarguitar artist interviews! You can catch many more by clicking through to the guitarguitar interview page.
See you next time