A couple of weekends ago my husband and I were in northern Georgia for a wedding. We were near the rural mountain town of Blue Ridge, and while it wasn’t a bustling metropolis, it did have a record store. So, off we went to Big Frog Music Co.
Right on the hilly Main Street of quiet downtown sat the storefront. We managed to make it before closing, with about 10 minutes to spare. The woman running the store welcomed us. Smiling big through her long, wispy grey hair—she looked like she’d seen her fair share of vinyl—she talked a good game.
“Have you guys heard Blackberry Smoke?” she asked, as we shuffled through the stacks.
“Well, she must have excellent taste,” Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr (lead vocals, guitar) quipped over the phone last week as I recounted her words. “That was actually my mother.”
The serendipitous encounter before our phone call seemed indicative of Blackberry Smoke’s fan base running deep within his band’s home state. They’ve spent 15 years cultivating their roots in Southern rock ‘n’ roll. They’ve toured with artists like Zac Brown Band, Eric Church, ZZ Top, and just wrapped a series of summer dates with Gov’t Mule. Now they’re promoting their soon-to-be-released record, “Like An Arrow,” on October 14.
“We’re looking forward to playing in Wilmington,” Starr says of their upcoming Greenfield Lake stopover on Friday, Sept. 23. “We love our Carolina brothers and sisters.”
Consisting of Starr, Richard Turner (bass, vocals), Brit Turner (drums), Paul Jackson (guitar, vocals), and Brandon Still (keyboards), it will mark Blackberry Smoke’s fifth full-length release since their debut in 2001. Their last record, 2015’s “Holding All the Roses,” debuted at number one on the Billboard country albums chart and number eight on Billboard’s rock albums chart.
Though one may think there’s added pressure to produce an album as successful as their last, Starr says it wasn’t the case. “I don’t think anybody felt any pressure,” he clarifies. “We were not in a rush this time and got it completely finished in about a month—and we didn’t spend a whole lot of time overthinking it.”
Blackberry Smoke had full creative control of “Like An Arrow.” This time around it was all done in house, so to speak. Blackberry Smoke produced the record themselves at their own label, Three-Legged Records.
“It’s not that we don’t like working with a producer because a producer is very valuable,” Starr clarifies. “Records are made tons of different ways, and I think you just go with your gut, and when it feels right, you do it. I think this record just sounds like Blackberry Smoke; it’s strong and it feels good. We’re proud to use it as our flag that we plant in the musical landscape.”
This wasn’t the band’s first venture without a producer. Their 2012 release, “The Whippoorwill,” mostly was self-produced as well. While artists like Clay Cook, Matt Mangano and Zac Brown added a helping hand to the project, Starr says their presence was more like having friends in the room than anything else.
“I look at [‘Like An Arrow’] as sort of the same situation,” Starr continues, “except we didn’t really have any of our buddies involved. It was just us. . . . That’s not to say we won’t be working with a producer again—because I’m sure we will. But on this particular record, it felt right to do it ourselves.”
The band didn’t take any special approach to the album. They always record together to best recreate a live atmosphere, but with “Like An Arrow” they wanted it to almost have a “Chess Record” vibe—“like with Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf,” Starr explains. “Everybody’s in the room and the amps are bleeding into the drum mics and into the vocal mics, and there’s no separations … there’s just dirty sounding.”
These days studio time is where artists and/or producers try to eliminate imperfections. Yet, Starr and company wanted to preserve them. “When we all think about the records that we fell in love with growing up, they weren’t [perfecting the sound],” he continues. “They cared more about the vibe of the songs and the track. Sometimes I think we can work too hard to clean something up when it doesn’t necessarily need to be that clean. . . . Our ears need to hear those little imperfections. Therein lies the beauty.”
A handful of songs have been released so far, which are available as instant downloads with album pre-orders—including “Believe You Me,” “Waiting For The Thunder,” “Sunrise In Texas,” and the album’s title track. The 12-track album concludes with “Free on the Wing,” featuring special guest Gregg Allman (who, due to illness, had to postpone a series of summer shows, including one at GLA in July).
The album as a whole reflects the gritty nature of Southern rock tunes, while still standing in the doorway of country. The writing in each song in its own way comes from a different place, Starr says. “Waiting for the Thunder” is about Armageddon on the horizon “because the world is about as scary as I’ve ever seen it in my 42 years,” he laughs.
The song “Like An Arrow” is a metaphorical look at how people choose to live their lives and follow their trajectory. However, it carries a deeper meaning—not just for the album but for Blackberry Smoke themselves.
“Some people live life on the sidelines and some dive right it,” Starr says. “That made sense to me to be the title of the record for a different reason, because ‘like an arrow’ means ‘straight ahead.’”
See Blackberry Smoke at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater this Friday, Sept. 23. For more details about their upcoming release, “Like An Arrow,” visit www.blackberrysmoke.com.