A Conversation With Charlie Starr (Blackberry Smoke)

It took a while for Blackberry Smoke and much-decorated producer Dave Cobb to get around to each other—20 years, to be exact. But when they did, they made the most of their time in the studio together. Out now on 3 Legged/Thirty Tigers, Be Right Here sounds almost effortless, with the seasoned outfit completely at ease in its earthy Southern-rock comfort zone. On album number eight, bandleader Charlie Starr continues to churn out resonant, rootsy gems you swear you’ve heard before.

We caught up with Starr on a tour bus somewhere east of Blackberry Smoke’s hometown of Smyrna, Ga. The band has grown its fan base on the road over two decades. And if you’ve never had a run-in with one of the best live acts out there, it’s time you made the effort.

You recently released a video for the single “Azalea.” Where did the footage come from?
Our photographer/videographer Andy Sapp shot all that himself with an 8mm camera. It’s just interesting stuff: truck stops, firework stands, an old car with a tree growin’ through the middle of it. People in this country forget that not everywhere in the United States is New York, L.A. or Chicago. There’s a whole country out there with interesting things to look at that aren’t shopping malls. Andy loves that stuff—and so do we.

Tell us about your collaborative relationship with Travis Meadows.
In 2007, I started to go up to Nashville, where I got added to some writing appointments, which was really foreign to me. Someone at BMG suggested that I should meet Travis. He and I met one night at bar. We were drinking and partying, and I we hit it off. We sat down and wrote a bunch of songs over the next year … Petty Little Lie,” “One Horse Town,” “Like I Am,” “Leave A Scar,” “Lucky Seven”… All these songs kept pouring out. After we got sober around the same time, he’d laugh and say, “Do you remember writing this one?” And I’d say, “No.” I remember earlier on, he called one day: “Did we just write a song called ‘Pretty Little Lie’?” I said, “Yeah we did.” And he said, “OK, just checking.” [Laughs] We’ve continued to write together—mostly over the phone. That’s how “Azalea” was written. I called him and played him this little thing, and he thought I said “Vidalia.” I told him I didn’t. “That’s good,” he said, “because a song about an onion wouldn’t be very sexy.” It was almost an onion song—but not.

Dave Cobb has worked with a ton of great bands, so it was only a matter of time before he got around to Blackberry Smoke. How did you connect with him?
He grew up playing in Atlanta, and we were there at the same time. We were in bands that played the same downtown clubs, but we didn’t know each other. He and I actually got on the phone while we were making (2016’s) Like An Arrow. He asked if we wanted to make a record, and I was like, “We’re making one right now.” He asked me who was producing it, and I was like, “I am.” He laughed and said, “When you get tired of tryin’, you let me do it.”

What was I like working with him?
This was the first time we had no separation in the studio, with all five of us in one room. He told us to bring little amps. That goes back to what you hear on the Derek And The Dominoes record and the James Gang records. Those dudes liked to use little Princetons and Champs. It doesn’t sound like that on our record—you can make it sound as big as you want. “Dig A Hole” was the first thing we recorded, and it was perfect. It was like, “Nobody change anything you’re doing. This is the shit.” The very last thing we recorded was “Barefoot Angel,” the last track—and it just came out of nowhere. Adam Hood and I had written that song as a slow acoustic ballad. Dave was like, “Wait a minute—I hear this as a big soulful thing.” He heard the song in a way I didn’t. That’s why he’s a Grammy-winning producer.

Blackberry Smoke has been a touring machine for the past 20 years. Does it ever get to the point where it feels like a grind?
It can. But at the same time, it’s something you get so addicted to that it’s hard to stop. We never really stop for too long. It’s sort of like the Bob Dylan model. It doesn’t really matter when the record comes out—you’re still touring.

—Hobart Rowland

Catch Blackberry Smoke live.