The pandemic couldn’t stop Blackberry Smoke from performing

The Atlanta-based group makes a stop at the Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre on Friday

click to enlarge Blackberry Smoke. - Joe Lopez
Joe Lopez
Blackberry Smoke.

Throughout Blackberry Smoke’s two-decade career, playing live has been the lifeblood of the band. So being forced off of the road by the pandemic wasn’t easy for the group.

“It’s a tough habit to kick, playing music in front of people,” Charlie Starr, singer, guitarist, and main songwriter for the band, says in a recent phone interview. “We even, before we even started to do those kinds of shows, my buddy Benji (Shanks, who is a touring guitarist with Blackberry Smoke) and I were playing for my neighbors in my backyard. OK, any port in the storm.”

In fact, when the Atlanta-based group formed in 2000, getting the chance to tour and play shows was the central goal, and it pretty much has remained the band’s focus ever since.

“We knew what we could control was taking our music on the road and playing for people, which was really the most important thing,” Starr says. “We’re playing this music and making these records to sell to these people. We’re not particularly product-minded like that, but at the end of the day, that’s what it is. You’re making music to please yourself as a musician, and you’re hoping that these people will buy it so you can make a living. So that was sort of what we focused on. We didn’t set these goals like we want to get signed to a major label and we want to sell out stadiums. We just had maybe a more realistic view of it. OK, here’s what we can do. Let’s do this.”

Eventually Starr got to return to taking shows beyond his back yard, as Blackberry Smoke played some socially distanced and drive-in concerts in fall 2020. The band then spent much of last summer on a headlining tour, has continued to do shows this year, and will round out the year playing their album The Whippoorwill to celebrate the 10th anniversary of that release. Fans can expect some surprises in the set list.

“We kind of just switch it up night to night,” Starr says. “There are songs that we sort of always play, favorites that I kind of figure, well, if we don’t play them, then we hear about it. But it’s OK. Personally, I love playing all of the songs. There really aren’t any that I go ‘Oh, man.’ And even if I did, even songs we’ve played thousands of times now, when you see people react, it kind of keeps it fresh. ‘Oh, I like this tune.’”

A few songs could come from the band’s latest album, You Hear Georgia, which was released in May 2021 and debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Americana albums chart. The band, which also includes Paul Jackson (guitar), Richard Turner (bass), Brit Turner (drums), and Brandon Still (keyboards), had planned all along to make a new album in 2020, but the pandemic pushed those plans back for a couple of months.

“We were planning to go into the studio in March (2020) with Dave Cobb,” Starr says, mentioning the highly respected producer who remained on board for the project. “We had a bunch of songs written and we were ready to go. We were in Canada. We had just started a Canadian tour. I think we got three shows played and we were sent home. What we were going to do initially was go into the studio right off of that Canadian tour. It’s always great for a band to go in the studio coming off of a tour because you’re all well oiled and rehearsed. Of course, that all got shot down.”

Instead, the group put recording plans on pause before settling on a late-May trip to Nashville’s RCA Studio A, where Cobb works. This slight delay actually benefited the album. It gave Starr time to write some more songs, a few of which, he says, supplanted other tunes that had been slated to be on the album. One of those tunes was “All Rise Again,” which was co-written by Starr and Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band). One of the best songs on You Hear Georgia, the stout and soulful rocker includes a tangy slide guitar solo and a vocal turn from Haynes.

Another new addition was the title song, a crunchy rocker responding to the demeaning stereotypes often associated with the South and the people who call it home.

“The song ‘You Hear Georgia’ itself was the last one written for the record. I was sitting over in the corner and I had been fiddling around with a riff with my buddy (and songwriting collaborator) Dave Lizmi, who’s a great guitar player,” Starr says. “We were batting some music back and forth and I started playing what I had of that song and singing the first couple of verse lines, and Dave Cobb was over in the corner of the studio on a couch. And Cobb came by having a cup of coffee and he said ‘What’s that?’ I said ‘Well, it’s not finished. It’s nothing yet.’ He said ‘Well, go finish it. I love it. We’ve got to record it.’

“And Dave Cobb, I think he said you should call the album that, and it was just kind of an Ah-hah moment with all of us,” Starr says. “It was like ‘You’re right.’ It kind of cemented the whole week right here. Everything went so well and then to end on that sort of a bang was ‘Yeah man, you’re exactly right.’”

The rest of the You Hear Georgia album demonstrates the band’s versatility, while still showing that Blackberry Smoke is first and foremost a rock ’n’ roll band. In addition to several other tuneful and muscular rockers (“All Over The Road,” “Live It Down” and “Morningside”), there’s a poppier tune laced with funk (“Hey Delilah”), a pure country song featuring a guest vocal from Jamey Johnson (“Lonesome For A Livin’”), and a stripped-back gentle ballad (“Old Enough To Know”).

Starr feels the latest album, like each successive Blackberry Smoke album, finds the band growing musically and crafting a set of songs that’s a bit more cohesive.

“The focus is a little clearer, I think, with each one (album)” Starr says. “I guess that’s bound to happen when a band’s been playing together for years and years. I hope the songwriting has grown. I feel like it has. It makes me feel good. I can go back to our first album and think, as a songwriter, think ‘Oh, well I wouldn’t have done that that way now’ or ‘I wouldn’t have said that exactly that way.’ But that’s just getting older, I guess. There are aspects of our first couple of records that I still love dearly, that, you know, youth and exuberance. But then I put on ‘You Hear Georgia’ and there are songs where I’m like we can still lay it down like we did when we were in our 20s.”

Blackberry Smoke performs with Jamey Johnson and Megan Moroney on Friday, Sept. 9 at Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre; 14900 Metro Pkwy., Sterling Heights; 313-471-7000; 313presents.com. Event starts at 6:15 p.m. Tickets start at $25.15.

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