We’re just days away from the 2018 edition of Kent’s Ramblin’ Man Fair and HRH Mag will be right across the weekend action.
Warming you up for the big event here’s an exclusive chat with Blackberry Smoke‘s Charlie Starr!
I’ve Got This Song sings a proud Charlie Starr midway through Blackberry Smoke’s sixth studio album Find A Light. He’s singing it, he’s playing it and if it might not be perfect (although it’s pretty damn close) then at least he’s doing it his way. And that’s the key where the frustrated sidekick turned satisfied main man is concerned.
“I was a guitar player first and foremost,” explained Starr. “Most of the bands I was in in my early 20s already had a singer but they needed a guitar player and so that was my way in. “For a while I was happy to be that guy but then dealing with singers became a pain! When I started writing songs I often wasn’t crazy about the way people would sing them and after a while I just decided it was time to sing them myself.
“I wasn’t capable of doing that in the early days but I worked hard and learned my trade. It’s a whole different ball game being the frontman and although I’d decided that was what I needed to do it wasn’t an easy transition.”
If singing still doesn’t come easy to one of the most affecting vocalists on classic rock scene then God help the rest of us. Watch Starr live and the understated frontman comes across as one of the most relaxed, accomplished and multi-talented musicians in the business. On Find A Light he’s the shining light.
“I guess these days it’s all pretty natural,” he added with typical – and genuine – modesty. “I learnt my chops playing four sets a night in a bar. Drunk people can be pretty forgiving…most of the time. It’s like guys in the UK putting themselves out front in tiny pubs every weekend. Practice makes perfect. I’m not perfect but I’m way better than I was!”
Whether Starr will ever believe his singing comes close to his six stringing is doubtful. Much more comfortable talking about power chords than examining the finer detail of vocal cords, the multi-talented musician can trace his riff-fuelled roots as far back as Hank Snow’s Wreck Of The Old ’97 – a song also made famous by Johnny Cash recounting a 1903 rail disaster in Virginia.
“My dad’s a bluegrass singer and guitar player,” he added. “I think the first song he taught me to play was Wreck Of The Old ’97. But once I got an electric guitar I quickly graduated to Whole Lotta Rosie and Iron Man.
“On the acoustic guitar I got pretty good playing all of these old cowboy songs that my dad taught me but when I was 11 I got an electric guitar. By then my friends were playing Aerosmith, Sabbath and Zeppelin and it was like ‘Oh yeah, I want to do that too!’. They are the most important riffs for any budding guitar player – even now. My oldest son is 21 now but he started on Sabbath and Zeppelin.”
Starr might be renowned for carrying a heavy musical load but Blackberry Smoke are a close knit team and it’s no surprise that the band’s founder favours guitar duos over individual stars when considering those musicians who influenced him most. “It’s impossible to think of just one guitarist,” he added. “I’ve always been drawn to teams. Devon Allman and Dickey Betts, Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, Angus and Malcolm Young – these were the guitar duos who inspired me. I love them all!”
Surely it can’t be long before Starr and the Smoke’s rhythm guitarist, Paul Jackson, find themselves talked about in the same terms as Allman and Betts, Perry and Whitford and the Young brothers. In fact, given Find A Light’s many highlights that time should be now.
“I’m really proud of the new album,” added Starr. “From cover to cover I think it could be our most inspired record yet. I love all of the songs but what I love most is the depth and the variety.
“Everyone’s playing was top notch during the recording process – it was a really fluid situation. I look back on that time very fondly. It can be tough when you’ve been together for so many years and you’re in the studio working.
“Don’t get me wrong – it’s not always fun. But everything about Find A Light felt so easy. It was a really positive experience and when I listen back to the record now it still takes me back to that time.”
Starr isn’t being boastful when he describes the recording of Find A Light as ‘easy’. He’s simply being real. The former mechanic has experienced the difficult times during Blackberry Smoke’s slow crawl from Southern rock hopefuls to genre saviours and recognises when the good times roll. Where the Atlanta natives are concerned hard work has paid off – and not before time.
“It’s been a story of steady progression where this band is concerned,” agreed Starr. “We all took the plunge in the early noughties. We said we’d quit our jobs and go on the road. We all had to commit – it was all of us or none of us.
“That was the underlying factor behind the decision to do this full-time. I don’t think Blackberry Smoke would have happened if only one or two guys had committed. It was just the four of us back then and that was mainly because we couldn’t fit anyone in the van! “Once we were able to upgrade to a bigger set of wheels we brought Brandon Still on board. It took nine years before we had the room for another band member and his keys!”
Starr looks back on those formative years with a mixture of pride and frustration. But there’s a strong sense that this is an individual who could turn his hand to almost anything and emerge triumphant.
“In the late 90s I was working in an auto body repair shop and I enjoyed it,” he added. “I was happy there. I learned it from my dad who did the same job all of his adult life. It’s dirty work but I really liked it – and still like it now.
“I have a shop that’s lying empty and one day – when I’m retired from music and I’ve got some time on my hands – I’ll fill it with a couple of ‘project’ cars. I see myself as a Jeff Beck type character! Maybe Brian Johnson will get me on his show.
“I’ve had a couple of old cars in my life and I love fiddling around under the hood. But when it comes to spending money I tend to gravitate towards guitars, rather than cars. And guitars can be pretty expensive.”
Pretty expensive and pretty powerful. Many of Starr’s signature riffs have soundtracked a revival in Southern rock during the last five years but even with his band enjoying their biggest success to date, Blackberry Smoke’s frontman resists the temptation to dream big.
“I don’t ever really expect anything,” he added. “I’m not a pessimist but at the same time I don’t take anything for granted. As a band we rarely set goals and as a result nothing can be considered a failure.
“I think that’s a good mindset to be in. We just kind of move along steadily and progress without really thinking about it. We love that. It feels like we’re constantly in motion – we never slow down but we never go too far, too fast.”
If Starr constantly steels himself against over optimism, then his one hope is that the people who buy Blackberry Smoke records appreciate the product and the passion underpinning it.
“I do want people to like the records that we make,” he added. “That’s a very important part of what I do. Every record that we make, when we release it to the world we love it and we feel it’s a worthy body of work. We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to achieve and sharing that music with the world is a great feeling. If someone doesn’t like it then tough shit. I like it – otherwise Blackberry Smoke wouldn’t release it. And if someone out there does like it as much as we do then that’s a fantastic feeling.”
For a while that someone wasn’t obvious.
In 2018 it’s difficult to believe there was a time when Blackberry Smoke were nothing more than a footnote in the story of Southern rock: a main stage slot at this summer’s Ramblin’ Man Fair and a full UK tour later this year proves Starr and co. have never been a bigger draw. The singer points to originality and evolution as the cornerstones of his band’s slow-burning success but can’t quite put his finger on why critical acclaim and commercial success was such a long time coming.
“We’ve come this far because I don’t think we’ve reached a point yet where we’re stymied,” added Starr. “We’ve never asked each other ‘what are we going to do now?’. In fact, it feels as if we’ve enjoyed the most creative period of our careers in the last five or six years.
“There was a period where nobody would touch us and we weren’t able to release a record for five years – that was tough. But we’re lucky that we’ve found people on both sides of the Atlantic who encourage the creativity to pour out. We learnt first-hand that being stifled by the music business can be a reality. It can clog you up as an artist and a band and that’s why we’re so grateful to find ourselves in the position we’re in right now.”
That sense of gratitude is writ large right across the wildly optimistic and uplifting Find A Light. Starr and his band mates have honed the raw emotion of 2015’s Holding All The Roses and retained the immediacy of 2016’s Like An Arrow to create their very own masterwork.
“I think there is a sense of optimism reflected in the album title,” added the record’s architect in chief. “There are many things happening right now that make the world a dark and scary place. It’s just a tense time. We have our own political problems in the States and the same kind of stuff is happening all over the world. It feels like we’re teetering on the brink of something negative.
“Within the band we all have children now and I think a lot about their future and their prospects. I’ve never seen anything like the current political climate in my lifetime and it can be a bit scary. The only thing that can change that sense of fear is people. If those people can shine their light on the world then it can become a better place. That’s what the message is with the new record.”
One of Find A Light’s myriad highlights is – quite fittingly given this summer’s only UK festival appearance – the sublime I’ll Keep Ramblin’. Featuring Robert Randolph on pedal steel guitar it’s a killer track and a future live anthem.
“Robert is an old friend and we’ve played a few shows together and jammed together over the years,” revealed Starr. “He recorded an instrumental version of I’ll Keep Ramblin’ and put it on a record of his. But after a while he asked me to write some lyrics for the song and I was happy to. We played it together at a show with the vocals and it went down so well.
“It was so cool and for me it was a real lightbulb moment. I asked Robert to return the favour and come into the studio and record the full song with us. It became this whole gospel jubilee kinda track and it’s one of my favourites on the new record. I would say there’s a strong possibility that it will feature in this summer’s Ramblin’ Man Fair set – it would only be right!”
That set already looks like becoming one of this summer’s must-see live events and Starr can’t wait to step up alongside The Cult, Mott The Hoople, Steel Panther, Halestorm, The Cadillac Three and more at one of the most eclectic festivals of 2018.
“We’ve been playing diverse festivals for years now – playing places like Bonnaroo in the States,” he added. “The first time we played a festival in Europe was Sweden Rock and we followed Death Angel onto the stage! Those guys were killing it and we looked at each other and wondered what on earth we were doing there. We were so worried that the crowd would be against us from the start but as soon as we stepped out there people started pulling out Confederate flags and stuff and we had 20,000 people with us all the way.
“Ramblin’ Man’s bill is out there this summer and we can’t wait to get over to the UK. We’re ready for anything after we played Download a few years back – all I can remember from that is the rain getting heavier and heavier and the wind getting stronger and then the sound of various pieces of equipment failing! It’s got to be better than that?”
Now that Blackberry Smoke have finally found a light, Starr could be right.
*This feature originally appeared in Volume Five of HRH Mag – OUT NOW!
*Band images courtesy of Jason Thrasher and David McClister. Live shots by HRH Mag Chief Photographer John Burrows.