It’s been said that musicians can draw inspiration from a room. The way the room feels, the natural reverb and the energy all play an intangible role in capturing a band. Earlier this year, Blackberry Smoke released their sixth studio album, Find A Light. Not too long after though, the group descended on Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Nashville studio, originally with no intention of recording what turned out to be their fourth EP, The Southern Ground Sessions. With the new EP, a band that has defied critics to pigeonhole them have further proven that there is no one genre that can contain their versatile sound.
Guitar World recently sat down with the band's two guitarists and vocalists, Charlie Starr and Paul Jackson, to talk about the sessions.
Let’s talk about the Southern Ground Sessions. The majority of these songs are obviously on the latest album, Find A Light, but they're done in a more laid-back, acoustic way. Can you talk about what drove you to do these songs in this way? Were these more in line with how they were written?
Charlie Starr: I do write most every song on acoustic guitar. That’s just been my method for a long time, but that’s not the reason we went in to do this. We were going to go in and film ourselves and some friends performing some of these songs acoustically just for video content. That was the initial goal. That studio looks fantastic—all the great-looking wood on the walls, the ceiling and it’s dark, it really has a cool aesthetic. We didn’t pay a whole lot of attention initially to audio. Obviously you want to sound good but it wasn’t like ok, we’re going to make an acoustic EP. That wasn’t the goal.
I think sometimes that’s where you capture some magic. You just threw some mics up and all of a sudden you start playing. We were only going to do a couple songs, [but] we ended up recording all day because it felt and sounded fantastic. This yet again is proof you shouldn’t over-think it and you get a winner. If we had gone overboard and tried to make everything perfect it would have probably ended up sounding like shit. It was a happy accident.
Paul Jackson: We actually went in to just do the tunes. It sounded so good we recorded it for the record. It wasn’t our focus but it turned out that in the control room everyone though it sounded so great we were just like “let it roll."
Did you spend a lot of time working on arrangements? Some of these are closer to what we hear on Find A Light, some a bit different.
Starr: No, this was more of a shooting from the hip kind of thing, a jam. Everyone was really comfortable. Not too much thought goes into that sort of thing. We wanted it to be like we were in our living room, or your living room. No pressure.
Paul, do you and Charlie have to talk about who is going to do what on a particular song? Do you break it up so you aren’t playing the exact same parts?
Jackson: We pretty much know each other well enough, and I know what my job is going to be and he knows his. There’s never an 'I want to do that' or anything like that. We’re not those type of guitar players.
Ego-less guitar players?
Jackson: Yeah (laughs). If he comes in with a tune and it sounds goods to me, I’m like “hell yeah, keep it." I’m not one of those players that has to put something in there. If the song is good and it’s flowing, leave it be. When Charlie writes something, I get it, I like the music. I’ll throw a little salt and pepper here and there. We’re really good at communicating what's about to happen.
When you listen to this, the solos are slightly different than on Find A Light. Is it hard, when you have a song that you have played so many times, to then go back and think about playing the solo different? Does your brain lock in on the record’s solo?
Starr: I think it could just be whatever you are feeling at the time. Sometimes, depending on the song, the solo can be a counter-melody. I am a big believer in that. Instead of just throwing a barrage of notes at people, I like to let the solo sing to you as well. That comes from all of our heroes like Jimmy Page to the Skynyrd guys. Their solos were beautifully composed. I generally will try and stick to whatever the melody of what a particular solo might be. There is always room for embellishment depending on how you are feeling that day. Mike Campbell was the absolute king of that. It will seems like he starts with the solo we all know and love and then from time to time you get an 'ooh what was that?'
Jackson: The attack is way lighter on certain tracks. You play a little more subtle. It’s a feel. When you're playing live with a whole band, all bets are off. It’s harder to solo sometimes on an acoustic. The bends for example can be harder so you slide up and slide back.
It can make it really interesting to those of us that commit those solos to memory to hear those variations.
Starr: I’ve seen bands, favorite bands of mine, where another guitar player will be in their band and that person won’t play the lick of a solo that I feel is very important. I’ve caught myself thinking 'Damn you should have played it like so-and-so.' But not long go I watched The Rolling Stones' DVD, Sticky Fingers Live at the Fonda Theatre. I thought Ron Wood did an incredible job of playing the Mick Taylor licks that are really important to me, but yet he went about it his way. He was very respectful, but he stayed true to some of the things you really want to hear. You want to hear that lick if you hear “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking."
Equipment-wise, The Southern Ground Sessions has that feel of a couple buddies grabbing whatever acoustic guitar was handy. Did you use anything in particular?
Starr: I used a Hummingbird that I think is a 2012 Gibson Montana, that's really a great one. Then I used a ‘55 J45.
Jackson: I actually used one of Charlie’s Martins that Zac Brown had given him a few years back. It sounds great.
What about the tunings? Do you tune the same?
Starr: “Mother Mountain” is in Open-D or E; shit I can’t remember. “Run Away From It All” is Open-G. The others are all standard.
Jackson: Now I’m usually in standard tuning. It makes the sound bigger in my ears. Charlie has that raw open and I’m right there with standard. I think it gives a bigger sound, I can tell the difference.
With the EP do you see yourself adding some of these songs acoustically to the set? Or was this more a snapshot in time?
Starr: We have actually. We will from time to time have a little acoustic section in the middle of the show. That can be a tough thing. It's according to where you are, what type of venue, that will determine if people will listen (laughs).
Charlie can you touch a little on writing with (former Buckcherry guitarist) Keith Nelson? It certainly added something to those tracks.
Starr: Keith and I have been friends going on 25 years. I met him in Atlanta at a bar that I frequented at that time. It was Buckcherry’s first trip to the south in a van. They played like Raleigh, Greenville, Atlanta on a little southern leg of their tour. I was knocked out. I just happened to be in this bar and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I met him and and the band, and we instantly became friends and have remained friends all these years.
Last year, we were on the phone probably talking about collecting guitars and he had recently left Buckcherry. I’m sure it was a tough situation for him. He said he had some song ideas and asked if I wanted to write some songs together. We had never done anything like that. I said absolutely. He started sending riffs and music over, [and] before I knew it we had written 8 or 10 songs. I thought they were really good. We were coming from a very similar place even though our bands are different, but we love the same things and have very similar taste in guitars and amps. It was really a fulfilling thing to do. We weren’t writing for an album or a project, we were just making music. I picked out four pretty quickly and said I was going to take them to become Blackberry Smoke songs because they fit. He didn’t disagree.
Paul, your voice and Charlie’s voice blend so well together but really sound nothing at all alike. I think that the sound of your blended vocals is really the essence of Blackberry Smoke. Do you guys have to put a lot of thought into that? When to harmonize, when to stay out of it, etc?
Jackson: I just kind of know where things need to have my vocals. Obviously, I could sing with him constantly but it makes sense to do it in certain little areas here and there. I’ve been singing all my life. I was a singer before I was in Blackberry Smoke. I think because I don’t sing anything like Charlie is what makes them go well together. It’s good for the sauce.
Not to knock either of your voices, but when you listen to them separately it’s hard to almost to imagine them blending as well as they do.
Jackson: Right, when we first got together I was thinking the same thing, I wondered what it was going to sound like. I used to go see his band and he’d come see mine. I knew him 15 or 20 years before we even played together. When we first rehearsed, I thought it sounded really cool.
When you guys came together to start the band, can you talk about what sort of distinguished you two as players?
Jackson: Charlie grew up in the bluegrass field. I wasn’t raised where he was, I grew up in Florida. Charlie was really schooled on Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, I was playing just rock. I’ve been playing in bars since I was 16 in like 1987. You can imagine what I was playing.
Blackberry has historically been hard to label with just one style and you have played shows with a wide variety of bands over the years. How much do you vary your set according to who you are touring with or the situation?
Starr: I try not to ever do that. The set itself varies every night. There are songs that we have to play or people will feel like they didn’t get their money's worth. We change it up every night and that’s a lot of fun. It’s very fulfilling because people will come to multiple shows, they notice we didn’t play a particular song and I’ll tell them we will play it tomorrow. People will keep track of how long it’s been since we played a certain song. That makes me happy. That means they're listening and they care.
As far as putting together a setlist tailor-made for an audience, I found out a long time ago that that is a mistake. I tried to do it on a number of occasions, I thought maybe we needed a quieter show or a louder show or a heavier show and it always seemed to backfire. I decided that we are going to just do what we do, and if people don’t like it, they just don’t like it.
Are there certain things about certain rooms or venues that just add a bit of magic?
Jackson: Yeah, all the venues inspire you differently. If you walk in and you have a look or you get up on stage to your mic like I do before shows, you get inspired. The people especially inspire you.
Do you find when you go out on a stage you have no idea what to expect? Does the crowd’s energy vary much night to night?
Jackson: It can occasionally. When you walk out and people are sitting it can scare you. I get nervous when that happens. I feel like my mother’s staring at me (laughs).
As far as the band’s plans, I’m sure you guys are in full-on touring mode for Find A Light still. Any writing in the future or is it still too soon in the album cycle?
Starr: It is soon but I do have a few new ones written. I don’t generally have a writing time. I do it when I can and when I feel inspired. I wish I was wealthy enough to have like a writing cabin on a lake somewhere and a huge window of time. Unfortunately I do not (laughs).
You need Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Hell House.
Starr: Exactly! I would probably have a writing trailer (laughs).
Are you someone that can say you are going to write an album in a specific window of time? You see that in some musicians that tour heavily like yourself where they will set aside 10 days to write and record months in advance.
Starr: No, I think that that for me would be where bad songs would come from. I normally write the lion’s share of an album in a certain time but it’s not something I can plan.
John Katic is a writer and podcaster who founded the Iron City Rocks Podcast in 2009. It features interviews with countless rock, hard rock, metal and blues artists.