Blackberry Smoke's Charlie Starr: "Everybody wishes they could re-record their debut album – unless you're Led Zeppelin!"

Charlie Starr
(Image credit: Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Earlier this year, Blackberry Smoke celebrated their 20th anniversary as a band with a new album, You Hear Georgia. It’s an appropriate title for the Atlanta-based group, whose sound evokes their home state’s rich heritage, with echoes of the Allman Brothers Band and country music mixed in lots of crunchy Rolling Stones- and Tom Petty-esque rock swagger. 

The band, fronted by guitarist/singer/songwriter Charlie Starr, has honed their unique American blend with relentless touring, a hardcore work ethic and a continuing stream of excellent releases.

Since their last full-length album, 2018’s Find a Light, Blackberry Smoke have put out a live album and concert film, Homecoming: Live in Atlanta; a six-song acoustic EP, The Southern Ground Sessions; and Live from Capricorn Sound Studios, an EP of six covers recorded live.  

You Hear Georgia was recorded in Nashville with producer Dave Cobb, who is establishing his own Grade A Americana catalog, working with Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Marcus King and others. Blackberry Smoke fit right into this organic, guitar-based group. 

They’re joined on the album by a couple of special guests, Warren Haynes and Jamey Johnson, as well as their newest touring member, guitarist Benji Shanks. His addition gives Blackberry Smoke a three-guitar lineup, teaming with Starr and Paul Jackson. It all represents ongoing growth, but not any kind of radical deviation from the roots rock the band has been making for two decades.

“There's been an evolution of my playing and our music over the life of the band, but I don't think it's drastic,” Starr says. “The foundation is still there. I think the songs are better now. Listening to our first album is hard to do, because we were a brand-new band and pretty green, but I still hear some elements from it today. I think everybody wishes they could re-record their debut album – unless you're Led Zeppelin.”

This album marks the band’s 20th anniversary. At what point did you realize this had legs, that it was different from other bands you’d been in? 

"It would be a lie to say the first day, but the first time we sold out a headlining club show playing our music – they're there to see us, not some band we’re opening for. It might have been 200 people, but I thought, 'They all bought a ticket to hear our songs. We've made it.'"

Being a guitar player was my focus, and I was very into that, but I started to see what writing songs could do for people

Were you tuned in from the start that songwriting was going to be really important?

"Yeah. I had come out of a handful of situations playing with songwriters. I was fascinated with these guys that just wrote songs and went out and played them. Being a guitar player was my focus, and I was very into that, but I started to see what writing songs could do for people. When I was a kid, my dad would grab his acoustic guitar and sing these bluegrass songs, and that’s what I wanted to do. 

"Then I went through the years of just playing the guitar, terrified to sing. I wanted to play like Jimmy Page, Gary Rossington, Duane Allman and Dickey Betts – and then it came back around, thanks to those songwriters. I thought, 'I'm not the best singer, but I can sing a song.' Then all I needed to do is write some songs to sing." [Laughs]

You recently added Benji Shanks as a third guitarist. How does that change things?

"We all kind of want to be a three-guitar band, way down deep in our hearts, and maybe add another drummer too. Benji and I have been playing together as a duo for about 15 years and are just kindred spirits. He’s a sweetener, who adds so much to what is already there. He knows what to play and not to play, but with three guitars, we do talk about the parts quite a bit, about staying out of each other's lane.

"One of the beautiful things about the original Lynyrd Skynyrd was the way the three guitarists stayed out of each other's way, and they never really seem to be playing the same thing at the same time, which is mind-blowing. We try to subscribe to that idea." 

Warren Haynes co-wrote All Rise Again and plays and sings on it. How did you start working together now?

"We were on the phone late one night just sharing our lockdown experiences and he said, 'Man, I've been writing more songs than I ever have, because there's nothing else to do,' and I said, 'Yeah, me too – and collaborating a lot with friends who are in the same position, stuck at home.' 

"And he said, 'Let's write together.' We started sending little voice memos back and forth, then we got on the phone and hashed it out. We didn't even talk about what we were writing for, but I played it for Dave Cobb, when we were doing pre-production over the phone.

"I asked Warren if he would please play on it, and he said absolutely and that he wanted to sing on it, too. I didn't want to ask for too much; after all, he is Warren Haynes! The only drawback was we had to do it long distance, because it wasn’t a good time to travel. We have some more songs in the works."

You also sing a song with Jamey Johnson, who sounds incredible, like a redwood singing. 

"Yes! His voice is like molasses, fantastic. That one is very interesting. Years ago, we recorded Yesterday's Wine, the old Willie Nelson song, with Jamey and [country music legend] George Jones, which I'll cherish forever. A couple of years ago, we were hanging out with Jamey after doing a show together and he said he’d love to record together again. And I said, 'Well, I got this song.'

"I wrote a very traditional country song for George Jones, who passed away before he did it. I didn’t write it for myself to sing; it was for a country troubadour, so I suggested we should record that as a tribute to George. And that's what we did." 

There are a couple of songs that are completely live, vocal and all, including Old Enough to Know. That's the way we make records anyway; we're a band, we play together

Cobb always works at RCA Studio A and seems to be developing a real sound in there, like he has the studio tuned in the way the guys at Stax, Motown and Sun did. Did you feel that working with him?

"Absolutely! We're both big gear nerds with vintage guitars and amplifiers, and he said, 'You don't have to bring anything. I’ve got everything we need and more.' He knows what sounds best for what you're trying to accomplish, and everything has its place in that room, so that's a huge part of the equation taken care of. But I didn't listen to him and brought tons and tons of stuff of my own because half the fun of making records is playing with your toys! 

"We tracked it all live. There are a couple of songs that are completely live, vocal and all, including Old Enough to Know. That's the way we make records anyway; we're a band, we play together. But more so with Dave, who wanted to keep everything possible from a track going down on the floor; keep it if the passion is there." 

Hey Delilah is a great song, with a real the Band feel.

"Thanks, man. That's completely accidental, but we've absorbed the music of the Band, Little Feat and many others. Tom Waits said, 'You eventually secrete what you have absorbed.' A lot of times songs will just plop out, fully formed – and that's a good example." 

All Over the Road has a Stones feel and that Mick Taylor slide sound; was he your main slide influence, more so than Duane Allman?

"I've never really been adept at playing slide with only my fingers on my picking hands, which is obviously what Duane did. I kind of use a pick and ring finger combination, like a hybrid picking thing. And so, I was never able to really play that Duane stuff very well and would always lean a little more toward Lowell George. At one point, I decided that I hold my guitar too low to really get comfortable playing with nothing but the fingers down there." 

Your guitar is slung more like Jimmy Page than Duane.

"Yeah, I'm blaming my lack of slide playing ability on Jimmy Page!"

You play slide just fine! And always in open tuning, right? Do you use a lot of tunings overall?  

"Most of my slide playing is in open G, and I love playing with tunings. I got a lot of quirky, different types of tunings I've learned over the years from different people and records. I love a couple really odd ones Nick Drake utilized, that I had to be shown. 

"Warren taught me about the Stephen Stills tuning that he used, a low C tuning that I used on a new song. I picked up an old Martin that Dave had in the control room and he said, 'That’s in the David Crosby Guinevere tuning. Crosby tuned it when he was here recording with Jason Isbell and I left it.' It was fascinating to play."

Blackberry Smoke

(Image credit: Joe Lopez)

Is the Les Paul Junior still your number one? Do you find the single pickup limiting?

"I love them and always have. I don’t find the single pickup limiting at all. I prefer the P90 to a humbucker, really. You can get so many different sounds with a single-pickup guitar, just the way where you pick the strings. And that's why God made volume knobs. A P90 is really responsive as to where you put your volume knob, especially if you're playing through a really loud amplifier, when you come down with it, you can get really into Tele territory.

"But it's just a bigger, fatter tone to me – even than a humbucker. It may lack some certain frequency that you'll hear when you play a vintage Gibson humbucker guitar, but it more than makes up for it. It's just big and round and the low mid is great and creamy. The one you’re talking about is a refinished '56 and it's really a Frankenstein, and it's the best-sounding guitar I've ever owned. It's just magical." 

I'm definitely not just a collector and I don't have a whole lot of mint-condition guitars. They're made to be played

What are some of your other favorite guitars? 

"I've got a really good 1965 Gibson ES 330, the P90 hollow body ES - but the 330 is truly hollow, not semi-hollow like the 335.  With a loud amplifier, it's an animal because it wants to take off. It's a challenge, you can't be anywhere near your amp. I also have a couple of Fender Esquires, a ‘63 and a ‘65, that I used on the record and they're both really magical. I had the '65 on extended loan. It was for sale and I kept balking at the price and I finally said alright, I'll buy it. I love it. Had to do it."

Do you get rid of something as you get something or do you just keep acquiring? 

"A little of both. My wife likes it when I get rid of things. It softens the blow of the arrival of a new guitar when she sees one leave. It helps our case."

That’s not an uncommon situation. You have a better excuse than most of us to keep getting guitars since it's actually your job. 

"Yeah, but my wife doesn't fall for the, 'Hey, they're tools, Honey' bit. [Laughs] I won't buy one if it's not usable. I'm definitely not just a collector and I don't have a whole lot of mint-condition guitars. They're made to be played." 

Tell me about the guitar Billy Gibbons gave you.

"It's a reissue Dan Armstrong Lucite guitar. We were out on the road with ZZ Top in 2007, and we went to the NAMM Show, where there was a Dan Armstrong booth. I owned a vintage one in the '90s, which had a badly repaired headstock break so I sold it, but it was so cool. We all love those because of Keith Richards and Joe Perry. 

"Back on the road, we were having lunch and I asked Billy if he had ever owned a Dan Armstrong and of course he had and loved it, so I told him about the new ones and that they sounded great. He asked if I bought one and when I said no, he just kind of rubbed his beard. About a week later, I went in his dressing room and he had one! We passed it back and forth playing and when I got up to leave, he said, 'Don't forget your guitar.' Billy is the best."

What amps do you use on the album?

"Dave has a warehouse room full of amps, so I just took a 1965 Deluxe Reverb, a 1958 Tweed Tremolux and a '70s JMP 50-watt Marshall, used with one of his cabinets. We pulled down a bunch of his amps and I used an old Magnatone on a song and maybe an Ampeg Gemini. But the Deluxe Reverb was working, so we kept using it."

What about effects? 

"I used an Echoplex, a '70s EP-3, quite a bit, and a Drybell Vibe Machine, a really great Univibe sound in a tiny little pedal. Other than that, I think just tremolo and reverb from that amp. In my pedalboard, I have a Fulltone Supa Trem mach one that I love."

You guys recorded an EP last year at the newly reopened Capricorn studios, where so much great music by Marshall Tucker, the Allman Brothers Band and many others was recorded. Tell me about that.

"That was great! Absolutely live in one afternoon. I took so many things away from that day. The studio was great, of course, and the vibe in the room is just magical. We didn't go in there with the intention of making a recorded project, just to capture video with Jimmy Hall and the Bettys and Marcus Henderson to promote the Spirit of the South tour. 

"I remember walking into the control room and listening to a playback and being blown away that it sounded as good as it did. When we were done, everybody started thinking it might be something people want to have."

I don't know if I could play the music I play without Zeppelin II, Revolver or At Fillmore East. Fillmore East is one long guitar lesson

Is the Stones' Exile on Main St. still your favorite album?

"Yeah, I don't own a record that surpasses it. It covers so much ground: blues and gospel and country and even a little bit of reggae feeling, with Sweet Black Angel and then just rock and roll and it sounds dirty and dangerous, not safe and happy. It sounds like they were doing things they weren't supposed to be doing. 

"And the songs themselves are just unbeatable, but there was only one single, Tumbling Dice. It just stands there and says, 'Hey, we don’t need a bunch of hits. We have a bunch of damn good songs recorded exactly the way they should have been.'” 

Does that mean the Stones are your favorite band and most important influence? 

"I think they are my favorite band. I don't know about my most important influence. Other people are also so influential to me. I could say the same about Zeppelin II or Revolver or At Fillmore East. I don't know if I could play the music I play without any of those records. Fillmore East is one long guitar lesson."

How would you describe the greatness of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts?

"Duane played with such ferocity at such a young age. He was so well read, musically, with all of his session work – a 22-year-old guy playing with Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, King Curtis and Clarence Carter. But what he brought to the Brothers was just that he was on fire and he was always that way. He was just an intense, intense player. 

"Even when he comes in on Layla, it's like, 'Oh, Duane's here.' Dickey scratches a whole different itch for me from that era of the band. The tone was a little brighter and a little cleaner, but just as fabulous. The Duane Allman and Dickey Betts tones on those records are just unbeatable. Nobody's better. 

"But Dickey was playing a little more laid back at times and bringing a little more country, which developed later, with Blue Sky and Ramblin’ Man. But his solo on Not My Cross to Bear or You Don’t Love Me is not laid back at all. They were both just so fantastic." 

Staying on the Allman Brothers Band tip, talk a little bit about Warren as a player. 

"I was in high school when Seven Turns, his first album with the band, came out [in 1990] and I heard Good Clean Fun on the radio. I heard Warren playing slide and went, 'Oh, my God, who is that? Who has stepped in here and is doing that?' I found out pretty quickly – probably in Guitar World – here's the new guy, and we’re all going to know him. The way that he plays and sings, too – good grief. 

"Then I went to see Gov't Mule in Atlanta, 1995 New Year's Eve at the Hard Rock Cafe, and again at the Cotton Club. I think they were the loudest trio I've ever seen, and he might be the best singing guitar player I've ever seen. He can play with anybody in any situation and he always just does what Warren Haynes does, and it always works and it always rules. They just don't make them like that anymore." 

And Derek Trucks? 

"Same thing. He and Warren are cut from the same cloth: very selfless, both musically and as people. I'm proud to know those two fellas. Derek is a good bit quieter, as far as being a talker, but he and Susan have a tremendous family thing that was so much fun to be a part of when we toured with them all summer. There’s a lot of love there. There was no stress or problems. Just, 'We're here to make music.' They included everybody in our band, and [folk duo] Shovels & Rope every night, and it was just selfless. 

"I think Derek Trucks is the greatest guitar player I’ve ever played with. That's a weird thing to say, but he emotes on the guitar more than any other player I've ever seen or heard. To watch him construct a solo is mind blowing. He never gets in a hurry. He's not trying to impress you with his chops, speed or prowess. It really is like another voice singing. And Warren too; it's unbelievable how good they both are." 

Let’s finish the Hall of Fame talk with Jimmy Page, another of your great influences.

"As a kid I heard the songs and just thought it was the greatest rock and roll. It's not heavy metal, but it's got this aggressive sound and every element was just so stellar. Then I just kept learning about how Jimmy was really the architect of all this stuff. Even though there were four extremely important parts in the band, it was mostly his vision, being that he produced all the records. 

"And then you start to dissect his compositions and it's just otherworldly. How is this living in this man's brain? It's sort of frightening to think this guy who wrote Communication Breakdown also wrote The Rain Song, and he can convey that to these other guys in advance, and they capture it on tape. That music will live forever. Never will it die."

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Alan Paul

Alan Paul is the author of three books, Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, One Way Way Out: The Inside Story of the Allman Brothers Band – which were both New  York Times bestsellers – and Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, a memoir about raising a family in Beijing and forming a Chinese blues band that toured the nation. He’s been associated with Guitar World for 30 years, serving as Managing Editor from 1991-96. He plays in two bands: Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, with Guitar World’s Andy Aledort.