Holding All the Roses
, Blackberry Smoke
’s fourth studio album and its first for Rounder, is its heaviest release yet. Produced by Brendan O'Brien (AC/DC, Aerosmith, Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young), the album commences with “Let Me Help You Find the Door,” a swaggering mid-tempo rock tune that sounds like a cross between Tom Petty and Aerosmith, and then doesn’t let up as the Atlanta-based band dips into the blues, gospel soul and country on the album. Frontman Charlie Starr says the band took at the same approach when it entered the studio as it takes on every record; the album wasn’t necessarily intended to be a departure from their last studio effort, 2013's The Whippoorwill
“The job in front of us is to make the best record we can,” he says via phone from his home just west of Atlanta as he had a rare day off from the road. “It’s never someone’s artsy project or anything like that. It’s like, ‘We make music together as a band so let’s go in and record these songs.’”
He says he and O’Brien had “some discussion” over the phone before they started to record the songs that would be on the album.
“He had the song demos and we whittled them down to the 15 or so,” says Starr. “The only discussion we had about what kind of record we wanted to make was that we talked about the records we loved. [The last studio effort] The Whippoorwill
was us playing live. We always wanted to make a different record each time. We wanted to stretch out a little sonically. It came together nicely I think.”
The fast-paced title track is a rollicking tune that features a bit of fiddle that’s hidden until a mid-song segment that features a twangy fiddle solo courtesy of guest Ann Marie Simpson that then gives way to a searing guitar riffs. It’s a real juxtaposition of sounds, but it works.
“Ann Marie Simpson is great fiddle player,” says Starr. “She came in to record to add some string parts in a couple of songs. She and I were sitting around and jamming on an acoustic guitar and a fiddle playing bluegrass songs and she has a bluegrass pedigree and she plays with Steven Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. I love that. That’s where I live. We started playing some fiddle tunes and Brendan [O’Brien] walked in and thought it was incredible. It’s his idea. He wanted us to put it on the song, so we did. It turned out great. It’s a stroke of genius.”
All in all, the album rocks harder than anything the band’s done to date. It’s a real testament to O’Brien’s abilities as a producer that he’s able to bring out a side of the band that was only latent on prior releases.
“I knew [O’Brien] would be a good fit,” says Starr. “We’re a guitar band and he’s a guitar producer. He is a fabulous guitar player. That’s something I love about his work. He’s an excellent musician and an excellent guitar player. It’s funny, man, I listen to all of our records and I hear rock ’n’ roll records. I don’t know where people hear country music. Even on the last album, [the song] ‘Shaking Hands with the Holy Ghost’ is a dyed in the wool rock song. On this album, there are some songs that are heavier than the last album. There’s the title track and ‘Let Help You Find the Door’ and ‘Payback’s a Bitch.’ They’re just heavier and that’s good. That’s what we talked about. We wanted an album with big riff laden rock ’n’ roll songs and some laid back acoustic stuff. We wanted the record to be a nice ride.”
Dipping into different genres is something that Starr, who grew up in the Atlanta area, has done ever since he first picked up a guitar when he was a kid. His father and grandmother were very religious and he got an appreciation for gospel music from them. His dad also taught him bluegrass and country songs; his mother liked the Stones and the Beatles so he picked up an affinity for rock from her.
At first, Starr just focused on playing guitar. But after working with more than one singer who couldn't really cut it, Starr figured it was time to take over as frontman. The band put out its debut in 2003. It followed it up in 2004 with another album but, according to Starr, the group became involved in "two different label disasters." During that time, the band continued to tour and play new songs every night.
While on a Lynyrd Skynyrd-hosted cruise in the mid-2000s, Starr met up-and-coming singer-songwriter Zac Brown, who subsequently signed the group to its now defunct Southern Ground label. When it came time to record its debut for Zac Brown's label, the band kicked out 17 songs in five days. Released in 2013, the resulting album, The Whippoorwill, is a great collection of Southern rock-inspired tunes that show off Starr's consummate songwriting chops. After Southern Ground folded, the band transitioned to Rounder. Starr says it’s been a good fit.
“It’s a good place to land,” he says of Rounder. “They have a great roster. I come from a bluegrass background by and large and so many of those great bands and artists were on the label, from Tony Rice and the Country Gentlemen up to Alison Krauss. I think she’s only ever having been on Rounder. Someone told me that. I remember being a teenager at the advent of the CD era. One of the first Rounder CDs I brought was Volume One of the Jimmy Rodgers recordings. That was a huge thing for me. I was such a digger. Having a label that made things like that attainable was huge for me as I was growing as a musician and artist.”
The band's been dubbed "the new face of blue-collar Southern rock" — something that sits well with Starr, though he bristles at the suggestion that the band has somehow revived Southern rock.
“It’s not something we’ve done consciously,” he says. “We never sat down and said we wanted to revive Southern rock music. We just sound the way we sound when we play together. It’s as organic as it comes. If it we were putting it on or contrived, people would sniff it out and it wouldn’t be natural. We just sound the only way we know how. It’s the way we work together. We are from the Southeastern United States and that shows in our playing and singing. I never thought there’s a void and it’s Southern rock and we need to do that. I know we will champion Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers and the Marshal Tucker Band as much as anyone because they made beautiful music. They might not be the flavor of the month but they’re still making music that’s better than what’s number one right now.”
Blackberry Smoke, Temperance Movement, Leon Virgil Bowers, 8 p.m. Thursday, March 18, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $23 ADV, $25 DOS, houseofblues.com.