During the past year I took advantage of several opportunities to feature Country music artists. Not a problem for Weekly Music Commentary, because Country music is popular music. I remember someone commented that one of the features was a bit of a departure from my normal posts. I answered that Country music was not different for me at all, because I have had the honor to work with several Country music executives throughout my years in the music industry. For me, Country music was really no different than any of the other popular music, except for a little variation in chord progression and overall arrangement. In fact, popular soul music artist Ray Charles recorded quite a few country songs stating that he “loved the songs because of the stories”. I certainly agree. I also have featured a few Southern Rock musicians. Why do I mention Southern Rock in context with Country music? Perhaps because the two genres are closely related to each other. This fact is demonstrated by this weeks’ featured musical group: Blackberry Smoke.
The reason I mention the relation between Southern Rock and Country music is Blackberry Smoke’s album Holding All the Roses, released February 10, 2015, debuted at number one on Billboard’s Top Country Album chart. There may be some fans of Southern Rock music who might not think their favorite style of music is related to Country music. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but there is no doubt Blackberry Smoke crosses the genre lines liberally. If you have not heard of Blackberry Smoke, hopefully following today you might take the time to listen to some of their music. For now, allow me to introduce this fine group of musicians to all of you reading Weekly Music Commentary.
Blackberry Smoke is from Atlanta, Georgia, United States. They have performed throughout the United States both as headliner and as the supporting act for artists such as Zac Brown Band, Eric Church, ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. They performed 20+ dates with Zac Brown Band nationwide in the summer of 2011. The band was formerly signed to Zac Brown’s record label Southern Ground. On November 5, 2014, the band announced that it had left Southern Ground and signed with Rounder Records. That last move to Rounder Records is what made possible the album Holding All the Roses.
I must confess I did not know anything about Blackberry Smoke until about three months ago. At that time I started my research of the group. It all began with listening to the album, and viewing music videos and recorded live performances. Most of the time I follow this same formula, even if I am familiar with the featured artist or group. The performance videos revealed a great deal about the chemistry between the band members. There was no doubt the musicians in Blackberry Smoke really like each other. Many might think all group members enjoy great chemistry, but sometimes it’s just a matter of maintaining a working relationship. Lead vocalist Charlie Starr commented on the personal and musical rapport enjoyed by Blackberry Smoke today, “It’s evolved over the years, but that chemistry has been there from day one,” says Charlie. “It’s always been about the five of us listening to each other and creating something that belongs to all of us. When we started, we were young and impatient, playing everything too fast and with everything always turned up to 10. But eventually you calm down and settle into the music, and you learn to play with patience and soul.”
The more I listened to Blackberry Smoke, the more I understood why they have garnered such acclaim from other musicians. Blackberry Smoke is just a bunch of guys who got together, but happen to be very good musicians. Dierks Bentley, Jamey Johnson, Grace Potter and the Zac Brown Band have all gone on record as admirers, while ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons admiringly advised, “The band is tight enough. Quit practicing!,” and no less an authority than Gregg Allman stated “That band is gonna put Southern Rock back on the map.” The critics agree. The Washington Post proclaimed them “a band that can reclaim Southern Rock for the South,” and the Atlanta Journal Constitution declared, “The Atlanta quintet is the real deal.” Billboard praised their “epic-sounding ballads,” and The New Orleans Times-Picayune called them “an airtight band that is far smarter and more sophisticated than casual observers may realize… Blackberry Smoke’s amalgamation of hearty Southern rock, alt-country and deep soul is equally suited for roadhouses or arenas.”
It really was not until I read what others said about Blackberry Smoke that I put together all the pieces for one, concise opinion. They are keepers of the flame. The Southern Rock music flame. In my mind, there are three top legendary Southern Rock bands. Doobie Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Allman Brothers. Blackberry Smoke might be the group that will continue to give the Southern Rock fan base what they need: great music.
As for current album Holding All the Roses, I’m not sure where it will finally land historically. However, it was well produced and packaged with very good songs. The album, produced by Grammy-winner Brendan O’Brien and all the songs written by Charlie Starr, might be the recipe for something special. Only time will tell. “The plan for this record,” Charlie says, “is to go out and play as much as we can, and just take it to the people. There’s so much that’s out of your hands when you release a record, but that’s the part that we can control. That, and making an effort to make a better record every time.”
The band is bringing their current tour to a close, and is planning for “The Outlaw Country Cruise” in February 2016. Hardly slowing down, I was reminded of an old saying that fits Blackberry Smoke well. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”.