It’s been a remarkable sixteen years since Atlanta-based Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke first appeared on the scene. They’ve graduated from jam-packed opening sets to epic, marathon-like headlining tours that sell out not only across the country, but around the globe.
Since 2000, the group has both stayed true to its roots while evolving into something bigger and bolder. Years of performing, writing and recording have brought them to this moment. With four stellar records behind them, they’ve rolled all of their knowledge and creative prowess into something truly special.
On Oct. 14, the group released their fifth studio album, Like an Arrow. Lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Charlie Starr has never been one to hold back when it comes to his feelings on anything, from music to politics and everything in between. That openness is one of the reasons why fans of legendary bands Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd have flocked to Blackberry Smoke’s sound. It’s raw, infectious and rails against the norm.
With Like an Arrow, that sound is more polished and perfected than ever before. Creating an album this good is an admirable feat on its own. Many artists spend months in studio trying to create the perfect set of tracks. For Blackberry Smoke, their new record came together during an impromptu recording session during a rare month off from the road.
“I think everybody had a really pleasant experience,” Starr told Wide Open Country. “We did a lot of writing on the road and it came together a lot more quickly than I thought it would. As we were recording the thing, we grew more and more proud of it as the days went by. We got to work at our own pace, and before we knew it, it was finished. I thought, God, this is really special.'”
This rare opportunity to work completely organically, without any distractions, resulted in a project that perfectly showcases the band’s maturity and drive to keep things constantly sounding fresh.
“We sort of felt vindicated in a way,” Starr says. “We’ve been together for sixteen years or so, and here we are making our fifth record and it’s a damn good one.”
Like an Arrow comes just a year and half after the band’s previous release, Holding All the Roses, hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country Albums Chart with very little radio support. Starr says the band isn’t concerned about the politics behind getting a good position on the charts.
“We don’t spend any time worrying about it. If we did, we’d probably go crazy,” he admits. “The fans are the ones who made the record number one anyway – not a program director. Those are the people that go out and spend their hard-earned money to buy a record.”
In fact, staying true to their sound is — and has always been — Blackberry Smoke’s top priority. With Like an Arrow, Starr hopes that fans, both new and old, appreciate the carefully crafted mix of rocking anthems, introspective jams and rough-edged love songs.
“All of our albums are a snapshot of that particular moment in time, and this is just a continuation of that. I think all of our records have a good bit of variety. There are lots of different types of songs and I think our fans have grown to appreciate that. Somebody said to me the other day, ‘God, you listen to the first four songs and you don’t know which way is up.’ They are all completely different. We love that, because all of our favorite bands did it that way too. They were more than willing to explore, and not give you the same ten songs every time.”
One of the group’s biggest inspirations, Gregg Allman, comes from that group of musical adventurers. He makes an appearance on the album’s stellar final track, “Free on the Wing.” It was a collaboration that came out of a budding friendship, one that Starr still seems surprised to talk about.
“It feels really surreal. I would say that almost feels like closure, but I won’t, because we’re not stopping. [laughs] It feels very fulfilling to read our album cover, and see the words “Free on the Wing, featuring Gregg Allman.” That’s just crazy.”
Another stand-out track, “Sunrise in Texas,” has been floating in and out of the band’s set list for years. Starr says the song was fresh on their minds after they went through a stint of performing it before heading into the studio. It was finally the right time
“This time, the arrangement felt really good and the vibe of the recording felt right,” Starr says. “I know some of our fans are going to be really happy that its finally available to add to their collection.”
One of the most buzzed-about songs on the record is “Waiting for the Thunder,” a powerful track that many may see as a response to our current political climate. Starr says it’s not that simple.
“Obviously, this election we’re going through is very scary, but the whole world is just getting scarier and scarier. Someone asked me the other day if the song was about Donald Trump. No, absolutely not. It’s about everybody. No matter who is President of the United States, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a scary place to live.”
Scary as it may be, the world still has some bright spots – especially in the world of music. When it comes to Starr’s comrades in country music and southern rock, there are a few artists that he notes as personal favorites.
“I’ve always thought Jamey Johnson is a fantastic artist,” he notes. “He writes really great songs, he’s great live and he’s true to his purpose. In the last few years, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell have all made fantastic records. Some of those fringe-type of artists are really kicking down some doors so that truer type of music can be heard by a larger mainstream audience.”
“I think the quality of their music is what shines through and what makes [artists like Stapleton] so visible. None of my friends — or me personally — listen to country radio. We would obviously listen to artists like them [Simpson, Stapleton, Isbell] because their music is real, it has substance and it has something to say.”
As a diehard southern rocker, it’s no surprise that Starr doesn’t have a lot of love for the artists topping the country charts these days. Still, he serves a timely reminder that we all have the power to change what’s in our ears.
“We all have a choice. People like to complain about pop-country, and it is disgusting, but we don’t have to listen to it. Crappy pop music has always been there, and it always will be. You just have to choose, do I want to listen to the good stuff or the bad stuff?”
Fans can opt to tune into the good stuff by picking up a copy of Like an Arrow, available in stores and online now.