The facilities of Capricorn Records, the historic label home to the Allman Brothers Band and other obvious influences on Blackberry Smoke, now operate as a recording studio, museum, learning environment and office space that's operated by Mercer University.
"We were brainstorming, thinking of how we'd promote the Spirit of the South tour that we'd be on pretty much right now were it not for COVID-19," says Blackberry Smoke lead singer and guitarist Charlie Starr. "We were thinking we should do something special for this tour because it's a special tour. It was really serendipitous that someone from the studios down there contacted one of our guys and said, 'Hey, you know what you guys should do is come down here and record some songs. We're ready.' It made all the sense in the world."
The end result, new EP Live From Capricorn Sound Studios, arrives today (June 18).
Had things gone according to plan, the EP would represent the Southern rock, soul and gospel classics performed when Blackberry Smoke and opening acts The Allman Betts Band, The Wild Feathers and original Allman Brothers Band drummer Jaimoe joined forces for a night-ending set at every stop on the Spirit of the South Tour: A Celebration of Southern Rock and Roll Music. Under unexpected circumstances, the new release allows Blackberry Smoke to turn a good deed by donating proceeds to the Recording Academy's MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.
Many fans first became aware of the project when Blackberry Smoke shared a video of its full-throttle rendition of "Take the Highway," originally recorded in the same room by The Marshall Tucker Band for its 1973 debut album.
"It's one of our favorites," Starr says. "When we went down to do this, we didn't have a whole lot of time to prepare and rehearse. 'Take the Highway' is one we'd played before. That's actually what we started with. It's like 'Okay, everybody knows this one. Here we go, 1-2-3-4!' And Marcus Henderson who plays flute currently with the Marshall Tucker Band played the flute part on it so beautifully."
It's an ideal cover song for fans of Blackberry Smoke's harder-hitting material and a potent teaser of the magic the band created in the same room where many of its influences recorded all-time Southern classics.
"That song takes off," Starr adds. "It's got wings. As soon as you start playing it, you're like, 'Here we go, hold on.' It's not a laid-back song, for sure."
Two songs, "Grits Ain't Groceries" and "Keep On Smilin'," feature Wet Willie singer Jimmy Hall, the fiery performer who sang them for Capricorn Records in the '70's.
"Wet Wille's version of ('Grits Ain't Groceries') is fantastic," Starr says. "I definitely heard that version before the Little Milton version. Jimmy Hall was coming down to the session, and we were going to do 'Keep on Smilin'' because it was recorded in that room. I asked him if we could do 'Grits' as well, and he said absolutely."
The new EP also features a cover of Little Richard's "Southern Child," recorded before the Macon-born rock pioneer's passing.
"I heard it here in Atlanta on an AM radio station," Starr says. "I pulled the car over and was like, 'What the Hell is this?' I know it's Little Richard singing, but there's steel guitar on it. It was really funky Americana kind of stuff. Thanks to Siri, within 10 seconds I knew what it was and was all over it."
Two Allman Brothers tunes, "Midnight Rider" and "Revival," round out the track listing. Starr says that neither song from the Idlewild South album was actually cut in Macon, although the original demo of "Midnight Rider" was recorded at Capricorn Sound Studios with some of the same vintage equipment at Blackberry Smoke's disposal.
So much about this entire presentation, from Atlanta-based duo The Black Bettys' background vocals to covers of songs popularized by Little Richard and Little Milton, reminds us that all popular music, much less the music of Georgia, doesn't exist without the work of brilliant African American artists.
"I was just remarking the other day how every time I pick up a guitar, I play something that a black man or woman created," Starr says. "I've thought about that a lot in my life because I love music. Obviously right now, there's a lot of people that may have a hard time even voicing that opinion, which is disgusting."