The title track of Blackberry Smoke's new album You Hear Georgia (out May 28th via 3 Legged Records and Thirty Tigers) means two things coming from members of Atlanta's foremost traveling band: everything's done with a Southern accent where they come from; and seven studio albums into a 20-plus year run, they've made a mark on their home state's rich musical lineage.
"Initially it started with the accent idea or even more than that, just the being from the South idea," guitarist and lead vocalist Charlie Starr says. "Literally speaking, I was watching the news one morning during the whole lockdown experience, and there was a guy being interviewed on the news. He had a very thick Southern accent, but he was talking about something very important. I thought, 'I wonder if people hear what he says or how he's saying it?' That really started the idea. That's where the first line came from."
While the New South's hardly without its flaws, it feels at times as if a whole region becomes a scapegoat for the rest of the country.
"Unfortunately, there's bad things and bad people everywhere," Starr adds. "That's just not the South I grew up in. Maybe if I'd lived 200 years ago, I wouldn't have written that song. Just like all of us, I've seen ugly and I've seen beautiful. But I live here and I stay here because I love it. I love the people and I love the feel of the South."
Even Southerners in bigger cities like Atlanta and Nashville sometimes develop attitudes that if they stray into rural areas, they'll live out Deliverance. And rural folks in the South might believe the worst about their neighbors, especially if they haven't seen for themselves how little certain things change from state to state.
"The first time we were in New England and specifically in Maine, I met some people and I was like, 'Oh my God,'" Starr says. "It was the first time I had really traveled outside the South. This was in 2002 or so. I met some hateful people, and I'm not blaming Maine. I'm not damning the entire state of Maine. It was an eye-opening experience. I was like, 'Okay, well, there's shitty people everywhere, or there can be.'"
Worse yet, damage done when someone worthy of scorn happens to have a Southern accent can ruin otherwise hospitable cities in Georgia for visitors from near and far.
"I talked to a German journalist just a couple of weeks ago, and we were talking about this song," Starr adds. "He said, 'I spent a couple of weeks in Valdosta.' It was because of an exchange student program one of his children was involved in, so he and his wife came over and stayed with the host family. He didn't like them. He told me they were very small-minded and very closed-minded. And again, I said, 'Well, I'll tell you my friend, there are people like that everywhere. I've been in your country and talked to people that are exactly like that. You can't judge the entire Southeastern United States by one household.' He was like, 'You're right, you're right.'"
The title of what Starr calls his "little 'hey, don't judge a book by its cover' song" points listeners to something less contentious: the history of Georgia music, from the Piedmont blues of Blind Willie McTell to foundational soul artist Otis Redding, classic rock giants The Allman Brothers Band and a list of Country Music Hall of Famers topped by Brenda Lee and Bill Anderson.
Yet even coming from the same musical hotbed as the before-mentioned acts--plus outside-the-box rock bands ranging from Athens new wavers Pylon to Americana forerunners Drivin' N Cryin'--doesn't shake off-kilter assumptions about Starr and his bandmates' Southern drawl.
"If and when we're given the tag Southern rock, I'm sure it makes a lot of people roll their eyes," Starr adds. "They think about rednecks and beer swilling and, you know, everything that goes along with that. I figure that a lot of people think that about other bands, too. Maybe they wouldn't give The Allman Brothers a second look. I'm not trying to compare us to The Allman Brothers by any means, but obviously if you listen to their music, it's really high-brow stuff. It's very intelligent music. I don't know... It's a crazy world we live in. There's plenty of other things to argue about, and people find them!"
Other talents with Peach State ties involved in the making of You Hear Georgia include backup singers The Black Bettys and producer Dave Cobb.
You Hear Georgia track list:
1. "Live It Down"
2. "You Hear Georgia"
3. "Hey Delilah"
4. "Ain't the Same"
5. "Lonesome for a Livin'" (feat. Jamey Johnson)
6. "All Rise Again" (feat. Warren Haynes)
7. "Old Enough to Know"
9. "All Over the Road"
10. "Old Scarecrow"