Interview: Blackberry Smoke Explore Their Artistry on ‘Find a Light’
With over 18 years of experience and -- as of Friday (April 6) -- six studio records under their belts, one might think Blackberry Smoke have their music down to a science: that they know exactly what their dedicated fanbase wants to hear. That they know what hits to always play and what sound to always reach for. That they know how to make a No. 1 record.
But with Find a Light, that wasn't the case. For their most recent offering, Blackberry Smoke could have easily rested on their laurels, played it safe and made the record that everyone expected and everyone would love. Instead, they got daring -- and the record, and they, are better for it.
Within the first few bars of the album's lead track "Flesh and Bone," it's clear that Blackberry Smoke are taking their music to a whole new level. From there, songs on the 13-track album seamlessly ramble from laid-back roots-rock and stripped-down acoustic numbers to rousing Southern rock romps and heavier, alt-country anthems. Flourishes of fiddle, organ and piano add depth to the band's time-perfected rock 'n' roll sound, creating an album that is layered, diverse and fresh, yet still unmistakably Blackberry Smoke. That delicate balance between always evolving and creating music that longtime fans still love is something that the band has had to learn over their decades-long career.
"It's a fine line, because when you think about it, music is art, and you want to be as artistic as possible and make music that's as interesting as possible for you and for your fans," Blackberry Smoke frontman Charlie Starr tells The Boot. "I would never want to be the kind of songwriter who says, 'I know what these people want to hear, and it's a song about a truck.' I can't do that. At that point, I have to draw the line and remember that it's not a commodity. We're trying our best to create music that will resonate and hopefully be timeless."
Music is art, and you want to be as artistic as possible and make music that's as interesting as possible for you and for your fans.
With a laugh, Starr admits that it's a "lofty expectation," but it's one that Blackberry Smoke more than meet on Find a Light. The album is distinct among the band's discography, particularly in its diversity of songs and the heaviness portrayed on many of the tracks, including "Flesh and Bone," which Starr calls "maybe the heaviest song we've ever recorded." The vocalist and lead guitarist adds that every song, and even the album's title, were crafted intentionally, to reflect the unique place in history we currently occupy.
“Most of our albums have been named either for a song on the album or a lyric, and this time, I didn’t want to do that,” Starr said in a recent press release. “I thought, ‘What headspace is humanity in as a whole?’ That’s pretty hard to argue with that. I think everybody is hoping and looking for something better right now.”
That's why listeners will find that many of the tracks on Find a Light explore what it looks like to live fully amidst the pressures and brokenness of everyday life. Songs such as "Flesh and Bone" and "Nobody Gives a Damn" look at the dangers of temptation and success, while "Run Away From It All" talks about leaving your troubles behind and making the most of life -- and also happens to be one of the most upbeat tracks on the record.
Beyond its subject matter, Find a Light is also unique among other Blackberry Smoke albums for its inclusion of more featured artists than ever before: Starr co-wrote the frenetic, gospel-blues rocker "I'll Keep Ramblin'" with Robert Randolph, whose pedal steel adds depth and energy to the traveling tune. And although the collaboration with Randolph was the only one planned for the record, Starr says that adding the Wood Brothers to "Mother Mountain" and Amanda Shires to "Let Me Down Easy" were happy surprises that rounded out the album's sound.
"Those ideas came later, after the songs were already tracked and the vocals were done," Starr tells The Boot. "In the case of "Let Me Down Easy," I wrote that song with Keith Nelson, who was in a band called Buckcherry, for years and years. We were talking about how it would be cool for the song to be a duet like a Gram Parsons / Emmylou Harris kinda thing, and Amanda's got a really cool and unique voice. I didn't know her previously, but she seemed like the one to do it, and she said yes.
"And then, the Wood Brothers are old friends of ours," he adds. "We were labelmates on Zac Brown's Southern Ground label for a while. They are probably my favorite band, and I just called Oliver and asked if he and Chris could do it, and they could."
To have such a diverse range of artists jump at the chance to work with them, it's clear that Blackberry Smoke's reputation has preceded them, and that they've found that balance of music that is loved by fans and fellow artists alike. The songs are clear and powerful, yet leave room for listeners to find the meanings for themselves and draw conclusions that also relate to their own lives.
"I don't think it's necessary a lot of times to be terribly specific about a person or a topic," Starr says. "The broad strokes are the wisest thing. I heard John Mellencamp say that; he said that we have to leave a little room for someone to interpret something however they might want to, and I think that's right on."
In every aspect of the band's music and business and everything, we never want to things that feel wrong or feel like they cheapen the experience.
As intentional as Blackberry Smoke were in creating an album that is equal parts relevant and timeless, one thing they've never tried to do is please the masses simply for the sake of commercial success. Both of their last two albums -- Like an Arrow in 2016 and Holding All the Roses in 2015 -- reached No. 1 on the country charts, but Starr credits the fans more than anything the band could have done.
"Both those No. 1s were an amazing gift that our fans gave us; we didn't expect it, and there was no campaign towards it," says Starr. "There was no pressure, so to speak, and I feel the same way about [Find a Light]: If it's not No. 1, it doesn't matter. We love it and are proud of it, and I hope our fans love it, and I hope new fans love it ... That's the goal of the whole thing, I guess -- trying to reach as many people as possible. But at the same time, we don't ever want to give up any of our musical integrity to do so ... We've tried to avoid that at all costs."
Starr says that maintaining that "musical integrity" is absolutely imperative, not just to the band's success but to their roles as artists and even as human beings. For Blackberry Smoke, one step away from authenticity is losing, which is why they always prize realness and unflinching honesty in their music.
"It's never occurred to me to look ahead too far, I really just take it an album at a time," he says. "We just continue to do what we do and kinda grind away at it. And we try to keep the quality up. In every aspect of the band's music and business and everything, we never want to things that feel wrong or feel like they cheapen the experience."
More New Albums Coming in 2018