Charlie Starr and Benji Shanks return to the Hargray Capitol Theatre for a quartet of performances on January 29th & 30th! Starr, frontman for the Atlanta-based Blackberry Smoke, has already spent a great deal of quality time in Macon over the last year. The band marked the official return of recording to the newly renovated rooms at Mercer Music at Capricorn with Live From Capricorn Sound Studios, a 6-song EP to benefit COVID-19 relief through MusiCares. A second jaunt to the legendary studio last October saw Starr back in town for sessions involving fellow Alabamian, singer-songwriter Adam Hood– and Brent Cobb in his debut at the helm as a producer. In between both of those projects, Blackberry Smoke took the opportunity to join sonic guru Dave Cobb (Brent’s cousin ICYDK) for a new album captured in Nashville’s hallowed RCA Studio A. Charlie took some time to share a few details on the new band effort as well as a small solo adventure, his hopes for the future of the Spirit of the South tour, and the ironic intimacy of socially distanced shows.
AI- You and I spoke in the fall when you were here workin’ with Adam Hood and Brent Cobb, but we didn’t really have an opportunity to dig into the new Blackberry Smoke album. You recorded that over the summer when it was hotter in a lot more ways than just the temperature! Not exclusively, but you’ve been largely self-produced. Why Cousin Dave? Had you guys worked together before in a studio setting?
CS- No. Dave, he’s an Atlanta guy. Or was for years. He was in a band in Atlanta that I saw all the time. So I knew who he was, but I didn’t really know him. I met him just a couple of years ago, but we had been talkin’ over the last few years. We’d been threatening to make a record. He was very busy, as were we, and so late last year we got on the phone and he said, “What’s your plans for your next record?” And I said, “Well, we don’t really have one.” We just decided then and there, “Hey, let’s make one! Let’s do one!” We had it scheduled to start in March– and of course, we all know what happened in March! So we pushed it back and pushed it back and then finally, we went in early June and we recorded that thing in 10 days.
You had an opportunity to write some new songs in addition to the ones you’d already planned that were kinda informed by the environment at that point in time. Did that add a sense of urgency to the proceedings?
No. I had a couple of ideas. Dave and I were going through a big chunk of songs, like 16 to 18 songs. We knew we had a time limit thanks to COVID because we had to push our schedule back so many times. It was comin’ down to the wire and I was like, “Do you think we can get this done in 10 days?” (Laughs) And we were like, “We’ll damn sure try!” That was the deal. He and I were lookin’ at the songs and instead of going and recording all 16, it was like, “Okay, let’s pick our favorite 10 or 11.” And so we did. Then while we were recording it, I played a little bit of a couple of ideas– just during the day, like during a lunch break– for him. He said, “What’s that? What’s that?” And I said, “Well, it’s nothin’ yet.” And he’s like, “Well, you got to go finish it ’cause it needs to be!” That’s really a positive thing for somebody writin’ a song, you know? If you see that reaction from someone then that’ll get you fired up too and say, “Oh, okay, I’m excited now. I guess I better finish it!” Yeah, it was great. What a great, not only a great producer obviously, but what a great person as well!
You’ve called this a big guitar album– no surprise, Blackberry Smoke– but what do you look forward to fans discovering with this collaboration between you and Dave? And like you just said, what other things have you discovered in doing it?
Well, I mean, it’s not like it’s a departure at all. And I say this every time, like every time we make a record, we always make a different record, but it always has the recipe in our case. You know what I mean? I don’t know if that’s tangible or not. I don’t know if I can put a name to it, but when I put it on, I’m like, “That sounds like us!” In this case, most everything on it is completely live. We always record live in the studio, but this time was even more organic, I think. I know that word gets thrown around a lot, but Dave is all about capturing the moment– whether it’s perfect or not. He helps remind me that, “Hey man, we’re humans making music. We’re using machines, but we are not machines.”
I wanted to ask you about that actual process. ‘Cause you guys, in fact, did set up all in the room, spaced out physically, socially distanced. Did that have an effect on the energy? On the creativity?
We’re always that way too. Since we started the band, we’ve always recorded on the floor, just all of us. I think it stokes the flame when we’re all there. A band is a team. And with Dave there too… It’s so hard to articulate what makes somethin’ different when I know it sounds like I’m sayin’ it’s not (laughs)! But it could be the moment. Now to answer your question about COVID, I think that all sort of was not forgotten, but when you get down to the task at hand, you definitely are not watchin’ the news. And we didn’t kiss each other (laughs)! Everybody’s healthy and still are, thank God. We just got down to the business of makin’ a record.
What other projects have you been involved with? I mentioned you bein’ here with Adam and Brent. Have you done anything else? Or have you snuck back into Macon under the radar down to Capricorn?
No. I’ve done some acoustic shows already with Benji and then I recorded a song about two weeks ago. A friend of mine, Charlie Overbey is his name, and he’s an artist actually. He’s a singer-songwriter, but he also is a hatmaker. He is Lone Hawk Hats. He’s been a friend for a long time now and makes great hats and he makes great music. He put together this project that comes out on February 5th called Me and My Guitar. It’ll be on Bandcamp, I believe digital only. But basically, it’s for the Save Our Stages benefit. He reached out to a bunch of people, a bunch of friends, and said, “Hey man, will you just get an acoustic guitar and your voice and record a song?” And right in that moment, it was just really coincidental that I had this idea for a new tune. So I did that. I finished it real fast and recorded it for that. And what a great thing! I mean, that’s obviously a great cause, the Save Our Stages.
What’s the name of the song?
It’s called “Hanging on the Vine”. And it’s not on the new album. It’s something that I just wrote three weeks ago. So it’s after the fact.
The Spirit of the South tour was gonna be, overall, a very huge thing– and I’m sure that you’re hopin’ to be able to put all that back together and run with it, if not in the very near future, down the road. I want to talk about one of the aspects of that show, which was the Allman Brothers mobile museum. I know you and Richard Brent at the Big House are great friends. How did that idea come about? Where did it come from?
I think it came from Richard, initially. The Big House is just such an incredible experience and to take that on the road… The Allman Brothers are such a huge part, if not the largest part, of the Southern rock n’ roll experience– if you want to call it that. I know some people, even Gregg Allman himself, couldn’t stand that term. But be that as it may, us celebrating the music of the South, they were as large as it gets when it comes to influence and their catalog and their legacy. I think since we were gonna be playing some of those songs along with many, many other artists, Richard was like, “Hey, since we’re celebrating this whole thing, how great would it be to have a traveling museum?”
I just thought that that tied in so well with it. And then some of the other folks involved were like, “We’ll see if we can get Jaimoe to come too!” He and Dickey are the last two. And of course, we said, “Hell yeah! If he wants to do it, he’s more than welcome!” So it just started growin’. It’s like any other idea. It starts to snowball if people get excited and we definitely were gettin’ excited. We were just heartbroken to have to postpone it. Fingers crossed that we can pull it off soon!
I’ve had the good fortune to be able to see pieces of that collection– things that are archived and some things that are hilarious and some things that are just absolutely heartbreaking. I find it an amazing opportunity for fans to be able to see pieces of that collection that are not normally on display. I don’t know if you knew everything that would be part of the exhibit or any pieces of it, but is there something for you that is particularly interesting? That you’re just like, “Wow, people aren’t gonna believe this?”
I don’t know exactly what he had planned to bring, but just about everything in that house has turned my head on more than one occasion. Funny enough, Benji and I went up there a couple of years ago and it was closed and Richard was letting us kinda fiddle around in there alone. I said, “You know what? This house is so big. I wonder what their rent was?” And he just pointed to the right, over beside us in one of the glass cases, and said, “There’s a rent check right there.” It was $240 or something like that. I was like, “Oh, okay, question answered!” The check was signed to whomever the landlord was and it was signed by Duane Allman. And [Richard] said, “Notice that he paid the rent on January the 12th– after the grace period!” (Laughs)
You’ve got these four shows slated for January 29th and 30th, two a night at the Hargray Capitol Theatre. You have been, I would say, as productive, if not more so, than anyone that I’ve spoken to throughout this pandemic. You’ve done the drive-in shows, you’ve recorded multiple projects, you’ve done the livestreams, and you just mentioned that you’ve been doin’ these smaller, socially distant shows. Do you see them as something particularly special? I mean, you’ve done ’em– the solo, the duo shows– but before COVID-19. Do these shows feel any different under the circumstances?
They do. They feel a bit more intimate. We just came back from Texas. We went and played a couple of shows out there, one in San Antonio, one in Austin. Obviously, the audience is smaller because they’re spread out and distanced and they sell fewer tickets. I noticed that people are quieter, which at an acoustic show is what you want! So I was like, “Hallelujah! This is fantastic!” People are really listening, you know? Anybody who’s ever played an acoustic concert knows that sometimes it’s hard to get people to stay quiet. Just not what they’re used to, especially, if they’re coming to see Blackberry Smoke. They wanna hoop n’ holler and get rowdy– and I love that! But when you playin’ a quiet ballad? An old friend, Mike Steed, an old bluegrass singer, once said, “What you have to say is, ‘Hey we’ll try not to play so loud, so y’all can hear yourself talkin’!'” (Laughs)
As I said, you’ve been extremely busy, but it’s not been quite the same as playing every night. Do you have any other rituals or techniques that you use to stay stage-ready? I would think that could be a challenge when you are used to being out so regular.
Well, that actually is spot-on as a singer. As a guitar player, I’m always playin’ the guitar. I have a guitar nearby at home constantly, but your vocal cords, I learned a long time ago when we would take time off every year, my vocal cords would get a little lazy. So, yeah, simply put, I just sing and play a lot at home to keep those muscles toned and to keep ’em from gettin’ covered with rust.
When we met back in October, you had that great Fender Esquire with you that I asked about. I wanted to follow up– did Mike [Reeder] give you a better deal on that Esquire?
Not yet! I took it back to him. I don’t think it’s gone anywhere, but I fall in love with a guitar every three weeks. So if it doesn’t wind up in my possession, it won’t be the end of the world.
What’s your latest paramour?
I got a ’64 [Gibson] 335 not long ago. It had to go straight to the doctor! It was in bad need of some love and that’s what it’s gettin’ right now. Yeah, there’s no shortage of cool vintage guitars in this country. That’s for sure!