"We walked into the control room to listen to the first track, and everybody was grinning, like: 'Okay, this will work'": Charlie Starr on music, life, and two decades of Blackberry Smoke

Blackberry Smoke studio portrait
Blackberry Smoke in 2023 (Image credit: Evan Bartleson)

Note: this feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 324, published on February 2, 2024. A month later, Blackberry Smoke drummer Brit Turner died after a lengthy battle with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer. 

For all their quintessential southernness, Blackberry Smoke have always hit on a universal level. Lyrical blends of observation and autobiography, their songs hinge on timeless themes: characters we’ve all known; feelings we’ve all had; the endlessly fascinating lives of others; incisive musings on divorce, bar fights, life on the road, sex, heartache, parenthood and more, their honeyed tones born in country, gospel and bluegrass, then marinated in the rock and metal records of the band’s teenage years. 

“But that story never really ends,” says Charlie Starr. “There will never stop being love songs, and there will never stop being songs about home, either going home or leaving home, men singing songs about women, and vice versa, and the relationship or lack thereof. I don’t know. The blues. I need it. Where’s my woman? Where’s my man? It continues to happen generation after generation.” 

At home in Atlanta, Blackberry Smoke’s chief architect has the manner of someone whose wildest days are behind him – even if the memories have never faded. Kind eyes, thick-rimmed glasses, chunky silver at his wrists and fingers, hair grazing slim shoulders. Electric guitars and a small crucifix hang on the walls behind him. 

Back home from a hefty bout of touring, he’s here to talk about the band’s eighth studio album, Be Right Here. A lot of things about it advocate living in the moment. The title itself. Lyrics peppered across the tracklist. The raw, minimal-takes nature of its production (in late 2022/early 2023). The aggressive brain cancer that hospitalised drummer Brit Turner, imbuing subsequent recording sessions with a fresh imperative. A sense that our time on this mortal coil isn’t endless, with on-the-money, fat-free songs to match. 

“It gave the recording process, and then everything after, sort of…” Starr searches for the words. “I say a sense of urgency, but it didn’t put us in a hurry. It just made all that time really precious. Everybody took a long hard look at it, like: ‘We get to do this, we get to make music and make records and work with Dave Cobb and work together’. And it just made it seem really special.”


Dave Cobb might be Nashville’s producer du jour, but his roots are in Savannah, Georgia. His new studio, in an old house in the swamps there (“you can literally walk out the back door and go fishing,” Starr says with a grin, “it’s very low country there”), brought a level of escapism to the Be Right Here sessions; the rural spirit that’s such a core part of Blackberry Smoke’s sound. It can be heard in the rattle’n’roll twang of boot-stomping single Hammer And The Nail and the outlaw mystique of Whatchu Know Good, the latter a co-write with singer-songwriter and fellow Georgia native Brent Cobb (he and Dave are cousins). 

Four fertile days in Savannah were juxtaposed with the cavernous, hi-spec environs of RCA Studio A in Nashville. Recording live, they created the same feel that Cobb engineered on Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy And The Conspirators’ 2022 album 4: raw, roomy, old-school. 

“Dave said: ‘think about the James Gang and the Layla record by Derek And The Dominos,’” Starr says. “‘I want all the amps around the drums in the room, I want everything in the big room this time, no separation.’” 

Mixed in Atlanta at West End Sound (the studio owned by Mastodon, neighbours and old friends of Blackberry Smoke), the finished product feels like a loose, organic sum of the band’s American South parts. It’s an open-topped contrast to 2021’s You Hear Georgia, all big heart, big sound and wry smiles. 

“We all started to grin,” Starr says of the first time they listened to it. “Because I remember thinking: ‘This is going to be different. It’s like making a sixties record, we’re all in here and it’s warts and all.’ We walked into the control room to listen to the first track, and everybody was grinning, like: ‘Okay, this will work.’” 

Now over a year on from recording, and from the surgery that saved his life, drummer Brit still receives treatment. He designed the album sleeve artwork (as always) centred on a butterfly over an urban landscape, hinting at a rebirth of sorts. 

“He acted like a big brother to all of us,” Starr says of the band’s early, hellraiser days spent tearing across the US in a van – and taking just about everything they were offered. “Paul Jackson [guitarist] and I were the youngest, I guess you would say we were also the wildest – the hardest to herd, I think. And Richard [Turner, bassist] too. But Brit… yeah, he took that job on. And when I got sober, he was emotional about it. He was like: ‘Oh, my god, thank you! I’m so tired of chasing after you!’” 

He laughs, a glint of that former wickedness surfacing, just for a second. “God bless him for all the work he put in, keeping us all safe.”

Brit Turner and Charlie Starr of the band Blackberry Smoke pose backstage during the 2019 Bourbon & Beyond Music Festival at Highland Ground on September 20, 2019 in Louisville, Kentucky

Brit Turner and Charlie Starr backstage at the 2019 Bourbon & Beyond Music Festival in Louisville, Kentucky. (Image credit: Stephen J. Cohen via Getty Images)

Like so many of their favourite groups (the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Little Feat, Tedeschi Trucks Band), the Blackberry Smoke family constantly expands. Since the beginning they’ve routinely acquired new limbs in the form of players and Starr’s network of co-writers. Guitarist Paul Jackson completed the original foursome in 2001. Brandon Still joined in 2009 when they needed (and could afford) a full-time organist. Guitarist Benji Shanks played duet shows with Starr for more than a decade before joining the band full-time in 2021.

Other roots go even further back. Percussionist Preston Holcomb (who also joined in 2021) was an old high-school friend of the Turner brothers. While playing in Atlanta jam-band The Grapes, he became a regular at Blackberry Smoke’s first gigs. All their paths started to cross. 

“And then he wound up playing with Benji and Richard at this Allman Brothers jam at this pizza place on the side,” Starr says. “So then he comes in and starts to play with Brit… It just kind of naturally all filled together.” 

Most recently, backing vocalists the Black Bettys (aka twin sisters Sherie and Sherita Murphy, Atlanta locals with Outkast, T-Pain and Keith Sweat among their credits) have charged new upbeat numbers like Little Bit Crazy and Don’t Mind If I Do with the Rolling Stones-y, gospel-meets-rock’n’roll harmonies that Starr adores. Not to mention the Tom Petty-esque Whatchu Know Good, imbued with smoky mystique thanks to the sisters’ below-the-surface purrs. 

“I was looking for [something like] Venetta Fields, Clydie King and Merry Clayton, the way they would sing on the Stones songs,” he says. “Anyway, we put the songs on, and they knew exactly what to do. Their instincts are impeccable.” 

Starr loves all this. One of arguably few frontmen with a true team player’s mind-set, his passion for group dynamics runs deep. He grew up with bluegrass jams and church music. He’s written for other artists (Joe Bonamassa, Rich Robinson and Tyler Bryant among them). The guitar heroes he gets most excited about are duos or trios (Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, Gary Rossington/Allen Collins/Ed King). 

Does the more spotlit side of life – lead singer, chief songwriter, main interviewee – come easily, then? The singular aspects of his job, versus that instinct for collaboration? 

“I had to work at it,” he says of being a frontman. “It puts you into sort of a televangelist kind of situation, because I’ve never been in a band full of shoegazers. We’ve all seen bands that don’t speak between songs, and it’s really kind of lame, in my opinion. Maybe it’s what some people like, but I always enjoyed seeing Steven Tyler, and even Tom Petty, who was a very graceful frontman. Chris Robinson was very good at it. Bruce Springsteen, especially when he was younger. So that was sort of a challenge: can I be not just a musician, but an entertainer? But I love it. The whole ‘every hat to wear’ thing, you know?”

In a way, Be Right Here is all about opposing states, and the emotional spaces that fall in between. Happiness with heartbreak. Dependability flecked with juicy left turns. Sonic enforcers of the record’s unpretentious heart, beating with a blend of tenderness, deft twists and life-affirming gusto. The sort of feel-good nuance that’s boosted by their inimitable mix of country, hard rock, gospel and more. 

The album title Be Right Here comes from a line (‘Home will always be right here’) in Azalea, a gorgeously brooding, acoustic-based highlight – if Led Zeppelin III had been recorded in rural Georgia it might well have sounded like this. At one level the song is about parenthood, drawing from Starr and co-writer Travis Meadows’s experiences as fathers. But it also follows the soul-search of a restless character that emerged as they wrote. ‘Getting by don’t mean getting strong/ Coming back don’t mean your leaving here was wrong,’ Starr sings, perhaps echoing a paternal voice in Azalea's ear. 

“That song basically says: ‘You do you,’ you know? Whatever makes you happy, and whatever makes you feel at home. Maybe it’s not out there. [He taps his chest] Maybe it is here.” 

In his own life, it took Starr a while to figure this out. He moved to Atlanta after high school, but California was the goal. Coming out of the 80s and heading into the 90s, the dream for Starr and so many of his peers was to go to Los Angeles, get signed, do everything their heroes did. 

Aged 23 he took a shot at that. He went to LA and New York with the Turner brothers to make a record with their old band Buffalo Nickel (fronted by a different singer). At the same age, Starr became a father for the first time. By the standards of his high-school friends back home in Lanett, Alabama, he was a late starter. Having babies young was just… well, what people did. 

“Nobody I knew went to college,” he explains. “We couldn’t, our parents couldn’t afford it. And none of us were good enough students to wind up with a scholarship opportunity. So it was literally, ‘Okay, I graduated high school’, if you did – most of my friends didn’t, they quit – and you get a job, probably marry your girlfriend and start having children. 

"That was the small-town poverty model… [thinks about this] I don’t even want to compare what I lived through to actual poverty, people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. But it was lower middle class, living Friday to Friday. ‘Can I afford to pay the power bill? Well no, but I can pay the water bill and the phone bill.’ But anyway, I remember thinking I’ve waited pretty late to start having kids at twenty-three, not at nineteen!” 

For a time he seemed to settle into it. He and his first wife had a son. He got a job in a car body shop, a house, a car. “I was like: ‘Okay, well this is what you call settling down. This is life.’” 

It wasn’t until 2001, with the birth of Blackberry Smoke, that they all took the plunge, quitting their jobs for one last shot at making a band work. By then Starr was divorced, with bills to pay and a child to support. It was a precarious situation. He decided to go for it. “We’re like: ‘Alright, well, we’re getting too old to have much more of a shot at this, so now it’s go all-in or nothing.’”

The idea that we only have one shot at life – and should grab it while we can – is one that most of us zone in and out of. Some days it’s easy to swallow, while others we can’t even think of it. Of course, there are those who bypass such internal conflict, or seem to. On Be Right Here, the sun-kissed boogie Don’t Mind If I Do finds Starr revelling in the innocence of an eternal optimist. ‘We ain’t gonna live forever,’ he sings. ‘Reach up and grab a fistful of everything/Don’t mind if I do.’ 

“Yeah, and I’m not that guy, really,” Starr shrugs. “I think I wrote it wanting to be that guy. Because we all know people like that. It doesn’t matter what they’ve been through, they walk in the room and light it up. And you don’t even know if it’s real or not. Like [in Blackberry Smoke] Paul Jackson is the smiling one, you know? And I’m like: ‘Is that muscle memory? Because you are not that happy!’” He laughs. “He is a happy fella, but he’s not the ‘don’t mind if I do’ guy either.” 

At this point, Blackberry Smoke seemingly have a lot to be happy about. Sold-out theatres and arenas across the world. Supportive friends, collaborators and families. Stability. And perhaps it’s this additional space to reflect, to ruminate a little, that comes out in Be Right Here. Dulcet closing track Barefoot Angel is an ode to Starr’s wife, Christine, a holistic health coach with Italian roots, and mother of his second child. He doesn’t write many love songs, this one was an exception. 

“I read somewhere, a long time ago, that John Prine said he didn’t co-write love songs because ‘I don’t want to think that some other dude’s thinking the same thing about my wife that I’m thinking,’” he says with a chuckle. “She’s… I’m lucky. And I’ve written a lot of songs about her – I Ain’t Got the Blues, Everybody Knows She’s Mine – but they’re not love songs per se.” 

A lot has changed since his first marriage. He hasn’t had a drink in more than 15 years and doesn’t miss it. Five years ago he also quit smoking. 

“I don’t really think about addiction. I don’t. I was lucky, I didn’t really have to work hard at putting things down.” He thinks about this for a moment. “That’s not entirely true. Quitting cigarettes was really, really hard. Finally, my doctor was like: ‘Hey, man, you gotta quit smoking, you gotta quit smoking now.’ I started smoking cigarettes when I was fifteen years old, so that was really hard.” 

Indeed, for all its seize-the-moment messages, much of Be Right Here also evokes the feeling of looking back. It’s captured in the major-minor, bittersweet rootsiness in the likes of Other Side Of The Light. Living in the present and missing the past, but keeping pockets of it alive in your memories. 

Do you ever miss those wild, on-the-edge formative days of Blackberry Smoke? 

“I do, yeah, I love those memories,” he says, a little wistfully. “And I revisit them quite often. The ten thousand hours that we spent together being crazy, being wild. Not everything is funny. I have some horrible memories of us fighting, and of horrible situations that we put ourselves in, but at least eighty per cent of it is fun to remember.” 

They still tour extensively, but less so than in previous years (around 150 shows a year, compared with the 200-plus they were doing for “about a decade”). They have loved ones at home, waiting for calls after shows, between meetand-greets, media commitments, sound-checks, gas station stops. Life is still busy. A different, less heated kind of busy, their drummer’s health clearly in mind. Something keeps them all close. Like brothers, after all these years. Backstage, Starr says, they always end up in a room together. 

“You could give us ten dressing rooms in a venue, and we always wind up in one. We enjoy each other’s company. Maybe not every second of every day, but we’re friends. I constantly get asked: ‘How do you keep a band together this long?’ I’m like: ‘I don’t know how, but I know we love each other’. And it’s… it’s real. You know?”

Be Right Here is out now via 3 Legged Records/Thirty Tigers.

Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.