“I think that this record does a really good job of conveying what we do and what we’re about,” Blackberry Smoke singer-guitarist-songwriter Charlie Starr says of Holding All the Roses, the band’s fourth studio album and its first Rounder release. Indeed, Holding All the Roses compellingly captures the energy, attitude and honesty that have already helped to make Blackberry Smoke one of America’s hottest live rock ‘n’ roll outfits, as well as a grass-roots phenomenon with a large and fiercely loyal fan base that reflects the band’s tireless touring regimen and staunch blue-collar work ethic.
The 12-song set—produced by Brendan O’Brien, whose previous production clients have included AC/DC, Aerosmith, Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young—showcases the Atlanta-based quintet’s emotion-charged mix of bluesy rock, gospel soul, and country, with Starr’s raspy twang matched by his and Paul Jackson’s snarling guitars, Brandon Still’s hauntingly expressive organ and piano, and the propulsive sibling rhythm section of Richard and Brit Turner. The songs’ musical and emotional appeal is further elevated by the band’s three-part vocal harmonies and expanded arrangements that make judicious use of fiddle and added percussion.
The five musicians’ instinctive musical rapport manifests itself equally strongly on such surging rockers as “Let Me Help You (Find the Door),” “Living in the Song” and “Wish In One Hand,” and on such intimate, introspective tunes as “Woman in the Moon,” “Too High” and the stirring, acoustic-textured “No Way Back to Eden.” The album’s musical and emotional depth demonstrates how Blackberry Smoke continues to extend and expand the Southern rock tradition.
The musical maturity that’s on display throughout Holding All the Roses underlines Blackberry Smoke’s steady evolution from rough-edged club act to arena-ready rock ‘n’ roll juggernaut. Since its formation in 2000, the band has never shied away from hard work, playing more than 250 shows a year and building an ever-expanding audience on the strength of its live shows, and with a noticeable lack of mainstream hype.
“We’ve built our audience one fan at a time,” states drummer Brit Turner. “Sometimes it feels like we know every one of them personally, and we’re constantly amazed and moved by their loyalty and passion.”
Along the way, Blackberry Smoke has found time to record a handful of independent releases, including the albums Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime, Little Piece of Dixie, and The Whippoorwill (the latter on country megastar Zac Brown’s Southern Ground label), plus a pair of EPs, the concert DVD Live at the Georgia Theatre, and the live CD/DVD set Leave A Scar. Although those releases found favor with fans and were received warmly by critics, the band members feel that Holding All the Roses marks the first time that Blackberry Smoke has had the time and resources to make an album that properly captures their musical essence.
“In the past, we never really had the resources to make the kind of records we wanted to make,” says Charlie, adding, “But this time around, everything lined up, and we were able to create an album that covers a lot of musical ground and works as a listening experience from beginning to end.”
It certainly helped that the band found a kindred musical spirit in producer O’Brien, whose affinity for solid songcraft and knack for capturing transcendent moments of musical inspiration made him the ideal man to capture Blackberry Smoke’s restless spirit in the studio.
“The whole experience was refreshing and spontaneous,” Charlie says of the album’s birth cycle. “We got it done pretty quickly, but it didn’t feel like we were in a hurry. We chose the songs to represent the different things that we do, and we took the time to work out the running order and figure out how the album should flow. There are a bunch of three-minute songs on there, and a couple that are under three minutes, plus a couple that open up a little bit more and get a little bit jammy, and Brendan was very open about approaching each song to give it what it needed.”
“It was a way more comfortable record to make than anything we’d done before,” adds Brit. “We were excited to work with Brendan for so many reasons, one being that he gets us and we don’t have to explain where we’re coming from, which hasn’t always been the case in the past. We were all on the same page about the music, so we could just get down to business.”
Getting down to business is something that Blackberry Smoke has always been good at. In addition to winning fans and friends throughout the United States, they’ve toured Europe three times, had their songs featured in movie and video-game soundtracks, and performed for country legend George Jones (who guested on the band’s second album) on his 80th birthday.
Jones isn’t the only notable artist who’s come out as a Blackberry Smoke fan. Dierks Bentley, Jamey Johnson, Grace Potter and the Zac Brown Band have all gone on record as admirers, while ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons admiringly advised, “The band is tight enough. Quit practicing!,” and no less an authority than Gregg Allman stated “That band is gonna put Southern Rock back on the map.”
The critics agree. The Washington Post proclaimed them “a band that can reclaim Southern Rock for the South,” and the Atlanta Journal Constitution declared, “The Atlanta quintet is the real deal.” Billboard praised their “epic-sounding ballads,” andThe New Orleans Times-Picayune called them “an airtight band that is far smarter and more sophisticated than casual observers may realize… Blackberry Smoke’s amalgamation of hearty Southern rock, alt-country and deep soul is equally suited for roadhouses or arenas.”
The acclaim extends to the other side of the Atlantic. The London Times noted, “Unpretentious and as musically tight as you would expect a band who plays night after night would be, Blackberry Smoke brought a little bit of Georgia sunshine to a rainy night in London.” The English hard-rock journal Kerrang! proclaimed, “Blackberry Smoke are now a Big Deal… They’ve achieved it simply because they’re awesome.”
Much of that awesomeness lies in the potent musical and personal rapport that’s at the core of Blackberry Smoke’s music. “It’s evolved over the years, but that chemistry has been there from day one,” says Charlie. “It’s always been about the five of us listening to each other and creating something that belongs to all of us. When we started, we were young and impatient, playing everything too fast and with everything always turned up to 10. But eventually you calm down and settle into the music, and you learn to play with patience and soul.”
“Everything with us has been a natural progression, but it’s always felt like it’s been about the five of us and about the chemistry,” Brit asserts. “Me and my brother and Charlie had played together a lot in other bands, so that was a really strong foundation. And all five of us grew up loving songs that were really well-crafted, whether they were by the Beatles or the Stones or Aerosmith or Skynyrd. That’s a big part of our common ground, and I think that we’re always trying to come up with songs and records that are as good as the ones that we grew up with.”
While the five bandmates are excited that their move to Rounder offers the potential of reaching new listeners, they’re not planning on altering their approach for mass consumption.
“The plan for this record,” Charlie says, “is to go out and play as much as we can, and just take it to the people. There’s so much that’s out of your hands when you release a record, but that’s the part that we can control. That, and making an effort to make a better record every time.”
“We’ve always been really hands-on and deeply involved, and that’s not going to change,” concludes Brit, who adds, “The thing is, we really do care about this stuff, and we don’t have it in us to phone it in. We really care about what we do, and we care about every person who comes to see us play, even the jackass who’s screaming for the song that we just played. So we’re ready to pick up the ball and run with it.”