Musical variety spices Blackberry Smoke's Southern-rock stew

There was plenty of variety in Charlie Starr's musical diet growing up in rural Alabama. Maybe that's why his band, Blackberry Smoke, cooks up such a savory Southern-rock stew.
BY GENE TRIPLETT etriplett@opubco.com Published: March 15, 2013
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There was plenty of variety in Charlie Starr's musical diet growing up in rural Alabama.

Maybe that's why his band, Blackberry Smoke, cooks up such a savory Southern-rock stew.

“Well, first and foremost it was bluegrass and gospel music, and I would say country music, but my dad didn't really listen to the radio very much,” Starr said in a recent phone interview from a Tampa, Fla., tour stop.

“He was just more into his records and playin' songs that he knew on his guitar. And my grandmother played piano and mandolin, and so they taught my sister and me. It was left up to us to grab an instrument, whichever one we figured we would be most adept at. And so there just was always music. It was just such a musical family.”

His mother, meanwhile, was more into rock 'n' roll.

“I had divorced parents, and so I split time between the two, and with her I got the radio and her records, and she had the Stones and Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and so it was rock 'n' roll on one side and country people's music on the other,” Starr said of his childhood in Lanett, about a dozen miles north of Auburn.

Starr said his family was also “Baptists, dyed-in-the-wool,” and his grandmother's brothers were in the successful Swanee River Boys gospel quartet, which recorded and toured from the late 1930s to the early '70s.

By the time Starr was 12, his father had taught him chords on an acoustic guitar, and how to play bluegrass and Hank Williams standards. But the boy was starting to lean toward rock 'n' roll, and he acquired an electric guitar from a friend. He wanted to learn to play like Aerosmith and Black Sabbath.

“'Cause, you know, when you're a kid, I didn't have any friends who liked bluegrass, and all my friends liked rock music,” Starr said. “So obviously I got into a Les Paul and a Marshall.”

He also started investigating the Rolling Stones' influences and getting into Delta blues, especially the work of Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Son House. He even dug into early Appalachian music, before it was even called bluegrass — the works of Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers and “Dock” Boggs.

“But at the same time really lovin' the Allman Brothers and Skynyrd and Marshall Tucker and Little Feat,” Starr said of the bands with Southern roots or trappings that top his list. “And then one day, lo and behold, I found the Grateful Dead, too. ... You just can never get enough of good music, no matter what genre it is.”

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