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.”
And all these ingredients combine to form the Blackberry Smoke recipe for Southern rock — with seasonings of gospel, bluegrass, arena rock and a hard dash of outlaw country — that can be heard on the band's third full-length album, “The Whippoorwill,” released last August on Zac Brown's Southern Ground label.
Reaping the rewards
Together since 2000, the Atlanta-based quintet (Starr on vocals and guitar, bassist-vocalist Richard Turner, drummer Brit Turner, guitarist-vocalist Paul Jackson, keyboardist Brandon Still) is now averaging up to 250 dates per year, and their labors have paid off. The band has toured with and befriended idols such as the Marshall Tucker Band, ZZ Top (Billy Gibbons jammed with the band on a Florida stop), Lynyrd Skynyrd and George Jones. The band was even asked to play for Jones on his 80th birthday, not long after the country legend did a guest shot on Blackberry Smoke's sophomore album, “Little Piece of Dixie.”
“It was unbelievable,” Starr recalled of the occasion. “I got the opportunity to sing a duet with him of ‘Yesterday's Wine' at the Ryman (Auditorium in Nashville), and then later in the year our full band went up to the Grand Ole Opry at Opryland and performed for his birthday along with a lot of other artists that were there. You know, Jimmy Johnson and Alan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack, and it was great. And we were honored to be allowed to be a part of that.”
Blackberry Smoke's current tour brings them to the Wormy Dog Saloon in Bricktown on Friday. It'll be their second gig at the venue, which was recommended to them by their old friends in the now-defunct Stillwater-bred Cross Canadian Ragweed.
“We wound up tourin' with 'em off and on for a few years,” Starr said. “They became really good friends of ours and still are, Cody (Canada) and the guys. We didn't play there with them, but they always would tell us, Cody in particular, and Grady Cross, ‘You guys have got to go play the Wormy Dog,' so we finally did. And it's fabulous. A very storied venue.”
And patrons may notice some very attractive women in the front row at the show, but men should keep their distance. Those will be some of the wives of Blackberry Smoke, who sometimes come out on the road with their men, despite the grueling yearly touring schedule.
“It's not easy, but this is what we were doin' when we married 'em, so they don't really know any different,” Starr said. “And it takes a special kind of woman, definitely. And children, too. It's an understanding. You know, it's just like we were in the military or we were sellin' vacuum cleaners door to door. Whatever keeps you away from home is tough, but in this case it's what we dedicated our lives to. And we're lucky to get to do what we love so much for a livin'.”