Any band that’s been together a long time develops an innate sense of familiarity. Live, that could mean hand signals or a simple nod to switch up a set list mid-show. Studio recording becomes second nature—vocals done in one room, drums usually in another.
But for Blackberry Smoke, a band that has been together for twenty-four years and seven studio albums, recording Be Right Here, out in February, turned out to be more nerve-racking than routine. Working for a second time with the Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb, the band recorded the album mostly at the legendary RCA Studio A in Nashville’s Music Row. Lead singer and songwriter Charlie Starr had sent Cobb and the band demos of some of the new songs, but Cobb told him to stop and wait until they were all together. While on previous efforts, the band would be in the studio at the same time but recording parts separately, this time Cobb wanted them all looking at one another when he hit record. The idea was to capture the magic of Blackberry Smoke’s searing live shows, which they’ve honed over more than two thousand gigs.
“At first, it was a little bit terrifying,” Starr says. “Our drummer, Brit [Turner], was like, ‘I don’t even get to hear the song first?’ Dave said he wanted us all to be in the room, and we’re in there with him and he’s playing a tambourine, and it just sounds fantastic.”
Starr says the process clicked for all the band members while recording the album opener, “Dig a Hole,” a bruising blues number with a soaring chorus. “You could just see the excitement starting; it was tangible,” he says. “Dave was like, ‘Oh boy, here we go.’ You love when you look over and see the producer really enjoying himself. It has an effect on the way you play as a band.”
Since forming in 2000 from the Atlanta music scene, Blackberry Smoke has been churning out its own sturdy take on Southern rock and roll, influenced by all the greats: Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, the Black Crowes, the Georgia Satellites, and even current peers such as Drive-By Truckers. There’s a warm nostalgia seeping through Be Right Here, the kind of music a couple of kids might listen to while driving Georgia back roads on their way to a clandestine bonfire on the beach. “Their songs sound like home,” says Cobb, a Georgia native. “When I was a kid, I listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s live at the Fox album every day. That is one of my favorite records, period. Blackberry Smoke has so much of that stuff in them, but they ran with it and made their own version of it.”
That version stands out on songs like the album highlight “Azalea,” a plaintive acoustic ballad that shows off Starr’s touching vocals and aching lyrics. Starr wrote the song with his longtime collaborator Travis Meadows. “For ‘Azalea,’ we were just playing with the word,” Starr says. “It’s a beautiful word, and we’re throwing lines back and forth and it turns into this nostalgic number, but one that also has this urgency: How do you know if a loved one is making the wrong decisions in life? Come home and let’s figure it out.”
The band will hit the road in support of Be Right Here starting February 15 in Durham, North Carolina, for a run of shows that carries extra emotional heft following Turner’s diagnosis in 2022 with a brain tumor. Starr says the drummer is doing well and eager to play, something the band never takes for granted, even after two decades. “We do fight, and we hurt each other’s feelings and say shit to each other,” he says. “But then we play a show and something feels right. You start grinning. The music has always been the peacemaker.”