Charlie Starr was thrilled when he heard that his band Blackberry Smoke’s latest album, “Holding All the Roses,” had debuted atop the Billboard chart last month. For nearly 15 years, the Atlanta-based quintet has been growing its audience, sound, and critical acclaim the old-fashioned way: earning it out on the road, routinely playing a whopping 250 gigs a year. The group hits the House of Blues on Friday.
Still, Starr confesses, the fact that “Holding All the Roses” debuted at number one on the country chart was something of head scratcher for the band and some of its ardent followers, who have long championed the group’s canny meshing of Lynyrd Skynyrd-style Southern rock with the heavier leanings of Aerosmith and classic pop craftsmanship.
“Fans of the band will actually argue about that,” the singer, songwriter, and guitarist says with a chuckle on the phone from his home in Carrollton, Ga. “I’ve seen it on social media, fans debating whether we’re a country band or a rock ’n’ roll band, and it makes us laugh. It doesn’t really matter to us one way or the other. But it is funny to see Blackberry Smoke’s new album debut at number one on the country charts — it’s pretty surreal.”
Part of that association with country music no doubt comes from an earlier affiliation with the Zac Brown Band, whose Southern Ground record label released Blackberry Smoke’s acclaimed 2012 album, “The Whippoorwill.” (Blackberry Smoke now records for Rounder, previously local and now based in Nashville.)
Whatever genre Billboard decides to call it, “Holding All the Roses” showcases the best of what the group — which includes Starr, guitarist Paul Jackson, keyboardist Brandon Still, and brothers Brit and Richard Turner on drums and bass — has been fine-tuning during all those nights on the road. From the cheeky bar-band ramble of “Wish in One Hand” to the ants-in-your-pants shimmy of the title track, the album has no shortage of roof raisers. But the band also knows how to flip the mood with tracks like the aching minor key melancholy of “Too High,” in which Starr observes that despite what a certain pop song might claim, some days it’s hard enough just getting out of bed without worrying about climbing mountains and traversing valleys.
The songs are dotted with Starr’s clever one-liners, both poignant and humorous. One moment he is wryly complimenting a lady friend on the rollicking “Rock and Roll Again,” telling her “You put the dirty in my mind again.” The next, he’s observing unflinchingly, “I don’t know how to say I was wrong, all I know is how to be gone,” on the chugging, Neil Young-flavored “Living in the Song.”
“Those are just happy accidents,” says Starr of the couplets, which help to punch up the songs’ familiar contours memorably. “They’re floating around in the air, and you’ve just got to reach out and grab them.”
To help “Roses” bloom, the band enlisted vaunted producer Brendan O’Brien, who has worked with everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Mastodon. The fellow Atlanta musician had been at the top of Blackberry Smoke’s wish list since the band fell in love with O’Brien’s contributions to the early Black Crowes albums and Dan Baird’s solo work.
“With the trajectory of our career, it made it possible to finally get his ear,” says Starr.
O’Brien, fresh from producing the most recent AC/DC album, helped the band achieve a more sonically polished sound, without sacrificing the sweat and grit integral to its essence.
“He said ‘What kind of record do you want to make?’ And we said, ‘We never want to be a band that repeats ourselves,’” recalls Starr. “AC/DC is really the only band in the world that can make the same record over and over and over again — their fans want them to do that one thing that they do. Being called a Southern rock band, we would be easily painted into a corner if we tried to make a Skynyrd record every time. We talked about the records we loved, and we landed on the same page.”
“It’s just a great record front to back,” says producer-director Blake Judd, who shots the gritty meth-lab video for “Too High” as well as the band’s 2014 DVD release, “Leave a Scar: Live in North Carolina.’’ “I think they are on that weird cusp where they appeal to country music, they appeal to Southern rock, and, if you’ve seen them live, they could even appeal to a heavy metal crowd.”
And it is the concert stage that the Kentucky-based filmmaker, who shoots frequently in the alt-country space with artists like Shooter Jennings and Hank Williams III, believes is the key for Blackberry Smoke. “The most important thing that they are — which is how they’ve become who they are, and the reason they continue to grow —
However anyone wants to classify that music is fine with Starr. “The lines are so blurry, who can tell what’s what anymore?” he says with a laugh. “It’s a tough one to wrap my brain around at times — I’m just glad that people are liking it. If it was on the jazz chart, I’d be happy.”