When Blackberry Smoke first started touring, one of the first T-shirts the band began selling had a fitting, insightful slogan.
“Too country for rock. Too rock for country.”
This put the group, which plays the Manchester Music Hall on Thursday night, in a bit of a tough spot in trying to get signed to a big record deal. But the road-tested, Atlanta-based Southern rock quintet ended up having a unique cross-genre trajectory.
“The music industry is changing so drastically, and major labels weren’t beating down our door, either. They never have,” said lead vocalist, guitarist and principal songwriter Charlie Starr. “It’s just not been anything we’ve worried about. And we’ve had two No. 1 records in a row, so I guess it’s not really that big a deal.”
Now, more people will call us a country band than a rock ’n’ roll band. At the end of the day, we’re just like, ‘OK...whatever you want to call us.
Charlie Starr, Blackberry Smoke
The band has been together since the early 2000s, but the past few years have seen Blackberry Smoke’s career really catch fire. In addition to notching a pair of chart-topping albums on Billboard’s country music chart with 2015’s “Holding All The Roses” and the 2016 release “Like an Arrow,” Starr — along with band members Brit Turner (drums), Starr’s brother Richard Turner (bass), Paul Jackson (guitar) and Brandon Still (keyboards) — have had the privilege to play a sold-out show at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium while touring constantly as headliners, and it has supported acts including Zac Brown Band, Eric Church, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Gov’t Mule.
The range of influences Blackberry Smoke embodies has led to music that Starr calls a “happy little stew” that rests comfortably between country and rock and has gained them fans from both camps.
“Now, more people will call us a country band than a rock ’n’ roll band. At the end of the day, we’re just like, ‘OK, ... whatever you want to call us,’” Starr said. “We never really called it anything when we started the band. This is what it sounds like when we play music together.”
If Blackberry Smoke’s sound represents how the five musicians play together, “Like an Arrow” shows what it sounds like when the band fully and independently executes its creative vision. After working with acclaimed producer Brendan O’Brien (Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, AC/DC) on “Holding All The Roses,” Starr said, he wanted to get into the studio as soon as possible after he wrote a batch of new tunes and had leading some promising band rehearsals. They had planned on tapping O’Brien again or hiring another producer, but recording the songs went so well that Starr and company produced the album themselves and released it independently on its own label, 3 Legged Records.
This is what it sounds like when we play music together.
Charlie Starr, Blackberry Smoke
As in every Blackberry Smoke album, the the band is willing to go in various directions under the country-rock umbrella. Among the album’s 13 tracks, the group rocks arguably harder than it ever has on the opening track, “Waiting for the Thunder,” and it relies on some country-style storytelling on the reflective Southern rocker “The Good Life” (complete with a scorching Skynyrd-meets-Marshall-Tucker-Band-esque guitar solo). Then there’s certifiably funky R&B on “Believe You Me.”
With all the recent success and attention the band has acquired in both country and rock genres without the aid of major labels or radio play, one could imagine that more is on the horizon. But Starr said getting to that next level isn’t going to depend on the band changing a songwriting and live performance game plan that has worked so far.
“We never really have set goals for ourselves,” he said. “We’re just working, simply. We’re proof that it is that simple. Just try to give the people quality.”
Blake Hannon: firstname.lastname@example.org.