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Blackberry Smoke

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BLACK STONE CHERRy

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Black Stone Cherry were last here not even twelve months ago supporting Steel Panther. Originally slated as a headlining tour it was changed at the last minute, leaving some fans wondering the reasons why, but according to drummer John Fred Young there was nothing sinister behind the decision. With the band returning to Australia as headliners this month, Fred Young shed a little light on the behind the scenes decisions.

“We’re really looking forward to this tour,” he stressed. “Last time we came down with the Steel Panther guys we met so many great fans and people who have wanted to see the band down there for a long time so we’re really pumped about getting back. We’ve been out on tour here in the States for about three weeks and it’s been good. We’ve had some really good headline shows and this year has turned out to be pretty busy for us. We’re coming up on the anniversary of the Kentucky album release on April 1 and we’re writing new material already and kind of trying to get stuff together because probably in early September we’ll be back in the studio to hash out another one so… oh yeah, get ready for that!”

As for the change to support band status last time Fred Young insists it was nothing more than just logistics, but adds the band are psyched to get to do it again as the showpiece act.

“Honestly man, we just wanted to get close enough to smell the cologne,” he laughed. “We love the Steel Panther guys. Even before we played with them we used to see them at Download and hang with them for a bit and they are the nicest guys so when we had – obviously, as you said we had the headline shows booked – but our manager and their manager were talking and they know each other anyway and they asked if we would be interested in holding out on the headline tour and doing their support because they have a great draw already and we thought why not? It was so much fun that tour. The only hard part was getting up and flying all the time because we’re so used to the States and touring through Europe and England and riding that bus around (laughs). I still have crinks in my neck from last year but let me tell you something, it was worth it man. When I was a kid we started the band in 2001 – and we’ve had the same members ever since we had the first practice – and someone asked me recently how we keep from killing each other after being together for sixteen and a half years and I always go back to the fact that when we were kids we would skip school and just hang out until midnight and rehearse and my Dad and my Uncle – who were with the band The Kentucky Headhunters , a big Southern rock/country band here in America – they would let us have their old practice house on my Grandparents farm. We were just sixteen years old and we would jam until midnight and then burn ass at school. We would be so tired but we would just practice and cover songs and we grew up having… it was wild. This old house we would rehearse in didn’t have any insulation in the walls to keep heat in so my Dad and Uncle put up these killer posters and albums on the walls just to keep the heat in! You’re looking at Led Zeppelin and Cream and all the Motown stuff and Marvin Gaye and Al Green and even crazy stuff like Blue Cheer and the Yardbirds, so we grew up from very young teenagers having our rehearsals in an old shack that was basically a rock and roll museum in the middle of the woods and that’s how we got that rock and roll education that a lot of kids weren’t fortunate enough to get so we’ve been very blessed. I never thought we would be playing Australia. That’s the cat’s tits man. Now we’re getting to come down twice within a year and since this is the headline shows we’ll be playing for an hour and forty five minutes a night so people are definitely gonna get to get a good dose of Black Stone Cherry (laughs).”

Forming the band while still in high school in 2001, Fred Young says that back then they were just typical teenagers without a clear path of where their passion for music was going to take them.

“You know what?” he questioned. “We didn’t know where it was going but we knew we wanted to play music and we didn’t wanna get jobs and we just wanted to rock and roll. We were the epitome of a bunch of backward kids that really had no idea about the world outside of Kentucky and I remember some of the first times we ever practiced we were like… my Dad would come down and listen to us and help us structure songs and teach us about the music business and we always had this motto and it was WHEN we do something, not IF we do something so we were very driven young guys and that’s still the work ethic we have now.

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“We kind of get lazy sometimes but it’s a team effort and that’s what it takes in today’s world. It gets harder and harder to stay relevant. The good thing is we’re that band who has never really had a hit (laughs). We’re just climbing so slowly and we’re like a tank man, we keep going up the hill and I think it’s great that we’ve never had an overnight success. There’s so many good buddies of ours that we’ve seen in other bands that have had great radio success and just killed it and they’re just not around anymore and I think it’s because with us we’ve kept this grass roots thing where we’ll play to 100 people here and 200 people there and now with this tour of America we’re packing out 800 seat rooms and that’s incredible. It’s been slow but I think rock and roll is something that’s never gonna die and it’s always gonna be around and I think we are just one of those bands that are a live act and we’re a word of mouth band. We’ve been able to make some of the coolest records but live is where we are really, really able to do what we do.”

After nearly seventeen years in the music industry, Fred Young says the band have learnt a lot about music and each other, and it is through these experiences they have been able to develop into the tight musical unit they currently are. It is a journey that has seen them grow up together on the road and has also brought about many changes in music as in life.

“Oh God, honestly, a lot,” Fred Young expressed when asked how the band has changed musically. “Actually playing together is one thing we’re more aware of. Before it was just about making the most bad ass riff and going out there and bashing but now it’s almost… for instance, last night we blew the P.A up (laughs). We did man, we smoked it and blew the hell out of it! We were playing a song called ‘Darkest Secret’ and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t right in the middle of the guitar solo the damn P.A cut out but we just kept playing and hammering it. Of course, we all use in-ear monitors so when the P.A went down our ears went down as well. None of us could hear each other so we just played it off facial expressions and vibrations because obviously the amp is in front of my drum kit so I can’t hear anything going on. Playing with each other so long it’s like you’re driving blind but I’ll be damned if we didn’t finish the song at the same time (laughs). It took twenty minutes to get the P.A back on and people were out there yelling but we were like man, we haven’t come this far to rumble have we? (laughs) It was fun and I think from playing so many live shows and being out on the road with incredible bands it’s really taught us how to play as a band and I think that’s one important thing we’ve learned.”

Another thing Fred Young says Black Stone Cherry have learnt to do is look back on previous albums and utilize lessons learnt both practically and musically when thinking about new material.

“We try to look back and make sure we’re including things,” he mused. “We’re not scared to go to different places but we always try to keep that core Black Stone Cherry of what we were like from the very beginning and I think we always get worried about getting too far away from that but now, especially on the stuff we’re writing at the moment, it’s like… it’s out there

“We’re not scared to go to different places but we always try to keep that core Black Stone Cherry of what we were like from the very beginning and I think we always get worried about getting too far away from that but now, especially on the stuff we’re writing at the moment, it’s like… it’s out there man.

“Not like as in progressive or anything but more no holds barred. There’s some more funky stuff, there’s heavier stuff, there’s a couple of songs that are even more melodic so I don’t know man. I think the great thing with bands – you look at Led Zeppelin and the Beatles – they never made the same record twice. Ever. Even with huge pop stars like Madonna you never saw the same record twice and I think that’s why people are really drawn to heritage acts and artists because they keep evolving. They keep that core of what they are but they keep growing and I think that’s what we’ve managed to do through all of this.”

Written by Kris Peters

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Blackberry Smoke’s Facebook page reads loud and clear ‘ALWAYS ON TOUR’. Although social media is an environment in which overly hyperbolic self-promotion is frequently brewed, this statement isn’t far from the truth. “We tour pretty much all year round”, confirms Blackberry Smoke’s frontman Charlie Starr. Starr emits an aura that shines as bright as the gates of heaven and is undeniably making his way up the ranks towards the superior pedestals of southern rock royalty. However, Starr remains a gentle and humble soul. Upon discussing Blackberry Smoke’s latest album, Like An Arrow, the usually eloquent Starr stumbles across his words when attempting to explicate his recent experience of working with Gregg Allman. “I’d met him through a really good friend a handful of years ago, and he’s very… I mean it’s Gregg Allman”, effuses Starr. “Meeting him for the very first time was pretty heavy, ‘cos he’s very quiet, and he’s a little, not intense because he’s calm, but it’s just a heavy thing to meet Gregg Allman. He’s very serious and quiet, but very gracious.”

Allman’s shoulders aren’t the only ones Starr has rubbed with over the years. Eternally faced with comparisons to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Starr recounts memories made with the band themselves: “We’re all heavily influenced by [Skynyrd’s] music. Then it sort of all came full circle and we wound up playing shows with them and becoming friendly with them. It’s a little surreal at times, you know I’m like, I’m hugging Gary Rossington. It’s crazy.” And what value has Starr found in touring with southern heroes like Skynyrd and ZZ Top? “It’s not actually that we’ve learned anything from watching them. It’s that you learn how to tour yourselves”, professes Starr. “We learned how to play our shows and get out of the way and be efficient. Because you can’t be a part of tours like that and be loose cannons. You have to do your shit and be efficient with it. Do your job and move.”

Despite the explicit admissions that Starr is influenced by pioneers such as Skynyrd, Blackberry Smoke offer a neo-southern element to their sound that pushes the boundaries of prototypical southern music. The pleasure in debuting a new Blackberry Smoke record on one’s sound system is partly accountable to the uncertainty of what lies within the ridges of their vinyl records. “It’s our goal to make each record a different type of listening experience without sacrificing our sound. We don’t want to fall into the trap of being formulaic”, Starr asserts with definitive confidence.

Whilst such an approach can be praised in an industry that continually calls upon revampification, it is not without its critics. And unfortunately, with the incessant increase in virtual connectedness online, critics are now more abundant than maggots on necrotic flesh. “A lot of people now, thanks to social media, will complain but it’s like, you’re wasting your breath”, Starr chuckles, unruffled by such virtual hostility. “We’re gonna do what we wanna do. It’s not like we’re making a hip hop record. We’re not changing who we are, we just make a different record each time.”

Starr alluded to such fan disconcertion with regards to Waiting For The Thunder, the opening track on Like An Arrow. “I think the first time people heard it they were like ‘whaaaat, is this a Blackberry Smoke song? What is going on?’ But [the song is about] real life you know, I think that for people who are expecting to hear a drinking and party song, that’s not the one”, Starr speculates. Many people are quick to point the finger at Donald Trump when deliberating the subject of Waiting For The Thunder, as it encapsulates themes of power, upheaval and uncertainty. Apparently we should not flatter Trump with such marked attention, though. “Somebody asked me the other day, was it about Donald Trump and I said, no. No, it would be about the relationship between people of the world, and the world leaders – quote, unquote – and how scary the world is. It’s sort of biblical in a way, metaphorical”, posits Starr with the kind of trustworthy wisdom that tempts one towards nominating Starr himself for a world leader position.

Despite the tumultuous world we currently live in, Starr finds solace in his work. “[Touring is] really addictive. Sometimes when we play two shows in one place, it’s odd, you know it’s like, ‘we need to go’. I love it, keepin’ movin’. I love to go home too, of course, but as far as work goes, this is the best work I can imagine”, Starr says gleefully. But with their current tour coming to a close, fans are eager to hear Blackberry Smoke’s next studio venture, despite number one record Like An Arrow not yet celebrating its one-year anniversary. Are the blueprints for the next album set out? “I’ve got a bunch of songs written, maybe half [the album]. I haven’t been in a real big hurry. I don’t ever really stop writing. It’s always a process that’s spread over a large amount of time”, main songwriter Starr elucidates. “I don’t have the luxury of going ‘I’m taking a week off, I’m gonna go and write a record’, or however long it takes. I just gather the songs as they come out of the air.” Besides, you can’t rush perfection.

Written by Jeni Lambert

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