Blackberry Smoke retrace Southern roots with Capricorn Sound Studios release

Call it happenstance that led Blackberry Smoke to Capricorn Sound Studios earlier this year to record what wound up being the first major release at the fabled Macon music mecca in more than 40 years.

The Atlanta-based quintet, known for its intoxicating amalgamation of Southern rock and blues, was merely planning to shoot some video at the studio, which reopened in December with deserved fanfare.

Blackberry Smoke had just mapped out its “Spirit of the South” tour, which would have kicked off this week before the coronavirus pandemic iced those plans for the near future. (The rescheduled Fox Theatre date is slated for Nov. 28 – for now.) The band thought a promotional video shot at Capricorn would juice the tour announcement, but the idea soon grew tentacles to record a few Southern rock classics at the studio as well.

The resulting six-song EP, “Live from Capricorn Sound Studios,” arrived in June, with proceeds benefiting the Recording Academy’s MusiCares COVID-19 fund.

“It just snowballed,” said Blackberry Smoke singer/guitarist Charlie Starr during a recent chat from his Brookhaven home. “What are we going to play? OK, let’s play Capricorn (Records) songs. Which ones? Let’s go to the drawing board.”

The band’s schedule in pre-COVID-19 time was packed, leaving them one day to shoehorn a recording session in the ‘70s-era building that witnessed the birth of landmark albums by The Allman Brothers Band, Marshall Tucker Band and many more.

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“Marshall Tucker and The Allman Brothers were obvious choices. Jimmy Hall (of Wet Willie) is a great friend, so I called him and asked if he would want to come record some of those songs in the same room where he did it in the ‘70s. Marcus (Henderson) from Marshall Tucker said he’d come play flute on ‘Take the Highway.’ It was all very romantic to me, to be in that space with those guys,” Starr said.

Among the other final offerings are ABB’s “Revival” and “Midnight Rider” (on which Starr played Duane Allman’s mythical Goldtop Les Paul guitar) and Wet Willie’s “Keep on Smiling.”

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The frontman had one more suggestion for bandmates Richard Turner (bass), Brandon Still (keyboards), Brit Turner (drums) and Paul Jackson (guitar) — an obscure Little Richard song from 1972, “Southern Child.”

“It’s not a Capricorn (Records) song, and it’s not a Southern rock song. But we’re talking about Macon, so you have Little Richard in there,” Starr said. “We put a little boogie to it, and (Atlanta vocal duo) The Black Bettys came and sang on it, and they’re just fantastic.”

While Starr and the band were setting up a camera crew to film some of the recording, he received a call from Chuck Leavell, the legendary keyboardist who spent many an hour in Capricorn Studios with The Allman Brothers Band (and is currently still part of The Rolling Stones’ touring ensemble, among his many other endeavors).

Starr performed with Leavell for the first time in December at the “Capricorn Revival” concert to celebrate the rebirth of the studio complex.

“He feels like an old friend, I think, to everybody,” Starr said.

Leavell, whose Charlane Plantation tree farm is located just south of Macon, popped into the studio to wish the band luck on its recordings.

“I told him, ‘Your DNA is part of what is holding this structure up,’” Starr said with a laugh.

Leavell also chuckles when that story is relayed to him a couple of weeks later, and, for a guy who has seen and played with his share of Southern rock bands, his praise for Blackberry Smoke should resonate.

“The first time I met those guys, I was in the Atlanta airport about five or six years ago. Three of them recognized me and came over to speak, and I thought it was so cool that they would take the time to do that,” Leavell said. “I started following them and saw them on TV on ‘Later…with Jools Holland,’ and thought, all right, man, these guys are carrying the flag but with their own approach to it.”

While Leavell’s appreciation of Blackberry Smoke’s music is notable, he also admires Starr as a person.

“He’s got a distinctive voice, yes, but man, he’s got good character,” Leavell said. “Charlie is a great family man. I recall during rehearsals for the ‘Revival’ show that he missed one because it was his son’s birthday. I really respected that.”

While Blackberry Smoke lost months of live shows due to the shutdown of the live music industry, the band used some (socially-distanced) time to head to Nashville recently to work on their next full-length record with renowned producer Dave Cobb.

The band hoped to work with Cobb previously, but schedules never aligned — until the pandemic cleared the way. While the follow-up to 2018’s “Find a Light” is in the mixing process, Starr said he “can’t even begin to guess” when it might be released, especially because a tour to support it – or even to play some new songs during the “Spirit of the South” shows — is unlikely this year.

“We want to work, but not to the extent of anyone getting sick or causing a problem,” Starr said. “I’m sitting on G and waiting on O.”

As for what fans can expect musically from Blackberry Smoke, get ready to crank up the volume.

“It’s a rock ‘n’ roll album for sure. Anyone who might want to hear the kinder, gentler Blackberry Smoke will be disappointed,” Starr said. “We didn’t verbally agree that we were gonna make a loud rock record, but I had written a bunch of songs before COVID and wrote some of the heaviest ones during it, maybe because of frustration. It’s a special record for me just with the fact that we made it with Dave. I think people will be able to hear what I mean when they hear it.”

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About the Author

Melissa Ruggieri

Melissa Ruggieri

Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Melissa Ruggieri covers music and entertainment news for the AJC. She remembers when MTV was awesome.  

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