While millions of people celebrate the recent 50th anniversary of the Beatles' debut U.S. appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, 40-year-old Blackberry Smoke singer/guitarist Charlie Starr can't think of a similar defining music moment for his generation. Perhaps, instead, it was a combination of smaller things — he vividly remembers the creepy doll heads in the Black Sabbath "Paranoid" video and MTV's top-20 countdowns.
Starr's sonic influences have been shaped in a similar fashion, just as his band, Blackberry Smoke, combines elements of rock, country, blues and soul for a Southern sound of its own. Sure the band, who will perform at the Fillmore on Feb. 20, is often called country or Southern rock while being compared to the Allman Brothers, Black Crowes and Marshall Tucker Band, but Starr would just prefer to call it "Southern music."
Just listen to the opening track, "Six Ways to Sunday" on 2012's The Whipporwill. While there's a hint of twang in some of Starr's vocals, there's also a bite to his riffs. The piano fluttering behind the chords is more reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis' brand of rock than anything that would require a cowboy hat or boots.
"Our music does straddle the fence for most people," Starr says. "When I wake up in the morning, I feel I was born a rock 'n' roll guitar player. I don't really try to convince anyone we're a country band. Then there are people out there flying the 'we are a country artist or band' flag and they wouldn't have a prayer of singing a Hank Williams song. It's confusing."
Starr's musical interests started early in life. He'd sing after supper with his father and grandmother — bluegrass and gospel tunes, mostly, though he doesn't want anyone to think it was the Andy Griffith Show. He remembers sitting at the piano with his grandmother and learning how to sing harmony. "She would sing the melody, play the note and then the harmonizing note," he says. "She taught me to sing the alto part. That's where it all came from for me."
When he got to junior high, he met a friend with a drum kit. That's when Starr realized he wasn't the only one who wanted to play music and his focus quickly changed from singing tunes with his family to playing rock 'n' roll with his friends over the years.
He mentions that Dan Baird, singer for the Georgia Satellites, once made a good point, that through the decades as styles of music changed, they would get a new name or tag. These days, everything gets put under the same genre, even though there's a lot of music that's "definitely not country." Bands like Blackberry Smoke quickly get labeled country even though there's more to their sound.
Blackberry Smoke has released three studio albums since it formed around the turn of the century, with The Whipporwill released on Zac Brown's Southern Ground label. It's the perfect blend of rock, country and soul.
With two albums set for release this year — a double live album and a new studio effort — Starr hopes his music will become memorable — maybe not to the status of a Beatles anniversary, but something that can conjure up an image in the listener's mind.
"Anytime that, all of a sudden, you get those butterflies or those goosebumps — there's a pretty serious memory seared into your brain," Starr says. "There are certain songs or music I put on and I remember moments very vividly — the smell of a room, the weather, what my mom screamed at me that day. I love to go see shows to this day — the anticipation of the lights dropping and the band walking on stage — and get that thrill when it all seems larger than life. Those are life-changing moments."
The band has had plenty of its own — releasing a live DVD, playing the Grand Ole Opry, working with George Jones. Starr says he can look at a photo from 2008 and it feels like yesterday. Does it feel like it's been a long road to this point?
"Only when I look at the gray hairs in my beard," he says with a laugh.