Blackberry Smoke can’t pick just one thing and ride with it. Since forming 12 years ago in Atlanta, the Southern rock quintet’s groove continues to ripen, especially now that it has joined Zac Brown’s record label.
“We tour and make music, really, constantly,” said Charlie Starr, singer/guitarist, by phone earlier this week, before headlining a concert Saturday at House of Blues in North Myrtle Beach.
“So we don’t ever want to be complacent. ... It feels great to grow musically, and as a songwriter, I want to continue to evolve. You know: You set standards for yourself, and goals.”
With release in August of “The Whippoorwill,” the group’s third CD -- and first on Brown’s Southern Ground Records -- Blueberry Smoke will end this year and start 2013 “with a bang,” Starr said.
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Besides touring on their own, the group will open for the Zac Brown Band on the three final nights of this month, going from Birmingham, Ala., to Cincinnati and Detroit.
“We just played at Madison Square Garden with him a few weeks ago,” Starr said. “It was, ‘Scratch one off the big list.’”
‘Look at him go’
Starr said Blueberry Smoke appreciates building its next foundation under Brown’s umbrella. He and other fellow Georgia musicians, “whether you play metal or Southern rock music,” have someone to look up to in Brown, he said.
“Zac has been so intent on doing things his way,” Starr said, “and he has succeeded.”
He remembered watching Brown and his band perform at awards shows, and thinking, “Look at him go.”
“They come to him because he is standing his ground,” Starr said.
With this new CD, Blackberry Smoke found itself “focused,” with a “good team of people” in the production, yet with creative freedom.
“Zac himself is very involved,” Starr said. “We knew Zac as a friend going into this when we signed with Southern Ground. We didn’t know how personally involved he would want to be. He’s certainly involved, and that’s great, but not too much, not in a nettlesome way. He likes our formula, and he did from the get-go.”
Blackberry Smoke also has opened through the years for Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top and George Jones.
Jones and Jamey Johnson also lent their voices to “Yesterday’s Wine,” the closer to Blackberry Smoke’s second album, “Little Piece of Dixie,” from 2009 on BamaJam Records.
“That was quite an experience,” Starr said. “It came about in a really amazing way.”
After Johnson, a good friend, welcomed the group’s invitation to join in the song, a record label official who knew Jones and his wife made the connection to see if country’s “Possum” would take part to make it a trio.
“Much to our surprise, he said yeah,” Starr recalled. “He came in and just liked it. That was the first time we have ever met him.”
Starr said he wondered what Jones thought about working with a band of “long-haired country musicians.” However, having Jones take part resulted in another unforgettable reward: seeing his validation of the project by saying, “I’m so glad this is country music.”
“It came right around the time he had been quoted as kind of knocking this new pop country,” Starr said. “That’s his opinion, and for being around so long, I thought, ‘You’ve earned the right to say this.’”
Taking a chance
Having Brown invigorate the group by declaring, “I love what you do; go do it,” helps the musicians “begin to try and understand the marketplace,” Starr said.
“There are, and always have been, and always will be people who do music that’s safe, and it’s easy to like,” Starr said. “And it’s for the kids. And there are people in the past who have taken a chance on something that’s different and it worked, and those people are looked at being renegades and heroes later, but at the time, when it’s going on, it’s pretty scary.”
Seeing turnout grow “and seeing people singing lyrics to brand new songs,” Starr said, “shows they’re going after it. They love it that much. Thanks to the advent of YouTube, people can go look anytime they would like and listen to a new song. That’s a great thing.”
Asked about the new album’s title and if he heard whippoorwills while growing up, Starr remembered how his grandmother educated him on bird songs, “telling me what that was and what that was -- not just a whippoorwill, but a bobwhite and a mockingbird.”
Starr cited a couple of early country artists who have included whippoorwills in lyrics of their songs, and quoted Hank Williams’ opener from “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a hit in 1949: “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill. He sounds too blue to fly.”
“It just rolls off the tongue, the word idea,” Starr said. “It’s a really good song word. There’s some imagery involved there, too. It’s really colorful and southern.”