Throughout their career, Blackberry Smoke— vocalist/lead guitarist Charlie Starr, guitarist/vocalist Paul Jackson, bassist/vocalist Richard Turner, drummer Brit Turner, and keyboardist Brandon Still—has embodied Georgia’s rich musical legacy, honoring the people, places and sounds of their home state. As the band celebrates their 20th anniversary this year, their reverence for Georgia has only deepened.
On their latest album, You Hear Georgia, the follow-up to 2018’s critically acclaimed Find a Light, Blackberry Smoke is further celebrating these roots with 10 new songs that feel like Georgia, accented by the addition of Grammy-winning producer and fellow Georgia-native, Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile). “Dave and I had spoken for the last few years about making a record,” Starr says. “Finally, it worked out, our schedule and his schedule, and we said, yes—let’s make a record.”
Blackberry Smoke worked quickly, spending just 10 days at Nashville’s famed RCA Studio A, Cobb’s home base since 2016. The band recorded live on the floor, giving You Hear Georgia a crisp, outgoing feel. Like other Blackberry Smoke efforts, this album leans into well-crafted Southern rock driven by jagged guitar riffs and rich instrumentation, as the band layers on rollicking piano (“Live It Down”), funky grooves (“Hey Delilah”), and introspective acoustic sounds (the stripped-down, folk-leaning “Old Enough to Know”).
“He’s a very laid-back guy with excellent ideas, but he’s very enthusiastic about making music, and he’s right in there with you having a ball,” Starr says. “He’s a calming presence and so knowledgeable musically, and he knows how to get what he wants in the studio. I don’t know if we could have made a record in 10 days with everyone, and that definitely speaks to Dave’s ability.”
Working with Cobb was the right move, as his approach brought warmth and looseness to the proceedings, while his easygoing demeanor and songwriting background allowed him to provide perceptive insights into this particular batch of Blackberry Smoke songs. In fact, the producer encouraged Blackberry Smoke to pursue the title track after hearing Starr noodling on the idea in the studio.
“He heard me play it, just the riff, and I sang a little bit of a verse and he said, ‘What’s that? What’s that?’” Starr says. “I said, ‘It’s just something that’s not finished yet.’ And he said, ‘Well, finish it, because we want to record that too.’ So I went back to the hotel room and finished it, and there we go.”
“You Hear Georgia” features a narrator who’s underestimated because of outward appearances and misguided stereotypes, which is a theme of Starr’s lyrics this time around, particularly as it relates to the band’s Southern roots. “Lyrically, the song is about the South being misunderstood. It’s obviously a rough and tumble world, and there’s a lot of bad people. But there’s a lot of good people too. It started with the idea of how people might have a preconceived opinion of you because of a thick Southern accent, then expanded into the reality of how some people just seem to have such a hard time getting along, thanks to political or religious views, or simply what part of the country you come from.”
In that spirit, Starr found collaborating valuable as You Hear Georgia’s songs came together. Jamey Johnson ended up lending gruff and tender vocals to the pedal steel-augmented “Lonesome For a Livin’” after he and Starr started reminiscing about a previous collaboration, their 2009 cover of the Willie Nelson-penned “Yesterday’s Wine.”
“We were talking after a show, and he said, ‘Hey, let’s do something else,’” Starr says. “I said, ‘I have this song, it’s really a honky-tonk song. And he said, ‘Send it to me,’ and I did, and he dug it.” And so he came down to the studio and just killed it. He has a voice like no other.”
Starr also co-wrote most of the album’s songs with friends, including current Lynyrd Skynyrd member Rickey Medlocke (“Old Scarecrow”) and Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes (“All Rise Again”), as well as two frequent collaborators, Four Horsemen guitarist Dave Lizmi, and ex-Buckcherry member Keith Nelson.
“That’s just an enjoyable thing to do sometimes,” Starr says of co-writing with pals. “It’s like, ‘Okay, let’s just knock heads together and see what we come up with.’ And sometimes it’s magical.”
The songs Starr wrote with Haynes, Lizmi and Nelson came together in the early stages of 2020’s pandemic- driven lockdown. But save for “All Rise Again”—a surging highlight with a trademark Haynes blues-jam solo and an optimistic vibe—these lyrics aren’t explicitly about the disorienting experience of the lockdown. “There were so many musicians stuck in their living room,” Starr explains. “Those songs were born out of that necessity to create and make new music. You’ve gotta be moving forward.”
Unsurprisingly, many of You Hear Georgia’s songs describe characters that are restless and prone to seeking out a change of scenery, in hopes of finding a place where they belong. Against cinematic backdrops with vivid details, it’s easy to empathize with these protagonists as they share pearls of wisdom (“Don’t ever trust a grown man with a nickname”) and exhibit deep self-awareness (“Anywhere’s better than staying here, with the ghosts running thru his mind”) along the way.
The hard-touring Blackberry Smoke knows a little something about hitting the road in order to find a place to belong. Over the years, the band’s toured with ZZ Top, Zac Brown Band, and Eric Church, while the group’s last four full-lengths reached the top 10 of the Billboard country charts, with two of these albums (2015’s Holding All The Roses and 2016’s Like An Arrow) landing at No. 1.
You Hear Georgia reinforces that the band members have come so far together because they also can rely on one another for support and creative direction, no matter what the circumstances.
“Having played music together for so long, it does become a sort of a telepathic thing, where we all are nodding our head at the same time, like, ‘A-ha, I know what this feels like,’ or what it should feel and sound like,” Starr says.
“That’s what makes it so enjoyable to be in a band: to play with the same dudes decade after decade,” he adds. “Because when you land on something that works to you, you don’t want to stop. You want to keep doing it.”
Country singer/songwriter Elizabeth Cook made her Grand Ole Opry debut on March 17, 2000, appearing more than 400 times thereafter, the most ever by a non-member; a remarkable achievement considering that, at the time, she was an indie artist without a properly released album. But the excitement generated by her strong, crystalline singing voice — as comfortable with bluegrass, blues, and folk as it was country — and songwriting served to draw comparisons to respected artists such as Kelly Willis and Dolly Parton. Her proper debut was 2002’s Hey Y’all, but it flopped. 2007’s Rodney Crowell-produced Balls garnered attention from alt-country and Americana fans in the U.K. and Europe, and charted in the U.S. After 2010’s Don Was-produced Welder, Cook endured a prolonged season in hell: She got divorced, her farm burned, and she lost six family members including both parents and a brother. Stressed and exhausted, she canceled an upcoming tour and entered rehab, although substance abuse was not the reason. She emerged with 2012’s Gospel Plow EP that got her an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. Her electrifying performance and her ability to make him laugh got massive media notice, as did a radio show on Sirius XM: Elizabeth Cook’s Apron Strings. After a four-year break from recording, she re-emerged in 2016 with the charting Exodus of Venus and later with 2020’s powerhouse Aftermath, both of which that flirted with indie rock as well as country.
Cook was born in Wildwood, Florida. Her West Virginia-born mother played guitar and mandolin and sang on local radio shows. Her father, a Georgia native, also performed country music and served jail time for running moonshine. Upon his release, he and Elizabeth’s mother played in local bands together, eventually marrying. Born in 1972, Elizabeth joined them on-stage when she was four. She formed her first band at nine. Cook graduated from Georgia Southern in 1996 with degrees in accounting and computer information systems. She moved to Nashville during her early twenties, having landed a job with global professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Still focused on music, she got a publishing deal. She cut demos which were recorded between 1997 and 2000 and comprised her self-titled, independently released debut, The Blue Album, which showcased her formidable songwriting ability and featured such well-known Music City musicians as Tim Carroll (who became her husband), Kenny Vaughan, and Rick Schell. Atlantic Records signed Cook soon after its release, and she began working on her major-label debut. Hey, Y’All appeared in summer 2002 from Warner Bros. Constant restructuring at the label meant Hey Y’All didn’t get the promotion it needed and Cook left the imprint and released 2005’s This Side of the Moon on Hog Country Records. Balls appeared in 2007 from 31 Tigers, followed by Welder in 2010, featuring guest spots from Dwight Yoakam, Rodney Crowell, and Buddy Miller, also on 31 Tigers.
Over the next five years, in addition to touring and becoming a staple at the Grand Ole Opry, hosting her Sirius XM radio program Apron Strings, and touring, Cook went through a series of transformative personal changes. She lost a parent, got divorced, and saw a sibling through rehabilitation after a long bout with drug addiction. When she re-entered the studio, it was with co-producer, guitarist, and boyfriend Dexter Green. After self-financing an album, she undertook a PledgeMusic campaign to assist in getting it released. Exodus of Venus came out in June 2016 through Thirty Tigers. Cook claimed in an interview that she was influenced by female rockers such as Fiona Apple and Tori Amos in writing the set. The meld of Cook’s brand of Americana and indie rock translated to the charts. It peaked at number 23 on Top Country Albums, number 15 on Americana/Folk Albums, and five on Heatseekers. Cook supported it with her most successful tour to date.
In December of 2019, the country music television network Circle announced that Cook would host her own show called Upstream, where she would interview musicians at a different fishing hole for each episode. The first episode featured Shooter Jennings and Cam. The following year saw Cook issue her seventh full-length effort, Aftermath. Produced by Butch Walker (Green Day, Weezer, Taylor Swift), the 12-track set looked to themes of survival and resilience for inspiration, and like its predecessor, stood at the nexus of rock, pop, and country.