… I’m trying to wrap my head around Blackberry Smoke technically counting as a “legacy act.”
I don’t know, maybe it’s because this band has only truly hit its stride within the past decade or so, starting off a bit shaky with early releases until arriving full throttle with 2012’s The Whippoorwill. If there was a reason to pay attention to this band, though, it was when 2015’s Holding All the Roses led the charge for a slew of albums from independent acts that year to debut at the top of the charts, without major label or country radio support. Now, granted, longevity matters more than initial success … and even then, this band has remained a rock solid torchbearer of modern southern-rock and country. Whiskey Myers and The Steel Woods may have followed, but this is a band that has yet to slow down. And for as much as folks are familiar with those two aforementioned albums, I would argue 2016’s Like An Arrow is another standout release, as is 2018’s Find a Light.
And perhaps as a nod to the time period when they broke though, they’ve recruited producer Dave Cobb for their newest album, You Hear Georgia. I find the pairing a bit odd, at least stylistically. But this band has never disappointed, and even if this was being touted as a legacy celebration, they’ve also recruited new members and are still solidly consistent at their very worst. And there’s nothing like a Blackberry Smoke album to amp up what has otherwise been a slow year for new music.
Of course, there’s also cases where consistency backfires by setting up unfair expectations for future releases, so while I’m inclined to call You Hear Georgia Blackberry Smoke’s weakest post-The Whippoorwill album, it’s still pretty good. It’s just missing the wild, vivacious energy that characterized so much of what I loved about their previous releases, and while this doesn’t feature the same duds that have occasionally cramped their best albums, I’d say that the high points here feel like retreads for this band.
On one hand, I get that the issues with pacing and tempo are likely deliberate. This is the band’s self-described way of getting back in touch with their Georgia roots, so the focus on meatier riffs over raucous presentation makes sense, even though I do appreciate “All over the Road,” late as it comes. And on a technical level, everything that’s been solid about this band’s instrumentation and production on past releases remains that way. There’s a careful balance and crunch between the electric guitars on the more overtly rock moments and a delicacy and warmth to the acoustics on the few slower ballads and country-inspired tracks. And there’s plenty of saloon piano and organ to fill in the sound and anchor the melodies. Plus, their riffs have arguably never crunched as hard as they do on the title track or the stomping “All Rise Again.” For as much as I’ve never cared for their attempts at looser funk like on “What Comes Naturally” or “Medicate My Mind,” they finally got the formula right on “Hey Delilah,” if only for that excellent groove anchored by the keys. When they switch things up to tackle a stone cold country ballad with Jamey Johnson on “Lonesome For A Livin’,” too, the pedal steel cuts through to establish that lonesome atmosphere and reaffirm that they’ve also always worked as a country band.
If I’m looking for a reason why this isn’t punching higher for me, though … well, it’s a little bit of everything, but part of it stems from some of these compositions feeling oddly lacking. For as many new members as they recruited ahead of the release of this album, I kept hoping for riskier compositions or solos, especially when there’s moments on “Live it Down” and the title track where it feels like the band is about to cut loose and just … doesn’t. It’s only 10 tracks long, but it doesn’t feel short as it does abortive, not helped by a meandering closing track that ends abruptly. Or take “Morningside,” which, along with “All Rise Again,” aims for something darker and heavier in the chugging riff that sounds like it’s mimicking a shotgun blast, but it never quite develops into the huge, explosive payoff that this band has proven they’ve been able to accomplish. And when you flip the script to hear tones that are bit breezier and more upbeat … well, I’m not sure the track addressing a soldier’s PTSD on “Ain’t the Same” was the best place for that.
And if there’s a reason I was hesitant to see Dave Cobb’s name here, it’d be because his track record in rock-leaning country is a little more spotty than his excellent run otherwise. To be fair, I actually like a lot of what he does here in helping to flesh out these tones, but his penchant for lo-fi vocal filters does no favor to a vocal powerhouse like Charlie Starr. He cuts through regardless, mind you, and can go toe-to-toe with Jamey Johnson on “Lonesome For a Livin’ ” as well as kick ass with Warren Haynes on “All Rise Again,” even if that track is something of a “pandemic” song. But he’s got power and emotive subtlety, which has always suited his ballads best and shows on “Old Enough to Know.” But when gets nasty, he’s damn-near ominously righteous on the title track.
Of course, it’s also the title track that provides a nice segue into the content. If there’s a reason why Blackberry Smoke has transcended as a modern southern-rock powerhouse band, it’s because their material has always eschewed the typical southern-pride pandering that can weigh this sub-genre down at points. So it’s fitting that the album to get them back in touch with their roots is the closest they come to addressing that heritage. But let’s get real – this is a band where the lyrics matter just as much, if not more, than the presentation, and even though they could get away with chest-pumping bravado, they take a more nuanced route. The title track reminds me of Pony Bradshaw’s “Calico Jim” in its contextualization of what it means to be person living in the modern American South and how the stereotypes thrown around help neither side come to an understanding, and while there’s an attempt at reaching out here, it’s more of a tired frustration over something that’s been attempted and failed many times over.
It doesn’t make for a full-blown concept album, mind you, and given that they attempt the theme again on “Old Scarecrow” and don’t come close to matching the title track’s bite, maybe it’s for the best. If anything, the writing is solid, if somewhat lacking and repetitive for this band, if not in idea and scope than simply in theme. Again, I don’t mind “All Rise Again” considering it doesn’t take itself that seriously and stomps with the best of them, but when they strip it down for “Old Enough to Know,” it leads to a checklist of lessons learned that doesn’t really come together to tell a cohesive story, even if the lived-in detail of Starr’s performance helps the general theme of maturity resonate nonetheless. “All over the Road” is pretty good for straightforward, head-banging southern-rock, but they’ve done the whole “let’s burn this town down and start over” theme with more convincing swagger before than they do on “Live it Down.”
But to be fair, those comparisons only matter because this band has burned such a hot streak for nearly a decade now. This album doesn’t change that, and it is still really good, but it’s also a slow-burn aiming for a more specific, equally slow mark in its execution. And as someone who prefers the wild energy and passion that fueled those earlier albums, this feels a bit weaker by comparison. Still, it’s hard to go wrong with Blackberry Smoke, and if there’s a reason they’ve made it 20 years, it’s because they’re an excellent band still well-worth supporting after all this time.
- Favorite tracks: “You Hear Georgia,” “All over the Road,” “All Rise Again (featuring Warren Haynes),” “Hey Delilah,” “Lonesome For a Livin’ (featuring Jamey Johnson)”
- Least favorite track: “Old Scarecrow”