By Tom O’Connor
Find A Light, the latest album from Atlanta band, Blackberry Smoke, due out on April 6th on 3 Legged Records, will remind you why “Southern Rock” has resonated so deeply with all rock fans, for decades, with no end in sight.
With their long, lank hair, dynastic beards and penchant for denim jackets, some would be tempted to call these guys “revivalists” but, as is usually the case with a young band that is looking backward for inspiration while looking forward at what is important to their generation, they are, in fact, pushing the boundaries of their chosen genre, and dragging it into a new decade from the very first note. While they no doubt carry the DNA of everyone from Skynryd and the Allmans to Marshall Tucker, this is also a band with two number one Country albums under their belts. Chart placement like that doesn’t come easy, and doing it twice says all you need to know about the palpable authenticity you’re hearing from start to finish here – in the words, the chords and even the dang snare drum.
Album opener “Flesh and Bone,” with its relentless riff and lyrics of lament – “I just might need some shelter from these things I desire” – lets you know this collection is going to come with some weight, and you’d best be prepared. Of course, it doesn’t have to all be woe and worry. “Run Away From It All” is a pleasing, windows-open-so-you-can-smell-the-fields, as you fly down a country highway, somewhat certain that everything is going to be OK, kind of song. Blackberry Smoke ramps back up to rock tempo on the no-apologies, “The Crooked Kind.” A full-throttle story about the bad boys who are OK with their shady reputations. Take ‘em or leave ‘em, they don’t care. This track probably has the most memorable chorus on the album to boot.
Smoothing out the rough edges and taking some responsibility (but not too much) on “Medicate My Mind” the band rides some dynamic shifts, making room for up-front vocals through the verses then helping to lift up the chorus. “I’ve Got This Song” gets even more introspective and thoughtful. The stripped down acoustic tune showcases some open-hearted lyrics and some mournful pedal steel guitar and fiddle.
The rocking heart of Blackberry Smoke steps back up to the mic on “Best Seat in the House,” an honest exploration of the pros and cons of material success and what it all does, and more importantly, doesn’t mean. Then, as if to prove that this band has yet another unexpected gear, “I’ll Keep Ramblin’” positively blasts out of the speakers, with a completely balls-out assist from the incredible Robert Randolph on his pedal steel, that then slides into a gospel-tinged bridge, just because they can. This tune is a perfect example of what I was talking about earlier. There is a long tradition of Southern Rock “rambling’” songs (go ahead and google it) and here Blackberry Smoke tees up their take on a traditional idea, and it still manages to be not quite like anything you’ve heard before. That comes from commitment, deep roots and the kind of confidence that is earned by a sixth album. “Lord Strike Me Dead” is another clearly “Southern Rock” tune in structure, tone and topic, but still manages to dodge the cliché’s and conventions, yet still delivers a big, fat chorus that would make any dixie rocker proud.
“Let Me Down Easy” takes the listener back to nearly-pure Country roots in this tender and sweet duet with a remarkable guest vocal from the always exquisite Amanda Shires.
The album finishes as strong as it started with three tunes that would be album highlights no matter where you put them in the running order. “Nobody Gives a Damn” sounds just like the title would suggest – a big stompin’ declarative Alt-Country takedown of the kind of ego that just doesn’t fly, especially when you’re south of the Mason/Dixon, with a singalong chorus and a spotlight guitar solo that’ll renew anyone’s faith. Although slightly slower paced, “Til the Wheels Fall Off” is another dose of the same medicine, and it goes down loud, but smooth. An anthem for anybody, good ol’ boy or city slicker, who is willing to take the lumps that come with an authentic and uncompromising heart.
Album closer “Mother Mountain” is a mother of a song and a big, final dose of Blackberry Smoke’s proprietary blend of tradition and experimentation. With help from the other-worldly guest harmonies of the Wood Brothers, the song opens with blended voices that recall CSNY, over soft chords that suggest, believe it or not, the Grateful Dead (to me anyway.) The song revisits the central themes of the songs that came before it–that everyone is looking for hope and for the kind of peace we all deserve.
Southern Rock, like Southern Literature, carries a kind of weight along with it. You can’t help but feel it and recognize the universal humanity running through it, even if you’ve never lived below the Mason/Dixon line yourself. That is why people have turned to these structures and tones for four decades, and counting. That doesn’t make any of it “old-fashioned.” That makes it real, and that is the tradition that is being carried on here–honesty, even when the truth isn’t flattering; hope, even when a happy ending seems unlikely, and finally, belief in ourselves and the good people around us no matter how long the odds. I want to play this album for my friends.
For more information on Find A Light by Blackberry Smoke: