Try telling Blackberry Smoke that genres don’t matter in modern music. In many ways they don’t, and in many ways they are absolutely the most important thing. Blackberry Smoke may be a prime example of why. They are firmly ensconced members of the Southern rock world, and in the recent reorganization of the music landscape brought on by digitization and radio consolidation among other things, Southern rock in some ways was left without a chair when the music stopped. Then you have modern mainstream country, which at this point is borrowing so heavily from Southern rock influences that Southern rock is having trouble holding onto its autonomy. You play a Southern rock song and some claim it is pop country.
“It’s just music” may be fine for fans and some bands, but it’s tough for marketing. It leaves a band like Blackberry Smoke in a strange position. They’re too successful to be considered underground country (though many mainstream fans might misunderstand them as such simply because they’re not a big country headliner), yet they can’t seem to get their due from the mainstream country world either. And where is rock? It’s gone “indie” and is way outside the Blackberry Smoke realm.
Then there’s the Zac Brown Band. Zac himself has said he’s more Southern rock than country, but thanks the country world for supporting his music. Zac Brown is a perennial at country awards shows and in the country charts (his latest album Uncaged sits at #1 right now), so why all the love for Zac Brown by country music, but Blackberry Smoke is still left on the outside looking in? That may be the reason Zac Brown has taken Blackberry Smoke under his wing, having them open for him on tour, and now releasing The Whippoorwill through his Southern Ground label.
As much as Blackberry Smoke has struggled in the past to find their place, now the stage might be set. Zac Brown’s name holds about as much weight as anyone’s these days, and where their sound was just outside of the country world before, now it is in the pocket. Next what they need is a good album and some good songs, and that’s where The Whippoorwill comes in.
This album is solidly Southern rock, which means there’s country influences and even some country songs, but it’s still not country. This may ruffle the feathers of some purists, but when a band is being honest about what they are, it is a little harder to be angry when they start being pushed through country circles.
The Whippoorwill has some really good songs. The standouts start with the well-written and addictive “Pretty Little Lie”. Another great one is “One Horse Town” which looks at small town rural life from the other side of the coin. Usually these songs focus on how the small town is drying up; nostalgia and such. Blackberry Smoke looks at it from the perspective of the young person forced by guilt into staying in a small town resulting in the suppression of their dreams, and it does so with great composition and a good ear for mood.
Many modern Southern rock bands focus too much on force to drive home the Southern rock vibe: relying on cheap guitar riffs and cliche chord structures and then inserting whatever lyrics work to flesh out the song. I was surprised at how little hard-driving songs there were on this album, and how much attention was paid to lyrics. Blackberry Smoke may look like the stereotypical Southern rock band with their long hair and scruff, but they take their song craft seriously.
One of the knocks you will find out there for Blackberry Smoke is that they have a lack of maturity in the content of some songs. Some of that may have burned off after 12 years of touring and a couple of studio album releases before this one, but some of it didn’t. However one person’s immaturity is another person’s “edge” and that is what you find in songs like “Six Ways To Sunday” and “Leave A Scar”. Again, both solidly-written compositions that use catchy and infectious lyrical hooks to draw you in.
Do I hear that one song that may elevate them to take Zac Brown-level of mainstream country success? I kind of don’t. I’m not sure if this is a criticism or a compliment.
I’d be lying if I said I’ve had my fingers as deep in other Blackberry Smoke albums as I do this one. I know them mostly from select songs I’ve heard here and there up to this point. But taking my moderate knowledge base of modern Southern rock and of this band itself, I feel confident enough to say that The Whippoorwill is a solid album worth your consideration.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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