Album Review – Blackberry Smoke’s “You Hear Georgia”

Where there’s smoke, there’s FIRE!

Alright, sorry for getting a little carried away and cliche, but damn if there’s not much better than cracking open a new Blackberry Smoke record and losing yourself in waves of Southern-fried rock guitar to make you feel like you’re 17 again. This isn’t music to sit back and stroke your chin to. This is music to hyperextend your elbow to while banging on the air drums.

There is a message to this new album though, and a mission. Though polite society has all but banished any and all stereotyping of anyone these days, the last holdout is the broad brushing of American Southerners. In fact your disdain for the Southern United States is a common way you can signal your comeuppance. Not that the American South doesn’t have sins to atone for, past and present. But so does everyone else.

Though the typecast of the American Southerner is of the dumb redneck, the South is also home to to a sizable part of the U.S.’s African American population. Atlanta, Georgia where Blackberry Smoke is from is considered by many to be capital of black America. Country music is not the signature sound of the South. It’s the signature sound of the country. Southern rock is the genre that takes into consideration all the influences of Southern music and stews them up in a sumptuous mix.

On their new album You Hear Georgia, Blackberry Smoke embrace their role as Southern music revivalists and preservationists with now over 20 years of service to the subgenre, and they take that responsibility more serious than ever, expanding their sound, adding a chorus of soul backup singers, and making sure all influences and subsets of Southern music are represented.

It was only a matter of time before Blackberry Smoke united with fellow Georgia-native Dave Cobb in the studio since Southern rock is Cobb’s sweet spot. Also for this project, The Smoke added two new full-time members in guitarist Benji Shanks who has worked with The Black Crowes and others in the past, as well as percussionist Preston Holcomb from Atlanta. They also called upon the The Black Bettys to add those essential chorus and harmony parts, and recorded it all at Nashville’s cavernous RCA Studio A that was specifically built to capture a large sound.

It all combines to give you scintillating Southern rock anthems such as the opening song “Live It Down,” the smart chording and excellent slide guitar in “Ain’t The Same,” the badass traveling song right in time for summer “All Over The Road,” and the fist-pumping experience of “We All Rise Again” with contributions from Southern rock god Warren Haynes. It’s fair to question if Blackberry Smoke has ever turned in a bad song. There’s certainly not any on this volume.

It’s the song “You Hear Georgia,” along with the closing track “Scarecrow” that stand tall against the stereotyping of those with Southern drawls and Southern roots, not in a way that stands for anything time has since found irredeemable, but against the judging of a man for where he’s from, and the bifurcating of us all across imaginary lines to pit us against each other.

Part of the Southern rock identity has always been sliding into the country side of music as well, and Blackberry Smoke does so most excellently on this album with “Lonesome for a Livin'” featuring Jamey Johnson. This might be the best country songs Blackberry Smoke’s ever cut, with steel guitar and all. And hearing Jamey belt out his part is the reason his fans have been bellyaching for a new album from Jamey for years.

And keeping with the theme of this record of letting a little of that Southern folksy wisdom creep into the music, the slower and acoustic “Old Enough To Know” really adds a depth to this record to go along with the heavy, groove-laden and soul-drenched rock moments that make up the lion’s share of the experience.

20 years in, Blackberry Smoke isn’t showing their rust. They’re hitting their stride, understanding their species is slowly becoming endangered, taking that prognosis personally, and doing what they can to keep the torch burning, and the memories of the sounds of the South alive.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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