Monday 16 August 2021

Blackberry Smoke - You Hear Georgia (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 May 2021
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My local classic rock station had a southern rock weekend recently and I'm pretty confident that they didn't play a single track by Blackberry Smoke, probably because they didn't form until the year 2000. However, I'm also pretty confident that had they included, say, the title track from this seventh studio album of theirs, without identifying it, most listeners would have just assumed that it was a deep cut from Lynyrd Skynyrd that they hadn't heard before.

Sometimes, the only way we can tell that this is contemporary music is the fact that it's well produced with a fat deep end. You Hear Georgia is an old school number, with an old school riff and a simple old school message, and it's done really well. However, the following song, Hey Delilah, is also all of those things and it's even more patient and deceptively loose. It was written by Charlie Starr, which must be as southern rock a name as I've heard in years for a southern rock lead vocalist and guitarist. Yet, it's so timeless that I could swear it was an old song that's been covered by everyone, with or without the honky tonk piano.

While everything here counts as southern rock in one of its many forms, not everything fits the bill we tend to think of, that Skynyrd/Allman Brothers/Molly Hatchet multi-guitar workout. Ain't the Same is, ironically given the title, not quite the same as the opening three songs. This one's more mainstream, as smooth as an Eagles song, just with a van Zant style lead vocal. With a different voice, it would feel even more like a country rock song. And that's exactly what Lonesome for a Livin' is, one of the voices on it belonging to Jamey Johnson, solo country music artist. It's odd to hear this song on an album by a band because it feels acutely like a solo country singer song with the capable session players hidden backstage behind a curtain.

The other song with a guest appearance is All Rise Again, featuring Warren Haynes from Gov't Mule and the Allman Brothers Band, but that one takes the opposite approach, hardening up rather than softening up and adding what's almost a garage rock aesthetic to it. That these two songs with guests sit right at the heart of the album, ending the first side and starting the second, without feeling too jarring underlines just how versatile this band is. Even so, if you heard these next to each other on a radio show, you might believe the two songs to be by two different bands.

If my favourite song here isn't Hey Delilah, and I think it might be, then it's Old Enough to Know, which is a stripped down song so old school that it feels way older than a Skynyrd song from 1977. This could have been a Willie Nelson song from 1957 and I'm half convinced I've heard versions by Hot Tuna, Kris Kristofferson and Rod Stewart over the decades. It's probably as far from rock as this album gets, as a sort of chill outlaw country number, but it's a gem of a song and I adore it.

Another favourite is the closer, Old Scarecrow, which returns the band to the old school southern rock vibe. It's another song that could easily have been included within that radio station's southern rock weekend without anyone noticing that it was brand new. "I ain't ever gonna change my ways," it runs, and we can believe it. But, when it sounds like this, even without extended chicken scratch guitar workouts, it doesn't have to. It's timeless music and this is an excellent new addition to a genre that never has to rise again because it never slumped.

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