When he was 11 years old, Charlie Gray rode his bicycle down to a mud pit near his Alabama home, where teenagers flipped their four-wheelers into the soupy red clay. “There were always valuables that people left behind,” he says, “and I found this cassette that was spilled out on the ground. I picked it up and wiped the mud off, and it said ‘Aerosmith—Rocks.’ ”
When he got home and played that tape of Aerosmith’s fourth album and “Back in the Saddle” blasted from the speakers, the future frontman of Atlanta rockers Blackberry Smoke realized that he’d discovered something quite different from his dad’s bluegrass or the Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones records that his mom loved.
Now going by his hometown nickname Charlie Starr, the singer/guitarist covered Aerosmith songs with Blackberry Smoke during past visits to Boston—and he’ll have another shot when his band opens for Gov’t Mule at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on Aug. 13.
While it’ll be their first tour together, Blackberry Smoke has played before with Gov’t Mule, fronted by Carolina-bred former Allman Brothers counterpart Warren Haynes. Two summers ago at the Pavilion, Starr joined Haynes’ band on a Marshall Tucker Band cover.
“We’re definitely kindred spirits,” says Starr, 42. “All this music that we play is coming from the same place, from the blues and hillbilly music and British rock ’n’ roll. It’s all tangled up in American rock ’n’ roll, which is Southern music anyway.”
At another end of the spectrum, however, Blackberry Smoke debuted at No. 1 on the country charts with their 2015 album Holding All the Roses, toured with the Zac Brown Band and recorded a song with country icon George Jones.
“The lines are so blurry,” Starr says of rock and country, suggesting that Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd would be considered country if their ’70s music came out today. “You turn on country radio now and you hear gritty guitars and big drums. You don’t hear pedal steel and fiddle and weepy cheating songs anymore.”
Starr says his bluegrass-steeped father taught him guitar—“It was just understood, ‘Well, you’re going to play something,’ ”—and that partly influenced his style. “But it doesn’t make us a country band,” he says. “I’ve always been a little confused.”
Still, Starr says he’s glad to draw fans from the country camp, and Blackberry Smoke’s mostly word-of-mouth climb since its formation in 2000 included some exposure from SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel rather than terrestrial radio. “People aren’t selling records like they used to,” Starr says, “but then we turned around, this little band from Georgia, and made a record that debuted at No. 1.”
It was a long time coming for him. “There were limited options where I grew up, and you really only played in bars and cover bands ’cause there were no venues where people would go to hear original music,” says Starr, who—like other rural musicians from that region—moved to Atlanta, which was 80 miles away.
He and his Blackberry Smoke mates—guitarist Paul Jackson, keyboardist Brandon Still, bassist Richard Turner and his drummer brother Brit—gave early thoughts to what type of music would best suit the market, Starr says. They settled for chunky, mid-tempo rock ’n’ roll somewhat akin to Atlanta predecessors the Black Crowes, with more of a country tinge. “We dedicated ourselves to this a long time ago,” he says. “We love what we do and we loved it when we played for nobody.”
There was plenty of that: Audiences ranged from nobody to 500 people for the band’s first decade, he says. “We first saw a growth in our fan base in Wisconsin and Michigan, and we would come home to Atlanta and couldn’t sell 30 tickets.”
Now that’s changed, from Atlanta to Boston, where the group headlined the House of Blues on its past two visits, once covering Aerosmith’s apt “Chip Away the Stone.” And Blackberry Smoke is poised to keep rising based on “Waiting for the Thunder,” a chord-whipped advance single from Like an Arrow, due out in October. “This new one might be more akin to our first album,” Starr says. “It’s just gnarly.”
Blackberry Smoke play Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on Aug. 13.