Blackberry Smoke had the distinction of having the first No. 1 country album by an independent artist earlier this year. Country Exclusive didn’t exist when it came out in February, but it deserves to be reviewed. While I say that this album is a rock album first and a country album second, it does something that few pop country albums and rock country albums do well. It doesn’t seek to blend the styles all the time. In other words, rock songs are rock, and country songs are country. When the styles actually are blended, it is done flawlessly. This album was my first introduction to Blackberry Smoke, and I am now a fan.
The rock song “Let me Help You (Find the Door”) opens the album. These lines were my first meeting with Blackberry Smoke
Why’s it got to be the same damn thing,
The same damn song that everybody wants to sing
Same sons of bitches still rigging the game
They sell the same old faces with a brand-new name
I love that they chose to open with this; it shows that what you see is what you get. I also like the rock protest element of the song blended with the lyrics protesting the state of country. Next is “Holding All the Roses,” in which they blend acoustic guitars and fiddles with electric guitars to create the closest thing to country metal I’ve ever heard. Lyrically, it’s great too, with lines about coming out of hard times and “Holding all the roses on the other side.” This is probably my favorite song on the album, but it’s really hard to pick.
Next is “Living in the Song,” a song about living out the words to a heartbreak song. It’s got rock music and country lyrics…that’s all I can say. Following this is the fun rock song aptly titled “Rock and Roll Again.” It feels like I just stepped back into the 70’s here with this. If there were more of these songs on the album, it would bring it down, but one is just right and feels more like an experiment that worked rather than a completely different sound. Next is the blended track, “Woman in the Moon.” This is a slower song which describes living life “a little off-kilter.” I paid more attention here to the instrumentation, which features haunting fiddles and electric guitars. It’s a song that’s hard to explain and one you need to hear for yourself to really appreciate. “Too High” is the first completely country song and is something I could picture on an Alabama album. “That mountain is too high for me to climb, that river is too deep and it’s too wide,” the group sings. This feeling seems to be temporary though, and this feels like a laidback, less angry version of “Holding all the Roses.”
“Wish in One Hand” goes back to rock. It’s a song about someone who is wishing to be rich, liked by everyone, etc. They illustrate that this will never be reality with the brilliant line, “Wish in one hand, shit in the other, see which one fills up first for you, brother.” The instrumental “Randolph Country Farewell” is a nice acoustic country interlude before “Payback’s a Bitch.” This rock song is about a man telling a woman just that. I love the line, “If I were you, I’d sleep with one eye open.” I also love how much thought the group seems to put into their lyrics, even on rock songs. It makes you want to listen to the words as much as the music. Their lyrical focus comes from their country leanings.
Blackberry Smoke ventures back to country for the next two songs. “Lay it All on Me” is a fun song that paints an amusing picture of our dirty little secrets. The narrator falls in love with a girl with a complicated past and is now on the run from her and her brother after being caught cheating. “No Way Back to Eden” argues that the world is so full of sin and evil that it is beyond help. It’s another one that you really need to hear to appreciate. The album closes much as it began–with an angry rock song. “Fire in the Hole” feels more personal, like an attack on a record label or executive. Lines like “I can’t see why you are the one who holds the key” point to this, but I could be wrong.
Holding all the Roses is an excellent album. It’s more rock than country, but it succeeds at both. If you want to hear nothing but steel guitar and stripped-down country, this is not the album for you. If you love rock and country, and would like to see what would happen if AC/DC and Charlie Daniels produced a musical child, buy this album. It’s one of the best albums of the year by far.