Blackberry Smoke

Good One Comin’ On:
Hard Work and Some Helpful, High-Profile Fans Bear Fruit for Blackberry Smoke

When Blackberry Smoke stops off in Atlanta next month for an increasingly rare hometown show, headlining their own Brothers & Sisters Music Festival at Masquerade Music Park, it should prove to be a satisfying celebration marking their dozen years as one of the hardest touring bands from around these parts. Naturally, they’ll barely have time to do their laundry, kiss their wives and tuck their kids into bed before they’re off again, revving back up in Texas four days later.

Such a steady schedule of two-to-three-hundred live shows per year, with a generous practice of hitting the tiny towns as well as the larger markets, has increasingly won over throngs of new fans. Couple that with the welcome support of a few choice boosters – from Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, who gave them their name, to Zac Brown, whose Southern Ground Artists label releases Blackberry Smoke’s new album The Whippoorwill on August 14th – and the five-man outfit just might be the new face of blue collar Southern rock, a lineage that extends from the Allmans and Skynyrd through the Georgia Satellites and Drive-By Truckers. I mean, there’s no doubt they’ve earned it.

“We had a lot of good breaks,” agrees drummer Brit Turner, whose brother Richard also plays bass guitar in Blackberry Smoke. “I think a lot of times, the promoters liked us. A lot of promoters would bring us back, and we got gigs opening for ZZ Top, and got a deal signing with their management at the time, and did some tours with them. At that point, when you start playing for 20,000 people, 15,000 people every night, a thousand of those people are gonna get it, you know…”

One of their earliest champions was Jesse James Dupree of Jackyl, who produced their debut album, Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime, in 2004. Four years later, Blackberry Smoke singer and guitarist Charlie Starr played on Dupree’s solo album Rev It Up and Go Go. In between, Blackberry Smoke sort of paralleled Dupree’s ties with the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally’s Full Throttle Saloon and its subsequent truTV series, aligning themselves with Easyriders Events, which puts on motorcycle-centered concerts, tours and bike shows. “They were doing all the Biker Build-Off things that were so popular on the Discovery Channel,” Turner explains. “So we would be going out and doing these small clubs that paid nothing, barely enough money to get to the next one, and then on the weekend we’d hit wherever the next Easyriders event was, whether it was on a campground with a bunch of naked drunk bikers runnin’ around, or if it was one of those conference center deals. And they would pay enough to where we all had money when we got back. And then that turned into a bunch of stuff with Sturgis, and then we had to sit back and go, ‘Do we wanna be this biker band?’” Despite having distanced themselves somewhat from the biker circuit, they still continue to perform at numerous biker events, as a glance at their tour schedule reveals.

The band’s second album, 2010’s Little Piece of Dixie, was produced by hotshot Nashville knob-turner Dann Huff, had a song written by Southern rock veteran Rickey Medlocke (formerly of Blackfoot, now in Lynyrd Skynyrd, with whom Blackberry Smoke have toured) and included as a bonus track a version of the George Jones/Merle Haggard classic “Yesterday’s Wine, ” with guests Jamey Johnson and Jones himself. The latter’s participation both surprised and thrilled Blackberry Smoke.

“Well, we had been friendly with Jamey,” explains Starr. “I just was thinking it would be good to record a traditional country song. And we had done that already with an EP that we put together that had sort of the ‘countryist’ stuff that we had (2008’s New Honky Tonk Bootlegs). So we asked Jamey first, and he said sure, so that was easy to work out. And this guy that we were working with there at that indie label said, ‘Hey, we’re dealing quite a bit with George Jones – how would you like him to come?’ And we all thought, of course we would, but that’s not gonna happen. But then it actually happened! I think we were all shocked when he finally actually walked in the door that day. You know, he’s 80 years old. The engineer that we were working with that day said, ‘I don’t know what he’s gonna wanna do. He may come in and do a couple lines and go home. You never know.’ But he came in and stayed the day, and sang on the whole damn thing.

“And he had just gone on this tirade, basically, in the press, saying that modern country music, a lot of it is just a bunch of shit and that they oughta be ashamed of themselves, and they oughta call it something else, so we sorta wore it like a badge when he came in that day and listened to the track, and said , ‘Now that’s country!’ Which is funny. I thought, ‘Really? Us?’ That’s hilarious, really.”

Regardless, Jones took a genuine shine to the guys, inviting them to perform at his 80th birthday show at the Grand Ole Opry. It was the first time Starr’s father had ever seen his son play in a rock ‘n’ roll band.

“He’s an acoustic musician, and that’s what he likes,” Starr, 38, says. “He just doesn’t care to hear a rock ‘n’ roll band. I played bluegrass music with him most of my life. So I was very nervous. I thought, well, he’s my pop, so I wanted him to be proud. And he was. He had a blast. He saw Little Jimmy Dickens, and Pam Tillis, and Bill Anderson and a few other people, and he was giddy like a little kid.”

Starr, whose actual name is Charlie Gray (“I plan to do a Mellencamp thing here pretty soon. But nobody will care!”), grew up in a musically active household in east central Alabama. His dad plays guitar and sings, just as a hobby. His grandmother played piano and mandolin, and sang gospel music. And her brothers (Charlie’s great uncles) were in the WWII-era gospel quartet the Swanee River Boys, who recorded for Columbia among other record labels.

In the early ‘90s, Charlie moved to Atlanta, where the first person he met, at the now closed Clark Music store, was musician Ted Lathangue. He wound up playing with Ted (who, he claims, gave him the “Starr” name) in a number of groups, including hard rock cover act Bitch when they were more or less the house band at the 9 Lives Saloon in Little Five Points (where the Corner Tavern is now). Those were hard-partying days for nearly everyone involved, although Starr disputes claims he was kicked out of the band for excessive intoxication (“I don’t think it would’ve been possible to be kicked out of Bitch for partying too much,” he laughs, adding that he’s been sober for quite a few years now.)

During that same general time period, Charlie joined Gary Stier’s band as it was transitioning from Lonesome Jones into Buffalo Nickel with a new lineup. It was then that he met Brit and Richard Turner, who had also just joined up with Stier. The brothers had been banging heads together for ten years in Atlanta metal mainstays Nihilist, but were branching out and playing some rootsier rock ‘n’ roll by that point. Too bad Buffalo Nickel proved to be a rather miserable experience for all three of them.

Signed to Universal, with Danny Kortchmar producing, Buffalo Nickel had a lot of money thrown at the recording of their album, Long Play 33 1/3 but it mostly went toward a bunch of hotshot players from other bands being flown in to play on the thing – Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, drummer Kenny Aronoff…

“They jammed everybody they could onto that record. Originally Charlie wasn’t even gonna play guitar on it. I’m (on) like two songs,” gripes Turner. Starr is even more pointed: “Brit, Richard and myself always saw eye-to-eye, it seems like, from day one. And we definitely didn’t see eye to eye with (Stier). And so, just short of killing him on the way back from Austin, Texas, we sort of ended the band. And (the Turners and I) knew that we wanted to play together. I’d written some songs … so that’s when it all started, back around 2000.” Today, Blackberry Smoke consists of Charlie (who appears to be trying to do for sideburns what ZZ Top did for beards), Brit, Richard, guitarist Paul Jackson and keyboardist Brandon Still.

For Brit personally, one of the most trying, yet ultimately reassuring periods during his time with Blackberry Smoke came almost three years ago while they were on tour in Europe. He got a call from his wife, Shannon. Their daughter Lana, then three, had been diagnosed with Stage Four neuroblastoma cancer.

“I flew back immediately, and they said, ‘She’s not going to live. It doesn’t look good.’ I talked to these people that are professionals immediately, just through the music business, who knew all these neuroblastoma specialists somehow. And they put me in touch with someone who already had (Lana’s) cells in California, he was already on the case. We just had to decide whether it was best for her to stay in Atlanta or go somewhere else, and they were like, ‘No, Atlanta’s great – Scottish Rite, Egleston…’ which was unfortunately our home for a while. But all these people put stuff together for us, and we weren’t even in town, (benefits) at Peachtree Tavern, all these great musicians came out that I know socially but not really personally. Just from years of being around and playing the same places. I can’t even… It’s hard to even talk about it. To get a phone call from (Skynyrd’s) Gary Rossington… I mean, he and Rickey Medlocke went to St. Jude and talked to the doctors the first week it happened, and said, ‘We will pay for whatever you need.’ And I’m like, whoa, man…

“I try to pay it forward every day,” Turner continues. “I mean, that’s one thing about Zac, too – he’s a generous dude, man. And luckily my insurance held out. And Georgia has programs that are pretty unbeatable when it comes to childhood cancer. Me and my brother have done a lot of work for Scottish Rite, raised some money for them too, so it’s kind of weird that this all happened. But it did, and now she’s livin’ like a kid right now, so… she’s doing awesome. She’s clean and clear and just went hiking in Colorado. She’ll be six in September.”

As for Charlie, he’s still a little uncomfortable with the “Southern rock” tag for Blackberry Smoke, but considering the band’s success so far, he doesn’t care what people call it as long as they enjoy it.

“I think it comes down to what we’re comfortable playing. We would sound and look silly if we tried to do something different, I think. We’re not kids anymore, and we play the way that feels and sounds the most comfortable to us, and it just kinda comes out sounding the way that it does.”

Photo by Zach Arias.