Outside at Alpharetta’s Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, scores of roadies construct an elaborate stage with video screens, spotlights and speakers. Backstage, musicians shower, eat dinner and visit with friends and family. In Blackberry Smoke’s dressing room a guest of the band breaks the seal on a half gallon of Jim Beam Black just as guitar player Paul Jackson bursts through the door and asks, “Did you see it? Did you see Duane Allman’s Goldtop?”
He’s referring to the 1957 Gibson Les Paul once owned by the legendary Georgia rocker. Jackson’s enthusiasm about the instrument, generously loaned out by The Allman Brothers Band Museum at The Big House, exemplifies the band’s interest in its equally hirsute musical forefathers. Perhaps four or five years ago, Blackberry Smoke’s five band members would have been equally as interested in the bottle of whiskey sitting on the counter. But a new recording contract with one of the industry’s rising stars provides a big incentive to stay focused on the music.
Blackberry Smoke consists of Paul Jackson (guitar/vocals), Charlie Starr (guitar/vocals), Brandon Still (keys), Brit Turner (drums), Richard Turner (bass/vocals) and two tons of hair. The band prefers the term “southern music” when describing its sound. It plays “southern rock,” but there are also heavy doses of gospel, blues and outlaw country mixed throughout.
Starr, the band’s ringleader, was exposed to a plethora of music while growing up in Alabama. Wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt, he says, “My dad is a guitar player—a bluegrass guy.” His father listened to gospel, bluegrass and country music so long as it was Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Ernest Tubb. Starr’s mother preferred the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. That concoction of influences defines the music Blackberry Smoke plays today.
Many of the songs blend bluegrass melodies with hard-living lyrics like “I’m a son of the bourbon/I’m a son of a bitch/I’m the dying breed of rock ’n’ roll/left ass up in a ditch.” Others, like “Restless,” from first album titled Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime and produced by Jesse James Dupree, resurrect a gritty, 1970s sound.
Even though the band has toured and collaborated with big names in the music industry, Blackberry Smoke still flies relatively under the radar. It’s opened for ZZ Top, Cross Canadian Ragweed and Shooter Jennings. The band also recorded Willie Nelson’s “Yesterday’s Wine” with George Jones and Jamey Johnson. And if that isn’t enough, Black Crowes’ frontman Chris Robinson, a friend of the band, gave Blackberry Smoke its name.
Dann Huff, another prominent name in music industry circles, produced the band’s second full-length album in 2008, Little Piece of Dixie, after being introduced by a mutual friend. Huff has a track record of successfully producing chart-topping albums for Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts in recent years. However, after completing Little Piece of Dixie, Blackberry Smoke couldn’t find a label to release it, so the album sat on the shelf.
While the album remained in waiting, the admittedly impatient Starr suggested compiling and releasing an EP of “really crazy honky-tonk kind of songs” that weren’t legally off limits. They had recorded the songs in Atlanta as demos and felt obligated to give their fans something new. The result was New Honky Tonk Bootlegs, released in 2008. It’s an album of six songs that transports the listener to an imaginary dive bar where chicken wire still surrounds the stage, keeping out rowdy drunks and flying beer bottles.
Welcome to the family
So what’s been the band’s biggest challenge? Not so much wild, inebriated fans, but “the music business,” says Starr. Although record companies have come and gone, Blackberry Smoke has managed to weather the ups and downs and stay on the road for more than a decade. Starr credits drummer Brit Turner, whose beard and hair floats around his head when he’s onstage like Davy Jones’ tentacle whiskers from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. “He’s always taken really good care of us as far as the vision of how we make this a business,” says Starr. “That’s his gift. It’s not just us having fun, we’ve actually made a living doing this.”
Earlier in their career, the band was a little guarded and suspicious of letting anyone else take the reins. “So we did it our own way,” says Starr. “That’s the only way we knew.” They kept touring and winning over new fans, one crowd at a time, in bars and clubs around the country, eventually signing with a record label that released Little Piece of Dixie in September 2009. That relationship fizzled a year later, and it looked liked the band was back to square one.
Then last autumn, Zac Brown—high off his 2010 Grammy award for Best New Artist and four CMA nominations—signed Blackberry Smoke to his new record label, Southern Ground Artists, after hearing Brit comment that the band needed a new label or it was back to the van. Then he asked the band to open for him on his current tour. Starr says, “We had known him for years, but he became a good friend.”
Now they couldn’t be happier. “What Zac has is a family,” says Starr. “It’s like a modern Capricorn Records,” he says, referring to the Macon-based label that nurtured The Allman Brothers Band, Marshall Tucker Band and Elvin Bishop.
As part of Brown’s growing musical family, Blackberry Smoke plans to be in the studio again by summer. And not only are their loyal fans itching to hear a new album, Starr is too. He says, “There’s nothing like writing a new song, taking it to the band and saying here’s another one—it never gets old.”