The Casual Causality of Blackberry Smoke
Blackberry Smoke recently played to a sold out crowd at the Iron City music venue in Birmingham. Mother Plug Music sat down with Charlie Starr and Brit Turner, the lead singer and drummer, to discuss their past, present and future. Photos by Mary C. Fehr. Interview conducted by Jen Jackson. Article written by Josh Matthews.
Blackberry Smoke has toured with the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd on multiple occasions, as well as played and recorded alongside friend Bob Weir. For most fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Grateful Dead, these would be monumental accomplishments. For fans of Blackberry Smoke, however, these are mere casual causalities. Blackberry Smoke is arguably one of the best Southern rock bands since Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose name is synonymous with the genre, and they’re arguably one of the hardest working bands since Grateful Dead, whose name is synonymous with touring.
Effect, meet cause. From day one, Blackberry Smoke has taken a very blue collar approach to their business. They have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles and played anywhere from 150 – 250 shows a year. They’re basically always on tour.
Charlie Starr: Except for when we get to the end of the year, we usually take a little break. We say that every year, but then this year we wound up where we were trying to take December off entirely. But then, ‘we’re going to do just these ten shows.’
Brit Turner: THEN, we’re going to record an album.
Charlie Starr: It’s kind of the only time we have left to record a record is when we’re ‘off’, so, we’re not really ever ‘off.’
Charlie Starr (lead vocals, guitar), Richard Turner (bass, vocals), Brit Turner (drums), Paul Jackson (guitar, vocals), and Brandon Still (keyboards) came together in Atlanta, GA back in 2000 to form Blackberry Smoke, playing dive bars between Georgia and Alabama, including Birmingham.
Brit Turner: We’ve played The Nick, what?
Charlie Starr: For years!
Brit Turner: Too many times!
Mother Plug Music: For a lot of bands, it all began at the Nick.
Brit Turner: Yeah, and sometimes it ends there! It makes such an impression, you may not want to go back!
Charlie Starr: We had a long conversation today about The Nick, me and the production lady in there. And she said they are in the process of, not remodeling, but at least…
Brit Turner: Patching a couple of holes.
Charlie Starr: They’re afraid to take out the staples in the wall, they’re holding the fucking place together with all those pictures!
Starr laughs, but they turn to a brief moment of reflection.
Charlie Starr: It’s a right of passage.
MPM: You really can’t make any changes there can you? I mean, it’s ‘The Nick!’
Brit Turner: It is what it is.
MPM: So many bands have come through there!
Charlie Starr: The Replacements played there!
And like The Replacements before them, The Black Crowes, Jane’s Addiction, Widespread Panic, Kings of Leon and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have all played that right of passage, things escalated.
BT: Real soon we recorded and went on tour with a band called Jackyll for 40 shows. It was within our first year that we really learned how to tour on that trip. How to get from one place to the next.
CS: It was pretty quick!
It’s been 15 years since that first tour with Jackyll. And in addition to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackberry Smoke has supported ZZ Top and is currently on tour with Govt. Mule. They’ve shared a stage with Robert Townsend, Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes, John Hiatt and dozens more. They’ve headlined festivals and shows of their own all over the world. Despite only releasing 4 studio albums in as much time, Blackberry Smoke’s unmistakably Southern rock n’ roll sound has garnered fans from throughout the musical spectrum, from country, bluegrass and blues. Last year’s Holding All The Roses (Rounder Records, 2015) was produced by Brendon O’Brien (AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam). The album debuted at no. 1 on the Top Country Albums Chart, another casual causality for a band who has a high affinity for country music. They recorded “Yesterday’s Wine” with George Jones for their album, Little Piece of Dixie (BamaJam Records, 2009). They’ve toured with Zac Brown Band and Eric Church. They just returned from playing the SiriusXM Outlaw Country Cruise.
These are all inadvertent relationships for a band that’s just doing its thing. So where does their songwriting style come from? Who do they look to for influence?
CS: Nobody, really. I mean, it’s just, I don’t know. It’s just natural, ya know? I’ve personally written some songs with some people that I didn’t really feel like it was going the way that I would… well people who write songs are going to find themselves in that position where they might say, ‘Oh I don’t like where this is going but I don’t want to be the dude that says something about it.’ Which some of those people do, that’s their job. They punch a clock and write songs for a living and can say, ‘Nah, this is not good.’
BT: I think some of the best songs are [those] that people sing about their experiences. THEIR EXPERIENCES! Ya know? And that’s what’s so believable about them. And when you start to manufacture songs with groups of people…
CS: Forcing it out…
CS: Or, trying to write for what’s…
BT: Popular or hip.
CS: Yeah, or what’s going to be on the radio. Who knows?
BT: This kinda goes back to the whole thing of the label telling you what to do. Maybe that’s that whole side of things.
CS: Those writing factories have been in existence long before, ya know, the last 20 years though. Nashville didn’t invent that. That came from the Brill Building and all those old Tin Pan Alley and those people writing show tunes. They wrote them… they see that one guy or two guys have success then they all try to write the same kinds of songs, so…
MPM: So, what about that other side of things? Has being under a label influenced Blackberry Smoke’s writing or its style at all?
CS: Not at all. We’ve never worked with one label long enough for it to start to be an issue.
CS: And nobody ever has said, ‘You should do this.’ They’ve just always let us have our way. And we’re lucky in that regard.
BT: And that’s weird because I have talked to a lot of people in other bands and their label listened to [their] record and they said ‘No.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ That’s crazy!’ Just because we’ve never even thought about a label having a say in it. It’s just like, ‘If you like us, then you like what we do. If you like us enough to sign us and you like what we do musically, then you do your thing.’
CS: It makes sense, not necessarily for us. I like that it’s worked out the way that it’s worked out, but I could see, you know, if we were nineteen and if we needed to be molded or steered.
BT: Or if it was, ‘This is the market we know how to sell in and we need you to fit in this market.’
CS: It’s no mystery why certain labels do that. Obviously it’s that they want to make money and have success, but luckily we just haven’t had that person.
Perhaps luck doesn’t have anything to do with it. There is a clear causal relationship between hard work and success.
What does success look like for Blackberry Smoke?
CS: We’ve always kind of pipe dreamed about playing a show with Tom Petty but I guess everybody does. Or the Stones. We got friends that opened for the Stones last year. This band from…
BT: We’re so FUCKING happy for them.
CS: (laughs) This band from the UK called The Temperance Movement. They’re great. They came over here and toured with us for most of the year […..] But, those kinds of things will happen. We sold out the Ryman.
BT: We sold out Shepherd’s Bush in London.
CS and BT: The Forum in London!
CS: We played Madison Square Garden with Zac Brown. And Hollywood Bowl and Red Rocks. So, every year these things happen and it’s like, ‘Oh, okay, that was cool!’ So, I guess there’s not a defining moment where we’ve been like, ‘Oh, we’ve made it!’ Maybe the first time we sold out a bar.
BT: Peachtree Tavern! Because it’s like, ‘They’re here to see us!’
CS: Because we’ve been able to go open for anybody around the world and be like, ‘Okay, there’s twenty-thousand people here, but they bought a ticket to see Zac Brown, not us. So it really doesn’t mean as much. It meant that it was cool that Zac wanted us to play with him! But it’s not a guarantee for success that you’re going to go out and play and people aren’t going to be like, ‘Boo! Stop! We want to hear whoever,’ ya know?
Blackberry Smoke has come a long way from selling out Peachtree Tavern, though! It’s important to note that in talking with them you get the sense that they’re not unaware of their success–yet they’re far from arrogant or cocky. Naturally modest and grateful, but also hard at work. Not focused on past or future. They’re a band who is focused on the now and their very next show. After this interview, they played in front of a sold-out crowd at Iron City, and they played hard! It was Southern rock n’ roll AND it was country. So the next time you get a chance to see Blackberry Smoke, just know that there is an inevitability that has led up to that very moment. They’ve worked their asses off to get there. So should you.
You can see Blackberry Smoke headline The Jimmie Rogers Festival in Meridian, MS this Friday, May 6. Gates open at 5 pm. Cedric Burnside Project opens at 6, The Marcus King Project plays at 7:15 and Blackberry Smoke performs at 8:30. Saturday’s line-up includes James McMurtry, Keller Williams, Elizabeth Cook, The Lone Bellow, Billy Joe Shaver, and Lucinda Williams. For more information visit The Jimmie Rogers Music Festival website.