You can call Blackberry Smoke’s music southern rock and you wouldn’t be wrong. Or you could call it country and you wouldn’t be wrong, either. But you would be selling both the band and its legion of fans short by trying to fit them solely into one genre. With influences that run the gamut from country to bluegrass to metal to gospel and yes, southern rock, Blackberry Smoke is more than the sum of its diverse parts.
“None of us have ever said, ‘Let’s be a southern rock band or a bluegrass band or a country band’,” Blackberry Smoke frontman Charlie Starr explains. “We all love the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Stones and the Faces and Hank Williams and Bill Monroe. It’s not about what kind of music it is, as long as it’s good and it’s honest. When we get together it just sounds the way it does.”
The group, which is made up of Starr, sibling rhythm section Richard and Brit Turner (bass and drums, respectively) and guitarist Paul Jackson, formed in 2000 and quickly made an impact. Thanks to individual and shared reputations for entertaining, the foursome hit the road hard. “We had gigs right away,” says Richard, who with Brit had been in a popular Atlanta band that opened for national touring acts.
One of the fledgling group’s early supporters was Jesse James Dupree of Jackyl, who invited the group to tour with his band. “He’d heard a demo and thought it was fantastic,” remembers Charlie. “It was trial by fire. We played every scary dive between here and there… and a few real nice ones, too. From that tour we made relationships with club owners, promoters and DJs that we still have today,” says Charlie.
Touring soon became a way of life for the band. Among the many acts the group has shared the stage with are ZZ Top, Montgomery Gentry, The Outlaws, Marshall Tucker Band and Cross Canadian Ragweed.
While the group has deep southern roots—Starr is from Alabama, the Turners are from Georgia and Jackson hails from Florida—it first found success north of the Mason Dixon line. “We got big in Wisconsin and Michigan and worked our way back to Georgia,” Brit says with a smile.
Not only did the band mesh when it came to touring, they also clicked when it came to musical aspirations. “We had an unspoken vision of what the band should sound like,” Charlie says. Paul agrees, “Everybody brings something to the table.”
The group found inspiration in some of the greatest bands of all time. “The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin would make records with great rockin’ songs and also some honky tonk country and blues,” explains Charlie. As such, diversity is important to Blackberry Smoke. “It makes it more enjoyable for the listener than staying in a little narrow hallway,” Brit says. “And for the players, too.”
Good music is good music, the band believes, no matter the style. “There are moments in our show that are straight out of a Jimmy Martin or Flatt & Scruggs set list,” Charlie says. “Bluegrass is a beautiful form of American music. Just like southern rock, bluegrass is about really good songs and good musicianship,” he adds. “You just spread out and see where it will go.”
The quartet, which has built an international following thanks to the Internet and a universal love for good music, self-released its debut, Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime, which was produced by Dupree, in 2004. A few years later, they followed up with the country-centric EP New Honky Tonk Bootlegs.
Acclaimed producer Dann Huff (Bon Jovi, Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts) agreed to produce Blackberry Smoke’s second album after coming to see the band live. “We were excited because we knew what a great musician Dann is,” says Charlie. “He said, ‘I love what you guys do and it’ll be great when we go into the studio that I don’t have to bring in studio musicians to play on it.”
True to his word, Huff encouraged the band to bring their road show into the studio. “We did not use any gear that we don’t have on our trailer, except for a 12-string acoustic,” remembers Charlie.
“Dann’s impressive in every aspect,” Charlie says of Huff. “He’s such a great musician and producer, with great ideas and great ears, and he has such a love for music. If we were arguing with one another, he would always help us find a middle ground.”
The result is Little Piece Of Dixie, a fresh yet familiar collection that fuses Blackberry Smoke’s diverse influences with its road-honed musicianship.
The band, which pens most of its own songs, is also astute enough to realize that a great tune can come from outside its four walls. “Everybody should tip their hat to Hank Williams as the greatest songwriter that ever was,” Charlie says.
To that end, the album is a complementary mix of songs written by the band and some of Nashville’s top songwriters, including Lee Roy Parnell, David Lee Murphy, Gary Nicholson, Craig Wiseman, Randy Houser and Rob Hatch.
The music is already spawning reaction—the hard-driving, layered riffing of “Up In Smoke” popped up in EA Sports’ NASCAR 08, and anthemic first single “Good One Comin’ On” was featured prominently in the Kevin Costner political comedy Swing Vote.
The final piece to the puzzle came when executives at Stroudavarious Records, the new label launched by veteran industry executive and award-winning producer James Stroud, heard the album. “James told us, ‘We don’t want to change anything about this record’,” Brit remembers. “That’s the first thing a band wants to hear.”
Stroud and partner Ronnie Gilley then decided to make the band the first act on their newly formed Stroudavarious imprint, BamaJam Records, named after the wildly successful music festival started by Gilley in Southern Alabama in June of 2008.
At the end of the day, Blackberry Smoke just wants to do what it has done for the last decade. “There ain’t nothing more fulfilling than making music people like,” says Paul. “The only way for us to promote our records was to tour year-round, 150 dates a year.”
“Performing is never a waste of time, even if there’s 20 people and the bartender there,” Charlie agrees.
With a hard charging album in hand and a growing fan base waiting, this uniquely American band won’t have to worry about small crowds. The big stage awaits.
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