Thursday, September 6, 2012

Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke hit sweet spot

Posted By on Thu, Sep 6, 2012 at 11:54 AM

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The old cliché about “overnight sensations” has never held a grain of truth, and the 12-year journey that Georgia’s own Blackberry Smoke has traveled is proof. Sure, a few industry-created acts seem to come from nowhere and make a big impact, but they usually end up right back where they started — nowhere. Since the band’s formation at the turn of the century, singer/guitarist Charlie Starr, second guitarist Paul Jackson, bassist Richard Turner, drummer Brit Turner, and keyboardist Brandon Still have held a steady course, never compromising their integrity or allowing label heads to alter their vision. It’s been a long hard road with many breakdowns, detours, and traffic jams, but they finally found their perfect match with Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Artists label, which released Blackberry Smoke's The Whippoorwill last month. In a recent phone interview while driving from a rowdy biker gig in Sturgis, North Dakota to a festival in Scranton, Pennsylvania, frontman Starr talked about the band’s musical evolution.

Blackberry Smoke’s Brothers & Sisters Festival. With North Mississippi Allstars, Unknown Hinson, Reynolds & Williams Band, Nathan Nelson & the Entertainment Crackers. $20 adv. 3 p.m. Sat., Sept. 8. Masquerade Music Park, 695 North Ave. 404-577-8178. www.masqueradeatlanta.com.


You guys have a very interesting history, so where did Blackberry Smoke come from?

Charlie Starr: I moved to Atlanta from a small town outside of Auburn, Alabama in 1993, and at a rehearsal spot called Black Box I met Gary Stier, and also met brothers Brit and Richard Turner, who had been in the band Nihilist. We all played as Lonesome Jones for a while, but then Stier got signed and had his own agenda. He wouldn’t listen to any of my songs and we hadn’t signed on to be his backup band. So Richard, Brit, and I worked on my songs. Paul Jackson came around and did some good high harmonies; he had worked with Jesse James Dupree. I think we played our first shows as Blackberry Smoke in 2000 or 2001. There’s some old grainy video from us playing at the Star Bar to about six people. When we recorded demos, we always had a keyboard player so we added Brandon Still to the band in 2009. So the lineup has been the same for a while.

How have you all managed to stay together for so long?

We get along, but Brit and I fight and then hate each other for a while sometimes. But it all comes down to the songs and playing. We may have an argument, but when we get on stage it’s all OK. We love each other.

How did y’all mange to hook up with Zac Brown?

We met Zac Brown while we were doing a Lynyrd Skynyrd cruise. I had never heard of the Zac Brown Band, but they were starting to do pretty well. He was a real nice dude, had a beer with me and Brit, and it was a mutual love fest. “Y’all are great, no y’all are great... .” Our friend Clay Cook had just joined Zac’s band, and we ended up doing some shows with them. Zac always said, “What can I do?” offering help to us. We had some problems with other labels and asked ourselves, “How do we keep stepping in the same pile of shit?” So we went back to doing what we did at the start. Zac liked what we were doing since he had done it the same way. Once he got his own label, he reached out to us and made good on his offers from before. So we met with him, got to really know him, and said yes. He knows we are not children, that we can get things done, and he leaves us to our own devices.

So how do you feel about being classified as a Southern rock band?

We’re very aware of the limitations we could put on ourselves by labeling ourselves a Southern rock band. It’s easy for the industry to pigeonhole it, and we never want to be tied to that. We all come from different backgrounds: I’m from a rural area, played bluegrass most of my life, and Brit and Robert were in Nihilist — powerful stuff. I love Hank Sr., Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, but also Aerosmith. We used to cover songs by the Faces and the Replacements. Regarding “Southernness,” I’m proud to carry that flag, I love the spirit and the musical freedom all those bands had and still have. I don’t like the stereotyped negative images it tends to project, but I like the whole way of being.

So what’s down the road for Blackberry Smoke?

We hardly ever take time off from the road; we do it for family things but we can get carried away unless something stops us for a while. The next record will hopefully show our musical growth and not be repetitious. We want to continue to make people aware of us, want to be proud of what we are doing, and create a body of work we are proud of.

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