The faint aroma of incense eased through the air of Nashville’s Mercy Lounge as the five longhaired, Skynyrd-esque rockers of Blackberry Smoke took the stage. Often cited as “Too Country for Rock, Too Rock for Country”, Blackberry Smoke delivered a foot stompin’, lighter-wavin’, ‘hell yeah’ of a good time that fully lived up to the aforementioned slogan.
Their current single “Good One Comin’ On” is (deservingly) seeing its fair share of spins on satellite radio and the video has made it to the top of CMT’s fan-voted “Pure Country 12-Pack”. They’ve shared the stage with the likes of ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Shooter Jennings just to name a few, and have collaborated with the finest talent Nashville has to offer.
The bands’ sophomore album, Little Piece of Dixie, is a patchwork quilt of hard-living Southern-Rock anthems, traditional country melodies, feel-good jams and everything in between. Blackberry Smoke has managed to take an amazing variation of songs and sew them together seamlessly. If you haven’t heard of these guys before now, download the album immediately and be prepared to rock out. (You can thank me later.)
The recipe for this flavor of Country/Rock is a potent mixture of Charlie Starr’s gritty vocals, Brit Turner hammerin’ down on drums, Richard Turner’s low notes, Paul Jackson bending the 6-string and Brandon Still tappin’ the keys. Although these guys convey an image reminiscent of stereotypical Southern Rock groups of the 1970’s, their music tells a different story. Blackberry Smoke graciously took the time to sit down with me before the show to give me a glimpse into their world.
Country Music Pride: How did you guys come up with the name ‘Blackberry Smoke’?
Blackberry Smoke: We couldn’t think of our own name. The ones that we thought of were taken. So we had the law dogs to look and see if they were taken or not and they came back taken. We were like, ‘Damn! We’ve got to do a gig, we’ve gotta be called something’, so we enlisted friends from other bands to help us come up with names. Our friends are in The Black Crowes, and you know, they’ve been The Black Crowes for 20 years so we thought maybe in those 20 years they might have thought of a cool name that they were like ‘Shit! We wanna be called that but we’re already the Black Crowes and we’ve sold 20 million records’. So they said what about “Richard Turner Explodes” and that was too long and perhaps a better album title. Then they said ‘The Blackberry Smoke’, we’re like still long but cool, let’s do this. Drop the ‘the’ off of it and there you go.
CMP: So you were named by The Black Crowes?
BBS: Yeah, Chris Robinson actually came up with it. We owe him money for that I’m sure. He’ll collect when the time is right. It’s funny to even hear him say the name now. Like they played in Owensboro, Kentucky, where we’ve played tons over the past 10 years, and he said “Right up front, I saw some Blackberry Smoke t-shirts”.
CMP: I know you guys are based out of Atlanta, but you’re not all from Atlanta, right? How did you meet in the middle?
BBS: Atlanta was the nearest place where you could go play music. There were a couple places in Atlanta, bars that stay open all night, and that’s where all the musicians go. And that’s where you meet women of ill-refute…
CMP: How long have you been together now?
BBS: Almost 10 years.
CMP: Your current single, “Good One Comin’ On”, is doing great on satellite radio and on CMT. Has mainstream radio been showing you any attention?
BBS: The radio add is actually June 20th.
CMP: Have been out on radio tour?
BBS: Yes, we’ve been doing some radio stuff in Phoenix, LA, here we tried to break into Cumulus this morning but they were out on vacation. But yeah, we are starting to do a lot of that.
CMP: How did you guys get a hold of that song? I know it was on Trent Willmon’s second album…
BBS: We actually demo’d the song. We got together and wrote a song with David Lee Murphy and then one of his people, and I actually met the lady, she’s a really nice lady, and she actually came up to us when we were playing with Travis Tritt just a couple weeks ago and said “I’m the one that sent that song over to you guys a long time ago.” We demo’d it before he (Willmon) did and the demo that we got was actually David Lee Murphy singing it. He and Lee Roy Parnell and Gary Nicholson wrote it, we still have that somewhere. So we did it first.
We were starting to meet different songwriters in Nashville doing co-writes and we had never done that before. We were new to that, it was neat. At the same time, we would get together and write songs with these guys and somebody might go “You know what you should record, is this one”, which at first, we were like ‘hey, hey, hey…we got this”. But then when you hear a song and it’s that great… That was perfect though, it was right up the old alley.
CMP: Who have you written with in town that just blew you away?
BBS: Rob Hatcher, Randy Houser, David Lee Murphy, Jeremy Spillman, Travis Meadows, Anthony Smith, Craig Wiseman, Bobby Terry, Jeffrey Steele….gosh, the list is a lot longer than I thought…Luke Laird, Gordon Kennedy…
CMP: With your album, Little Piece of Dixie, I think it’s really cool how you guys have been able to go across the board from the hard rockin’ “Up In Smoke” to the feel-good “Good One Comin’ On” as well as a more traditional country element, and you were able to tie it together beautifully. How were you able to make this work?
BBS: It just works. There has definitely never been any plan. It happens the way it happens. Music that you love the most, your biggest influences always show. Unless you try to stifle them and we definitely don’t do that.
CMP: From the variation on your album, I couldn’t pick who your biggest influence would be. So who would you say that you draw your most inspiration from?
BBS: Us! No, really there’s too many, because it runs the gamut from Bill Monroe to Little Feat. You know when you touch music and you just love it, it doesn’t really matter what kind of music it is as long as it’s good. If you were listening to Kenny Chesney’s radio station and ACDC’s “Highway to Hell” came on you wouldn’t turn it off.
CMP: You look like Southern rockers and you’re often given the title “Too Country for Rock, Too Rock for Country”, so everyone automatically says, “Oh, Lynyrd Skynyrd” when they see you. Is it safe to assume they would be an influence to you guys?
BBS: Oh totally, yeah.
CMP: So would you say that there is anyone in today’s market that could compare to that? I want to say Jamey Johnson….
BBS: He’s definitely one of our absolute favorite artists. He’s just really, really damn good at what he does and he sticks to doing what he wants to do and it shows. It’s real. You can tell first glance if somebody’s real or not.
CMP: I’m really impressed that you guys have jumped the pond and have a big following in Europe as well as here. What’s the connection with those audiences who have no Southern roots or background and how did you make that leap?
BBS: It first started with the internet. We had a store on our website and sold CD’s, then wholesale companies and one-stops in Europe were hitting us up and wanted to buy 100 CD’s at a time or whatever. So for the past 5 or 6 years we’ve been shipping CD’s over there and we play on the Skynyrd Simple Man cruise and at Sturgis and there are a lot Europeans that come to those events. Finally we were just like we’ve got to go over there and play for these people, they’ve been coming to see us 4 years in a row and you start to feel like an asshole, ya know. But we like to travel and meet people and play our music and we got over there and it was great.
CMP: What are the venues like there?
BBS: It varies. We went into a place in Marseille, France. We got there in part of the city that was really seedy and scary. We drove in, it was already dark. This was the first Uh-Oh! when we got there. Because we go into the club and it looks like an old biker clubhouse that the door hasn’t been opened in 10 years, they opened the door and it was like bats flying out. There’s no PA, no sound systems, no nothing. The guy is just now grabbing posters that say “Blackberry Smoke Appearing Tonight”, just now going to put them up and it’s 8 o’clock. We were like, ‘so we should probably leave’, but people were already getting there. And they had really no PA so we couldn’t set the band up to play, so we had our acoustic guitars so we’re like well, we’ll just play like it’s our front porch because these people want to hear some music and they paid money already. So that’s what we did. It ended up really being a lot of fun. Except for there was a refrigerator in the corner and I opened it, I don’t know why. It smelled like there was a dead body in there, it cleared the place out. Then we went in February and played for 8,000 people at a country and western festival, just outside of Paris, and they were line dancing…and very good at it too. There were people selling saddles and cowboy boots and it was great. I was like man some of those type shows that we’ve played over here, these rallies and stuff, the venders need to get with it! There was some quality going on. They’re enthusiastic about music and about knowing everything about bands when you go to Europe. They’ve read the liner notes and they know as much about you as they can possibly get their hands on. It’s exciting to go do that.
CMP: Sounds like you have a very loyal fan base there.
BBS: They love all kinds of music. There will be a guy with a Skynyrd shirt and a guy in a Slayer shirt and they’re just diggin’ whatever’s in front of them playing live. We’re going to play in Sweden at Sweden Rock, it’s like a European Bonnaroo, but bigger I think. It’s gonna be Rick Springfield, Slayer, Guns N’ Roses, US!!! Moby will probably be there too, there’s just tons of music and everybody loves it and they all get along.
CMP: What would you say is the biggest difference between your shows here and your shows there?
BBS: No difference as far as what we do. But those people in a lot of those cities are really quiet until you’re finished, they’re very, very attentive to everything that goes on and they can get very stoic.
CMP: Do you find that uncomfortable?
BBS: Yeah, at first it was until you get used to it and then at the end of it, they are stomping their feet and wanting more songs. We had so many shows to play. We were like okay, as per the contract we only play an hour. That’s not much of a show, but we had 21 shows in a row to do with no day off, and as singer’s that’s tough. But those people wouldn’t let us leave. We were doing like double encore’s, we would at least go out and play 2 or 3 extra songs every night. In Spain, somebody told us, “They’re gonna be so enthusiastic about music” but we didn’t know what to expect going over there for the first time. Then we were like ‘wow, you didn’t tell us it was gonna be like this’. It was great. Great experience.
CMP: With everyone you’ve played with and shared a stage with, have you had one of those ‘Oh my God’ moment’s where you’re thinking “This is it; this is what it’s all about”?
BBS: ZZ Top. We looked around one night at sound check while on the road and Billy Gibbons was playing drums with us. He was like “give me the sticks real quick” and then he just sat down and played. That was amazing. The first time that ever happened to me (Britt), was when we played with Skynyrd at Smirnoff Amphitheater. Skynyrd’s band thought we were the crew for our band, so they were thinkin ‘who are these guys, not showing up until they have to walk on stage, just have their crew here doing their shit for them all day’, they told us this later, and they were like ‘then we realized it was you guys playin’ and it was so cool. We start playing and look over and see Rickey Medlocke watching us play and it was wild.
CMP: Do you guys still get a case of the nerves when you’re up there and those folks are in the audience watching you?
BBS: Yeah. We were just playing the other night in Austin, TX. We played an acoustic show at this little place called Headhunters and we were doing “Good One Comin’ On” and it had just got out of my mouth “throw in Ray Wylie Hubbard” and in walks Ray Wylie Hubbard and stood right there. I couldn’t look him in the face! When we were playing every other song I was looking everywhere but.
CMP: Do you know what’s next single-wise? I know this one is just now about to hit radio, but just out of curiousity…
BBS: No, we don’t know yet. A lot of people like “Prayer for the Little Man”, a song written with Craig Wiseman. There’s a ton of stuff. There’s huge underground stuff that I don’t even know how it’s getting out there, like “Yesterday’s Wine” with Jamey and George and I don’t even know how it’s getting out there.
CMP: You’re touring right now, trying to get your voice out there, and your words out there. What’s the next step?
BBS: Just keep on doing exactly what we’re doing. We’re going to Europe in June and then the Zac Brown Sailing Southern Ground cruise in September, BamaJam. Just keep on doing what we’re doing.