Are Blackberry Smoke The New Lynyrd Skynyrd?
Loved by ZZ Top, befriended by Skynyrd and Gregg Allman says they’re “gonna put southern rock back on the map”. We joined Blackberry Smoke on the road as they met their adoring British public.
It’s a wintery night in Manchester, but inside the steamy confines of the Ritz club teenage blues wunderkind Aaron Keylock is warming up the audience in the sold-out 1,500-capacity venue for tonight’s main attraction.
On a sofa on the balcony, one fifth of that main attraction is watching proceedings with interest. Richard Turner, bassist with new southern rock kings Blackberry Smoke, is a towering, shaggy-haired, leather-trousered giraffe of a man, but no one has noticed him yet.
Or they hadn’t until one member of the audience bounds over and promptly drops his trousers. For an alarming second, he looks poised to make an indecent proposition. But then the reason for his exhibitionism becomes clear: his thigh is adorned with a large, ornate Blackberry Smoke logo.
Firmly clasping Turner’s own thigh, he pulls his trousers back up. “In 1969 I discovered Hank Marvin!” he bellows. “In 1976 I discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd! And about eight years ago I discovered Blackberry Smoke. You’re the best fucking band in the world!”
Over-enthusiasm aside, he may have a point. Right now Blackberry Smoke are the best band in the world at what they do. They come from the same ‘Stetsons ’n’ Southern Comfort’ school of music as Lynyrd Skynyrd, but rather than just churn out knackered old Free Bird rip-offs they blend bluegrass, Delta, gospel, classic rock and even metal in their music – a bourbon-soaked trucker beard of countrified cheer for people who also love Aerosmith and Metallica. This is 21st-century southern rock’n’roll. And, it seems, it’s worth dropping your trousers for.
Turner takes it well, even as more fans stream across and ask for photos on their phone. “Fans are mostly pretty well-behaved in the UK,” he says, as his gaggle of new friends eventually disperse.
This sort of attention is becoming an increasingly regular occurrence for the Atlanta band. During the three days I spend with them – taking in sell-out shows in Glasgow, Manchester and London – they’re pounced on by fans at every opportunity. And it’s not just people who remember southern rock’s halcyon days in the mid-70s, either; there are 20-somethings and parents with young children too.
In fairness, they’ve earned it. Their third album, The Whippoorwill, breached the UK Top 30 when it was released here at the beginning of last year. By then they’d spent a decade exhaustively touring the US and building up a devoted following back home. Their first three albums – 2004’s Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime, 2009’s Little Piece Of Dixie, plus The Whippoorwill – all came out on different labels, a source of frustration for the band. Their latest, Holding All The Roses, will be released on Earache, also Rival Sons’ label. The band are looking forward to steadier times after years of frustration.
“In an industry that’s already complicated, to work with people that don’t work as hard as we do can be very frustrating,” says singer and guitarist Charlie Starr. “And we’ve involved ourselves in situations that ended up taking so long.”
Not that they were idle. Between their first and second records they recorded another entire album. Some tracks ended up on the countrified New Honkytonk Bootlegs EP, while others later cropped up on The Whippoorwill. “So it’s not that we’ve not recorded,” says Starr. “Its just that we’ve just not released.”
Blackberry Smoke may be a well-oiled machine today, but it wasn’t always like that. Their career has been peppered with chaos, intoxication and exasperation. Backstage, tales often begin with words such as “we’d gotten twisted the night before...”, delivered in a Deep South drawl.
The band are based in Atlanta, but they come from a spread of different states and backgrounds. In stark contrast to the band’s image, guitarist Paul Jackson had a beach and baseball-fuelled upbringing in Florida, where he was raised by an adoptive Native American family. “I remember all my cousins putting feathers in their hair,” he recalls. “I didn’t do it, cos I wasn’t a blood Indian, but we all hung around together.”
Jackson is one of the chattiest members of Blackberry Smoke, genially offering swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s after the shows. He laments his acrimonious relationship with his ex-wife, but shows paternal colours (he’s now happily paired off and has two children) when a small girl and her parents approach him for a photo in Glasgow. “I think this is her first gig,” he says, smiling broadly. “Man, I love it when kids come to shows!”
Most of the Jackson men were firefighters, including the guitarist’s father, who introduced his son to Chuck Berry and Creedence Clearwater Revival. “My dad was killed fighting a fire when I was eleven,” he says. He gave up on his youthful plans of following the family tradition into the fire service and decided to pursue music instead.
Richard Turner and his brother, Blackberry Smoke drummer Brit, had a more peripatetic existence. With their father a Colonel in the US Air Force, they spent two years of their childhood in the Philippines before the family settled in Georgia. The siblings’ first taste of life in a band came as members of late-80s metallers Nihilist. Their audiences back then were a long way from the ones they play to today. At one show, an audience member had the spikes of his mohawk ripped out.
By contrast, these days they’re both married with kids, though things took a dark turn when Brit’s daughter was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer. Thankfully she recovered. The band now donate all proceeds from their meet-and-greets to a cancer charity in Atlanta. “To go from being told she may not live, to seeing her in second grade now... it’s a cause worth supporting,” he says, smiling beneath layers of mountain-sheep beard.
While it’s easy to picture the drummer with children, Charlie Starr is more of a puzzle. From a distance, and minus the extravagant sideburns, the pipe-cleaner-framed singer looks barely old enough enough to drive a car, let alone have two sons by two different mothers (which he does – the eldest is 18, the youngest barely a year old). But close up, the mutton chops and look of weathered experience lends him extra years.
Born Charles Gray in the Bible Belt town of Lanett, Alabama he split his childhood between divorced parents, both of them Baptists. Growing up, music was “omnipresent but not mandatory” – his mother loved the Rolling Stones, his father “only liked and still likes” gospel and bluegrass. Accordingly, Charlie played guitar in those sort of groups, finding early inspiration in gospel harmonies at church as well as the five-string banjo. “That’s exciting for any kid to hear,” he says.
Starr certainly hasn’t forgotten his upbringing. Religion still manifests itself firmly in his lyrics, notably on a song such as Shakin’ Hands With The Holy Ghost from The Whippoorwill.
“That kinda imagery is powerful,” he says. “You get scared as a kid – ‘do right or else the devil’ll get you’,” he muses. “I mean, anybody who could twist the Bible enough to think that the Book of Acts was telling people to literally handle poisonous snakes, to prove a point of faith? That’s human nature right there. But I love that. That’s fascinating.”
At one point, such sanctimony even inspired his mother to torch his sister’s Def Leppard records. “Mum came home one day and said: ‘Get all those rock’n’roll records and bring ’em out here. We’re gonna burn all this devilish, hedonistic crap!’” he remembers. “And I thought, ‘Look at the irony – my mum’s throwing Pyromania onto the fire.’ She got over that, though.”
Steeped in music, Starr moved between various local bands in East Alabama, where Jackson had his own covers bands. They crossed paths playing “all the shit-hole bars”, and both eventually migrated to Atlanta. There, Starr met the Turner brothers and formed a band, Buffalo Nickel, with a different singer. Things seemed promising at first, the band even going to NYC to cut a record. But Buffalo Nickel were ultimately doomed, and by 2000 they’d split up.
“Things didn’t work out with that singer, but Brit, Richard and I liked playing together so we decided to continue,” Starr explains. “I remembered Paul was really great, so I called him, and here we are. And we immediately started to tour.”
Thus Blackberry Smoke was born. The current line-up was completed in 2009 when keyboard player Brandon Still joined. Like Starr, Still grew up in a religious environment, a family of church organists in South Carolina. When he decided to become a full-time musician, he gave piano lessons to ease the transfer financially. “We just won’t talk about the one piano mom I hooked up with,” he says with a sheepish chuckle.
A lot has changed for Blackberry Smoke in the past five years. They’ve toured with, and befriended, spiritual forefathers Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top. In 2011 they sold out Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, underlining their country music credentials. Gregg Allman, a man who knows about these things, even declared them the band “that is gonna put southern rock back on the map”.
A lot has changed on a personal level, too. “We were a party band and people knew it, and they would help us,” Starr says. “People would buy us rounds of shots and shove shit up our noses. And part of it was great, we had a great time. It was a part of growing up. We were just a bunch of over-aged children running around.”
Such a heady existence had a shelf life. Starr has been clean and sober for eight years (his hand is always glued to a coffee cup these days). Richard similarly swore off booze around the same time. The remaining three members enjoy a few beers, and have no qualms with the bourbon given to them by Jim Beam, but never at the expense at the band.
“I had to personally get control for the band to be successful,” Starr nods. “I realised I can’t trash my voice every night. And I don’t want to end up dead in a hotel room... When I get to be an old, grey man maybe I’ll drink bourbon again. But right now I’m great. I wasn’t one of those people who could enjoy just one, it had to be all or nothing.”
The ‘all’ end of the spectrum led to some rougher moments. “I did kick Charlie off the stage once,” Brit Turner concedes. “I think he went flying into my girlfriend, so I learned the lesson immediately. We all know each other’s personalities and when to back off.”
There are no kung-fu moves today. Watching Starr gleefully spit out Payback’s A Bitch, from Holding All The Roses, the glint of mischievousness in his eyes belies an unfaltering work ethic. You can’t fault any of the band for their dedication, but Starr is especially wired to it all. He leads much of the songwriting, he’s the one that tends to stay behind when the others venture out after shows, in dressing rooms pre-gigs he quietly disappears with an acoustic guitar. When everyone else went home after completing overdubs for Holding All The Roses in LA, Starr stayed on for an extra week. Backstage at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, another sold-out show, the look on his face suggests it was worth it.
“It seems like yesterday that we were just getting started, and we played our first show in Atlanta for nobody,” he says. His face brightens, slightly awed. “And now we’re here.”
Holding All The Roses is released on February 6 via Earache Records.
Meet Blackberry Smoke’s most unlikely fan: former Goodie Bill Oddie.
Bill: “I found them through my usual habit of pondering my ‘Amazon Recommends’ online. I probably started with a Little Feat-related item, and from there you find yourself wandering into southern rock, a category I’ve always liked. I also always look out for American artists. They just have that extra something in country rock that the Brits can’t quite do.
“So I got the first album, and I was hooked. There’s definitely a Little Feat influence – and The Band, too, they’ve certainly got the beards – but the guitar solos were always going to be a bit heavier. I remember when I got Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime, my wife and I were in the kitchen and I tentatively offered: ‘Do you want any music on? It might be a bit noisy for you!’ But she really liked it, there’s a bit of stadium rock ambition and some funky very grooves underneath it.
“Having found them, I was very cross to see them playing the Camden Barfly club [in London in November 2013]. You can only get about ten people in there. They deserved bigger! I’m really happy that they played Shepherd’s Bush Empire this time round. They’ve obviously got a good label and fan support. It would be a shame for them to be one of those great bands that you just never hear from again.” JK