Georgia band Blackberry Smoke plays Belly Up Aspen
January 17, 2013
ASPEN – On first look, Blackberry Smoke can seem like a manufactured product – a marketing man’s take on the Southern rock band, the successors to Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Outlaws and the Marshall Tucker Band. The band’s recent publicity photos are in old-fashioned sepia, and picture the quintet in the woods, long, unkempt hair flying. There are unruly beards and old-time overcoats. There’s basically no mistaking that this is a Southern rock band, and listening to the most recent album by Blackberry Smoke only confirms things: twin guitars with a bunch of slide thrown in; songs that reference Georgia pine and the holy ghost; the drawling voice of lead singer Charlie Starr. The album is titled “Whippoorwill,” a reference to the bird which shows up in numerous songs, but usually to bring up images of the American South.
But talk to Starr, who writes most of the band’s material, for even a few minutes, and you realize there isn’t much pretense going on behind Blackberry Smoke. The Southerness is in their bones; Starr grew up in the small town of Lanett, Ala., which isn’t far from Macon, Ga., the city that launched the Allman Brothers Band. A self-proclaimed “music nerd” who reads the liner notes in albums, Starr has soaked himself in all breeds of Southern music, from Mississippi Fred McDowell to George Jones to, yes, Lynyrd Skynyrd, who has toured with Blackberry Smoke. Blackberry Smoke’s music is easily identifiable with that of the iconic Southern rock acts, but within that category, you hear a lot of associated flavors: gospel, acoustic Delta blues, country, piano-oriented boogie, Tom Petty-esque rock ‘n’ roll. As Starr says of the band’s variety, “We all have times when we love [Black] Sabbath more than we love Little Feat.”
And no rational marketing scheme would include the business plan Blackberry Smoke was built on. When the band formed, in 2000, the members – Starr, guitarist Paul Jackson, keyboardist Brandon Still, and brothers Richard Turner on bass and Brit Turner on drums – decided they were in it for the long haul, no matter what.
“It’s always been nose to the grindstone,” Starr said from a tour stop in Grand Rapids, Mich. “We played years playing for nobody. We’d feel we were making new fans, doing good, then go somewhere else in this big beautiful country of ours and two people would show up.”
Starr adds that he and his bandmates weren’t wide-eyed kids when they formed Blackberry Smoke. He and the Turner brothers had spent a few years together backing a singer, in an act that went by the name Buffalo Nickel. By the time they ditched the singer and formed their own group, they were reasonably seasoned.
“We weren’t 19. We were realistic, adults,” Starr said. “We knew what we were doing.”
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Over time, things began to pay off. There were dates opening for Skynyrd, and a gig at Nashville’s country music temple, the Ryman Auditorium, with ZZ Top. “Whippoorwill” was released on Southern Ground, the label owned by country star Zac Brown; the album, the band’s third, released in August, went to No. 8 on the country charts.
“In today’s market, you could say we’re more akin to a country band because of our Southerness,” Starr said.
Blackberry Smoke’s current tour includes a bunch of arena shows, mostly in the South, opening for the Zac Brown Band. Most of the tour is in bigger clubs and theaters; they play Belly Up Aspen on Sunday.
In his hometown of Lanett, Starr got what he considers a fair range of musical inputs. His father, a guitarist, played gospel and bluegrass, while his mother was a rock fan. “She had all the Stones records. It was a nice dichotomy there,” Starr said, adding that his grandmother played mandolin and piano.
Starr got started on guitar, playing songs his father taught him. “But as I got into my early teens, I didn’t want to play that anymore,” he said. “Those were adult songs. I wanted ‘Smoke on the Water’ and ‘Cat Scratch Fever.'”
One of Starr’s formative experiences came at age 11. He was riding bikes with a friend, crossed over a mudhole strewn with beer cans and cigarette butts, and glimpsed a cassette tape: Aerosmith’s “Rocks.”
“I had never heard of it,” he said. “But I can still remember what that music felt like, the big Les Paul sound. I hadn’t heard that on the radio, none of my friends heard it. Not in rural Alabama.”
A more intentional source of musical knowledge was Nader’s Music, in Lanett. There he bought Robert Johnson’s “Thesaurus of Classic Jazz.” (Starr proves his music geek credentials by mentioning the number 29 – the precise number of recorded tracks Johnson left behind.)
“They had all kinds of great stuff,” Starr said. “I bought a Mississippi Fred McDowell tape just because the picture it looked good. I guess that’s how we wind up who we are, all these tiny moments in time.”
During the Buffalo Nickel time, Starr bonded well with the Turner brothers, enough so that when the act fizzled, Starr and the Turners held a jam session of their own, bringing in a friend, Paul Jackson, as a second guitarist. Another friend, Jesse Dupree, of the band Jackyl, came to listen and was impressed enough to record the band.
“Before we knew it we had an album,” Starr said. “Then he said, ‘OK, want to tour?’ So we bought a van.” Blackberry Smoke toured the Midwest and Northeast, which took them out of their comfort zone. “That’s how we learned how to tour, by trial in the ice and snow. It was, Here’s how you pack, here’s how you avoid getting arrested.”
As for what the music would sound like, there was never much discussion. Starr might have loved Aerosmith and Robert Johnson – and even that odd moment when he fell for Guns ‘n’ Roses and the whole Los Angeles metal scene of the ’80s – but there was no escaping their Southerness.
“We were all from the Southeast and have similar tastes: Marshall Tucker Band, Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Steve Earle,” Starr said. “We never formulated a plan what we would look like or sound like. Basically, we’re playing the way that makes us happy. It’s comfortable. If we got mohawks and played punk songs, we’d feel ridiculous. But I’d love that the Stones or the Dead would play a stone-cold country song. That’s what we aspire to be, a band that could do that.”
Getting that music into the world hasn’t always been easy. Blackberry Smoke has had a star-crossed history with record companies. At one point, they signed with a record company, and the company’s CEO promptly went to prison. And the band kept playing on.
“How do we keep this going? That’s always been the focus, whenever any of this stuff happens,” Starr said. “We’ve built this to this level and we want to grow, make better records, put on better shows. It’s been a great progression, to look at our recorded material. The tenacity – that’s got to pay off.”
One of the biggest pay-offs came a few years ago, after Blackberry Smoke played as part of an 80th birthday party at for George Jones at the Grand Ole Opry. Jones was in attendance and, sometime after, they recorded “Yesterday’s Wine,” which had been a hit for Jones. Blackberry Smoke included it as a bonus track on their 2009 album, “Little Piece of Dixie.”
“It could be discouraging,” Starr said. “One night, there we’d be, playing for one another, for the love of it. Then a break would come along – a run with Lynyrd Skynyrd, recording with George Jones.”