Blackberry Smoke have spent years taking their hard-driving mix of rock, country, and Southern rock almost door-to-door by playing clubs, festival gigs, and opening for anyone who would give them a shot. In 2009, they were on tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd, which is when this interview took place.
During the process of putting together the lineup, drummer Brit Turner, his brother, bassist/vocalist Richard Turner, and vocalist/guitarist Charlie Starr experienced the all-too-common “playing in another band, got signed, bad deal, disgusted with the industry” saga. By the time guitarist/vocalist Paul Jackson, and later, keyboardist Brandon Still, joined them, Blackberry Smoke were working it D.I.Y.-style, refusing to compromise one riff of their music.
“My brother and I played in bands for years,” says Brit Turner. “We got Charlie, got a deal with Universal, went to record, and had a horrible experience with the label. We were sort of soured going in, but the fact that a major label shows interest rekindles the dreams you had as a kid: ‘I’m going to get a deal! Explosions are going to go off and limos full of money will pull up!’ You get in and find people working your record who are so afraid of losing their jobs that they’re never behind their desks. They’re constantly walking the halls, nothing gets done, or they try to apply old ideas to a new band in a new time. Our vocalist was a ‘yes’ man, agreeing with everything they said, and we were, ‘No, no, no!’ They spent $500,000 on the record and it sounded nothing like us. We left and started looking for a guitar player, with Charlie now singing and playing. Paul lived in LaGrange (Ga.) around Charlie at the time, and they knew each other from playing in clubs.”
In 2000, the band met recording artist Jesse Dupree, who took them into the studio, then on the road, in 2004. “We hit the road for forty days with Jesse, and that’s a hell of a tour for anybody, even in a bus,” says Turner. “We were in a van, we weren’t paid for half the shows, but when we were done, we knew it was exactly how we could do it. We gained fans and sold records out of our trunk. We spent all of our time that we weren’t playing onstage online to promote the band. When people wanted to know about us, they would search for Blackberry Smoke, or Southern rock, or bands we played with. It’s about putting yourself out there for people to see you and find information.”
Information got out, and in 2009, Blackberry Smoke released their major label debut, Little Piece of Dixie, produced by Dann Huff for Stroudavarious Records. “Dann drove in from Nashville and saw us play in a club called the Peachtree Tavern,” says Turner. “He thought it was a good show, and he said, ‘I want to cut some songs.’ We said, ‘When do we start?’ We were really excited and wanted to start the day before! I said, ‘Do you want to cut demos and figure out if you like us?’ He said, ‘I don’t cut demos.’ When he said, ‘We’re recording next week,’ I told him, ‘I have three drum sets. Should I bring all of them? What do I need?’ He said, ‘Bring exactly what you played in the bar the night I saw you.’ We showed up with our road gear in the trailer, set up, and played. Other than one 12-string that’s not ours, that’s it.
“We tried to get Dann to play on the record because we wanted to sit back and watch him! He said, ‘I don’t need to play on this record; that’s part of the point.’ We said, ‘Make the point with someone else. We want to watch you!’ It wasn’t high-tech at all. A guy like Dann uses Pro Tools for the speed of it all because you’ve got to get it done, and you can’t sit there and cut tape. The miking, the sounds, are what get him the jobs. He’s so good at it that going to 2-inch tape couldn’t make it any better.”
By the time BBS began tracking with Huff and engineer Justin Niebank, they were studio and stage veterans who had toured with heavyweights like ZZ Top and Montgomery Gentry. “At that point we felt like getting heard was up to us,” says Turner. “There was no big marketing budget behind us. If somebody in Pennsylvania wanted to hear us, it was because we pulled up in front of their door and played.”
Blackberry Smoke walk an interesting and unique musical tightrope. Their music is easily classified as rock — loud rock — and their roots expand across genre lines into bluegrass. Can they be all things to all people? If so, how will all people find out about them? The band members are fully aware of how marketing plans work, how labels categorize, and how compartmentalized radio has become. Their solution: find audiences, rather than wait for audiences to find them. “A guy came up with his 14-year-old son after one of our shows and said he hadn’t bought a record in twenty years, but we got him excited about music again,” says Turner. “There’s got to be at least a million 40- and 50-year-old guys who haven’t bought a record and who might have saved up enough by now to buy ours! Let’s go play for those people. They make it satisfying to us as musicians and songwriters.”