Blackberry Smoke takes Sweetwater stage
Southern rockers gain fandom without radio; at Sweetwater Pavilion
Blackberry Smoke is a band living a charmed life.
Since their debut in 2003, this Atlanta group have never had a hit single nor been on a major label. In the modern era, record sales don’t apply and it’s all about streaming, and Blackberry Smoke have topped rock and country charts time and again, with virtually no promotion. Thousands of fans follow them around the U.S, and they’re huge in Europe.
On July 26 at Sweetwater Performance Pavilion, they’ll be playing songs from their seventh studio album, You Hear Georgia, another collection of songs about small-town, rural life that somehow resonates worldwide.
Do it themselves
Blackberry Smoke have found themselves reaching out from Southern rock, in the tradition of the 1970s, to an army of new country music fans.
Now, contemporary “bro-country,” which has ruled the airwaves for a decade, is constructed like hip-hop: contrived, electronic, and repetitive, nothing like Blackberry Smoke’s traditional song structures and guitar-led arrangements.
When speaking with songwriter, singer, and lead guitarist Charlie Starr from his home in Atlanta, you’re reminded of the opening line from the album, “You hear Georgia when he opens his mouth.” But I hope I’m not blowing his cover to say that when he’s home, he doesn’t come across as the rural-swaggering-Southern-rock-star you know and love on stage. He’s quiet and thoughtful, with insight about how Blackberry Smoke has navigated success in spite of the music business.
So, how has Blackberry Smoke managed to raid the country charts? “I don’t know,” Starr said. “Our music is about as far removed from modern country music as I can figure. It would sound silly to me for us to make music that was trendy. We literally just play music that makes us feel good. I think most artists can say that, but I couldn’t begin to second-guess what people like.
“The music business is the most frustrating part of the music business,” he laughed. “We’ve never had any support at country radio, because our music is so different from what’s popular. So that’s where we buckled down and thought, ‘Well, we’ll do this ourselves.’ Now we have our own label, and it’s a literal do-it-yourself story.”
Luckily for Blackberry Smoke, streaming music services have made the “do-it-yourself” approach successful.
“The music business has changed a lot, as far as the way that music is consumed, of course because of streaming services,” Starr said. “We know who our fans are, and we’re going to make records and market our records to them.
“We don’t waste our money on radio campaigns, because we know they won’t play it. Why would we try and force this square peg in the round hole?
“Screw the machine,” he added. “We’ll be the machine, and at the end of the day, our fans recognize that we don’t sell out to try and fit in.”
New arrivals to band
The band could not be more retro, from their vintage instruments to their biker image. Then there’s the eye-popping array of garish merchandise on their website that you could imagine piled on counters in a black-velvet-lined head shop in the 1970s.
They’ve christened this tour “Rasslin’ is Real,” and bonus points if you can spot the reference: Southern jam band forefather Col. Bruce Hampton (of the Aquarium Rescue Unit) recorded a song called “Basically Frightened” in 1991, with the line “I’m afraid of people who don’t think rasslin’ is real.” If you’re a Blackberry Smoke fan, you know exactly where they’re coming from.
On stage you can hear how their sound has expanded.
With Starr, the core of the band is Paul Jackson on guitar, Richard Turner on bass, Brit Turner on drums, and Brandon Still on piano and organ. With this tour, occasional sidemen Preston Holcomb (percussion) and Benji Shanks (guitar) are full members.
“(Shanks) had been sitting in with us for years,” Starr said. “In the beginning, he was playing parts that were on records that I might have played as overdubs: pedal steel, mandolin, or slide guitar.” But with the new record, “He plays his own parts. It became a full-on three-guitar band,” hearkening back to Starr’s heroes Lynyrd Skynyrd and Outlaws. “Then Preston, he’s been a friend of the band for years. He was a drummer in The Grapes, a great jam band.”
While recording You Hear Georgia, “Brit said, ‘Hey man, can we have percussion happening in real time instead of overdubbing it?’ That changes the vibe, for the better.”
The other side of the coin is the other side of the pond. How can they account for the fact that they have such a strong following in Europe?
“I’ve been asked that question lots of times,” Starr said. “But history shows that a lot of rock n’ roll fans in Europe really loved Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers. They love rock n’ roll. Our music’s not complicated. It feels good. It makes you dance. It makes you move. It’s not angry. I think it’s honest music, and European audiences appreciate honesty.”
In March, the band is doing 22 dates in 15 nations across the European Union. They’ll be playing theaters, “but we can do some bigger shows there,” Starr said.
Opening act defies labels
Opening the Sweetwater show is none-of-the-above country diva Elizabeth Cook, a well-known television and Sirius XM radio personality and frequent Grand Ole Opry performer. Her music spans “stone country” to Appalachian gospel to just plain weird, and she’s connected to the same Georgia alternative rock scene as Starr.
“We did a few of the Sirius XM Outlaw Country Cruises together,” Starr said. “She plays our music a lot on her show. The only real airplay and support that we’ve ever received is from Sirius XM. They play every record. There’s a whole cross section of a genre that exists on that medium.”
Twenty years on, Blackberry Smoke is living the dream. “Yeah, I can’t complain,” Starr laughs. “And I don’t!”