Blackberry Smoke: The Other Side of the Light

Dean Budnick on May 10, 2024
Blackberry Smoke: The Other Side of the Light

photo: Andy Sapp


“I can still remember the first time we heard a Blackberry Smoke song on the radio,” vocalist/guitar player Charlie Starr recalls. “We were on tour in a van up in Wisconsin. I took a picture, not even with a cellphone, because nobody’s phone had a camera on it back then. I took a picture with a digital camera of the radio, and it didn’t even have a screen that said, ‘Blackberry Smoke.’ It was just the dial, but I wanted to remember that moment.”

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” he laughs. “Although, I do remember we all high-fived and hugged. The music was very compressed because it was terrestrial radio, which made it sound great. I was like, ‘Oh, man, that’s hitting hard!’” Starr is reflecting on the early days of his band, which celebrated its 20th anniversary back in 2021, for a couple conflicting reasons. On the positive side, the group’s new record, Be Right Here—its second consecutive studio effort produced by Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson)—has just been released to prevailing acclaim and is simultaneously ascending the country, rock and Americana charts. However, less than three weeks after the album’s February release, founding drummer Brit Turner passed away due to brain cancer

Blackberry Smoke originally formed in Atlanta after Brit, his bassist brother Richard and Starr put in a stint together backing singer-songwriter Gary Stier. They eventually set out on their own with Paul Jackson adding a second guitar and vocals. Keyboard player Brandon Still came aboard a few years later to complete the lineup. More recently, guitarist Benji Shanks and percussionist Preston Holcomb have expanded the roster of the touring juggernaut, which has found success on both sides of the Atlantic. Drummer Kent Aberle, who occasionally filled in for Turner following his initial diagnosis in 2022, is also now on the road with the group.

Shortly after Brit’s passing, Starr wrote, in part, “He was a DRUMMER’S DRUMMER, in the way Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts and Levon Helm operated. He played for the song at all times and had a pocket as deep as the Grand Canyon. His impact on our lives is ABSOLUTELY immeasurable. He was one of those people that consistently made you want to be a better person.”

The group’s frontman now adds, “He was the funniest human I’ve ever known. He was extremely wry and clever and he was full of mischief all the time. But he also worked so hard to build this band with all of us. So much of who we are and what we’ve become is because of him.”

Looking back on your own musical origins, what set you on your current path?

I was initially influenced by my family because my dad is a guitar player and sings old bluegrass and gospel songs. His mother, my grandmother, played piano and organ at church. Then my mother’s mother’s brothers—my great uncles—were in a very popular gospel quartet called the Swanee River Boys that started in the ‘40s. So I had music on both sides of the family.

Now, as far as performing goes, I didn’t get that bug until I was taken to a bluegrass festival when I was young—I was six or seven. I wouldn’t go to a rock concert until much later. But the first time I saw people onstage, I was absolutely enthralled by these dudes in suits and slicked back hairdos, standing up playing acoustic instruments and singing these high, powerful harmonies. I can remember specifically the feeling that went up my spine. People loved it. I think it might’ve been Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys, but I don’t remember specifically. There were also a lot of local regional acts that I saw that first time.

What I was also interested in, from a performance standpoint, was how cool I thought it was. I remember looking at those people who were playing in those bands, and I thought they were a lot like preachers. I was drawing on my experience from going to a little Baptist church in the small Alabama town where I grew up. The preacher was like a rock star. He had the best looking suit and the best haircut in the room. I remember this particular preacher that I grew up seeing and hearing when I was young had these really good sideburns. He almost looked like Elvis, but a toned-down religious Elvis. [Laughs.]

So all that was powerful imagery for me as a youngster. I thought, “Well, you get dressed up when you go and perform. You don’t look like the audience. You look snazzier.” None of that was lost on me when I was a kid. And it’s still not.

Had you started playing an instrument at that point?

 The bug bit me right around that time, at six or seven years old. I had been banging around my dad’s guitar and my grandmother’s mandolin a little bit. She taught me three chords on the mandolin—that was accessible because my hands were so small and I could play those little chords.

Then I started to find out the hard way that I was not good at sports and all my friends were. So I was like, “Oh, this is a bummer. I can’t throw the baseball very hard. Or catch it. Or hit it.” [Laughs.] But funny enough, I could pick out a tune on an instrument. I was like, “Oh, I can do that. I hear those notes. I can figure it out.” So I went from there after being introduced to how to play those three-chord songs, that string-band music.

As I grew older, none of my friends liked that music. They liked Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith and Van Halen. So did I. And my mom liked the Stones, The Beatles and Bob Dylan.

So all that got jumbled up in my brain. I think it informed where I wanted to go musically, which was all over the place. But I started to see similarities. Then I got into Delta blues, which was another ball of wax, and I started to notice that there were so many similarities between Charlie Patton and Son House and bluegrass music. I was like, “OK, well they do ‘Sittin’ on Top of the World’ and so does Bill Monroe.” Or “Lead Belly does ‘In the Pines’ and so does Bill Monroe.” There was such a common denominator with those folk songs. Then with The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” I thought, “That song is a lot like a country song; it’s just loud.”

You mentioned that you didn’t attend your first rock concert until later. What was it and how did it impact you?

Both my parents got very religious, so I wasn’t allowed to go to a rock concert until I was 15, and I went to Cinderella in Columbus, Georgia. That was in 1988, and it was massive. I’ve had this conversation with so many musician friends. People back then listened with their eyes a lot, so a lot of bands would get lumped into the same category if they had makeup on or tight pants. But Cinderella had great songs. I still love those songs.

I’ve spoken with their songwriter Tom Keifer about that. He’s the one who told me, “People back then listened with their eyes a good bit,” and so they fell into that hairspray category.

But what wasn’t lost on me was that they had great songs, just like Tesla and obviously Guns N’ Roses and Junkyard and all these bands. Those are the bands that made me want to do this thing that we do right now.

In a way, that reminds me of the Grateful Dead during that same era, when, at least when it came to the mainstream media, the songs were overshadowed by what went on in the parking lot or what was often described as noodling by dismissive newspaper reviewers.

Yeah, that’s another good example. What’s drawn me to the Grateful Dead is that their songbook is incredible. The noodling was talked about, but what was not talked about were the 20 amazing songs that they might have noodled in.

Jumping a bit ahead into Blackberry Smoke’s trajectory, I think of your performance of “Mississippi Half-Step” during the pandemic in the empty Ryman with Billy Strings. It’s not only a cool reading of that song but, at some point, I remember being struck by the fact that you were a mighty four-guitar army in that moment. Blackberry Smoke started with two guitar players and remained that way for many years. Can you talk about the decision to add Benji?

That just kind of happened organically, with Benji coming on because he and I had been playing acoustic shows on the side for years. The two of us shared this love of certain types of playing that Paul and I didn’t. Paul and I shared a love for a different type of music.

So what happened was, slowly but surely, he would come and start to sit in. Actually, it was Brit Turner who made the suggestion. Benji had recorded on a couple of songs with us in the studio [starting with 2016’s Like an Arrow]. Then he came and would play those live with us along with various covers. When I first met Benji, he was playing in a tribute to The Band called The Last Waltz Ensemble. So we would do Band songs or we would do Allman Brothers songs or even Dead songs, just covers.

One night we were playing one of the songs that we had recorded with Benji, and Brit said, “He needs to be here all the time.” I agreed and we all decided, “Yes, please.” So he stayed and we were a three-guitar band.

Then that started to inform the way I would think about writing songs and arrangements— with a three-guitar attack, for lack of a better way to put it. Obviously, people talked about Skynyrd because I guess you would say they’re the most successful three-guitar band. But it also filled out the two-guitar songs—he would play parts that were overdubbed or slide parts or pedal-steel parts or mandolin parts. He kind of became our Swiss Army knife.

Since you mentioned Skynyrd, at this point in Blackberry Smoke’s career, the band has its own identity and has become a reference point in its own right. However, earlier on, when some people were trying to give a thumbnail description of Blackberry Smoke, they’d often do so by invoking the names of other groups. Was that ever frustrating for you, or did you look past it?

A little of both. The comparison thing, especially with Skynyrd, was a little frustrating at times. I mean, nobody loves Skynyrd more than I do. It’s an honor to be compared to Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers or any great band. Who doesn’t like that?

But we didn’t set out to sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd or be like Lynyrd Skynyrd because there’s only one Lynyrd Skynyrd. We literally have this accent that our music possesses and it reflects where we grew up and what we grew up listening to. I think we would sound silly if we were a punk band. We would make a terrible punk band. So it’s really a natural progression.

Although I might argue you’d make a pretty cool punk band if you decided to orient yourselves in that direction.

I do love punk music. I love the first couple of 7-inches that Minor Threat released, and I have the record that has all that on it. My wife gives me a hard time sometimes when I come home and I put on. She’ll call out from the other room, “What are you doing? It’s 9:00 a.m.!”

Back to your creative path—you’re the principal songwriter in Blackberry Smoke. At what point did you begin writing your own songs?

I attempted a couple when I was about 17. I wrote two or three in a row, and they were awful. [Laughs.] I remember one where it started as music, as riffs. At 17, it was also a whole lot easier to get excited about that than writing lyrics. I mean, what did I know?

I remember playing this riff for my local cover band that I was in, and the drummer was very excited about it. He was like, “I love that, let’s play it.” It only had two little riffs, and we named it and everything. I think it was called “Soul City.” [Laughs.] What the hell did I know about a soul city at 17 years old?

I kind of gave up on songwriting then. I was like, “I’m not good at this. I’m just going to focus on guitar.” Then I played with all these songwriters throughout my late teens and 20s. I finally started to write in earnest when I was in my late 20s.

Can you recall the first song where you felt that you were onto something?

It was after we started Blackberry Smoke. The first song I really liked that I wrote was “Sanctified Woman.” I said to myself, “This feels good. This is my lane.” I still love that song.

Thinking about Be Right Here, was there a particular song you wrote that set you on the path toward making the album?

The way my songwriting works is that I kind of wait around until it’s time to write a record. I will have gathered riffs and lyrical content over the prior year or whatever. Then I sit down in earnest. I’m not prolific like some writers that I know who write every day or might write for exercise. I never do that.

In this case, the first song was “Dig a Hole.” I was sitting at home one day going through some old ideas because it was record time, it was start-writing time. I had come across this riff that we had played in the middle of a song before. It never was a song of its own, it was just this guitar riff. I was like, “Oh, God, I love that.”

Then I remembered that Brandon Still, our keyboard player, had sent me this gorgeous little gospel-sounding Wurlitzer lick, and I had tucked it away. He does that a lot. Over the years, he and I have written a few songs together, and it comes from little musical tidbits that he sends me.

So I was like, “These go together, they will work together”—the guitar riff and that Wurtlizer riff. It just happened. So “Dig A Hole” was born that way and it was the first one for the record.

In terms of taking your songs into the studio or even just conceptualizing them, do you approach the album as an art form any differently than you did at the outset of Blackberry Smoke?

I think it’s the same—really thinking about the running order because the Stones and Led Zeppelin taught us all about variety on a record as a rock-and-roll band. With Skynyrd, there was always a great little treat on a record. For instance, on their second record, they had big, muscular songs like “Workin’ for MCA” and then “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.” They always stripped it down for something special like that. So did the Stones, and so did Led Zeppelin. That’s our favorite kind of record and we all subscribe to that idea.

Running order is now important for vinyl again. Like, “OK, well then, what does side two start with?” I remember when CDs were new and Full Moon Fever came out, Tom Petty had that little track in the middle of the record where he said, “Attention CD listeners. This is the point where those listening on cassette or records will have to turn over the record or tape. In fairness to those listeners, we will now take a few seconds before we begin side two.” [Laughs.]

It’s certainly possible to write a great song but not make a great record out of it. What do you think is the key?

It helps having people like Dave Cobb and Tom Tapley, and people that we’ve worked with in the past like Brendan O’Brien, who know how to make things sound the way you want them to sound in the studio.

I’m not extremely gear savvy when it comes to studio stuff, but I can say, “Hey, do you remember on this record when the vocal sounds like this? Can you do that?” Those are guys who know what I’m saying and can do it instantly.

So if you have the songs to record, then the secret to making a good record is being able to attain the sounds that you hear in your head and commit them to tape.

When we were young, we would go to these local studios, saving up $250 to go record a demo. More often than not, it would be a crap experience where the results just sounded horrible. It’s just a different world when you work with people who know how to use that great old vintage gear, and they’ve been chasing the same sounds that we have—chasing the sounds that were made on records in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Be Right Here is your second record with Dave Cobb. How did that familiarity impact the process this time around?

It was a great experience. We were very excited to work with him again, and he seemed to be excited too. He called me and said, “Hey, man, do me a favor. Two things. First, bring little amps. I want to make a funky little amp record.” We all love vintage gear, and he knows I’ve got a bunch of vintage Fender amps, little Tweed amps and things of that sort. As guitar nerds, we know that some of our favorite records were made on little bitty amps, not big Marshall stacks. The Layla record was made with Fender Champs. It’s legendary and sounds fantastic, but you would never think they were playing through little amps that you could talk over.

Then when we got there, Brit’s drums were set up in the middle of the big room, which I had never seen there before. At RCA, there’s a drum room but Dave said, “I want to put everybody in this room, little amps and all. We’re not putting amps in an amp room, and we’re going to have everything going on in here.”

I thought, “Oh, that’s different.” On You Hear Georgia, we had separation, although we were all playing live. We always play live, the difference was all the gear was in one room this time, almost like a rehearsal.

He would tell us, “We’re going to have bleed in the drum mic, so don’t fuck up or else we’re doing it all again,” and we would laugh. But it also gave playing together a different feel. It was looser. Being in the studio can be kind of surgical. You can hear every little nuance of what you’re playing and that’s not always good as a guitar player. Sometimes you’re like, “Hey, man, take the microscope off me. I don’t want to hear myself that close up.” But this way gave it more of a big, open jam feeling. I can hear it when I put the record on.

His second point to me when he called was, “Don’t play the songs for the dudes. I want to record their spontaneous musical reactions.” I said, “Well, it’s too late on half of them. We’ve already rehearsed those.” He said, “OK, leave the other ones alone.” That’s a very Bob Dylan-type approach to me. We’ve all heard the stories about how nobody would ever know how the songs go except for Bob. But I get it, that spontaneity is very powerful in rock-and-roll music.

Listening back, is there a song that has a particular energy because no one else in the band had heard it?

“Little Bit Crazy” is the best example to me. It’s a good thing it’s only three chords, but the feel was there. It’s got that chug to it.

“Other Side of the Light” is another one nobody had heard and it’s not terribly simple. But it doesn’t feel overdone or over-rehearsed. Tom Petty has that great story about “Refugee,” how they tracked it like 89 times and how miserable it was. We can’t hear that when we listen to it, but that seems like it would be done to death. Why do you need it to be that perfect? Mike Campbell later said, “I bet you if you went back to take two, it’s just as good as take 89.”

You’ve mentioned Tom Petty a couple times. He’s someone whose studio records remained on a high level throughout his career. Does that inspire or energize you, given the fact that Blackberry Smoke has been making albums for over 20 years?

 He made his best record in 1994 [Wildflowers]. It gives us all hope. I was talking about it just the other day—how I was blown away by the fact that he made that perfect record in ‘94 and that Neil Young made Harvest Moon around the same time. They made perfect records when they were well into their 40s. So it’s like, “Well, life begins at 40.” [Laughs.]

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on a couple other songs from Be Right Here, starting with “Whatcha Know Good.”

I wrote that with Brent Cobb. We had just come out of an album session that he produced—Brit, Richard and I were the band for Adam Hood, another songwriter/ artist [on Bad Days Better]. We had such a good time making the record, and Brent was like, “Man, I got this idea. You want to write one?” I said, “Yeah” and we wrote it at the end of those sessions. Brent’s got that laid-back J.J. Cale thing to him, and this song is no exception. That’s where he lives.

We were on FaceTime or something, and his neighbor walked through the yard. Brent was outside and he was like, “What do you want to write about?” Then he says, “Hold on a minute, my neighbor is right there.” And he goes, “Hey, Jeff, whatcha know good?” I immediately said, “That’s the name of the song, ‘Whatcha Know Good.’” So we wrote about that. [Laughs.]

What about “Barefoot Angel,” which closes out the record?

I wrote that one with Adam. It was the same time period, probably the next day. We had finished writing a song of his in the studio, and he said, “Can we write another one?” So he and I wrote “Barefoot Angel.”

Then jumping ahead, we were in the studio on the last day with Dave, deciding that we were going to track one more song. We were to the point where nobody else in the band had heard any of the songs. I had a few left, and I remember sitting down with the acoustic guitar with Dave, and I played a little bit of one. He was like, “Nah.” So I played a little bit of another one and he was like, “No, I don’t think so.” Then I played “Barefoot Angel” and he goes, “That one!”

So we recorded that one last and it felt like the perfect place to put it was right at the end.

Finally, can you talk about Brit’s impact on the album?

I think that Brit’s playing on this record is his best. I remarked to Dave Cobb about that while we were making it. I was like, “Brit is really in there.” I mean, he’s always in there, but on this one, he was really in the pocket and his drums sound great. It just makes me emotional to think that was the period he put on his career. It was a great way to say goodbye to our fans. His performance on this record is fucking beautiful.