Chris Shiflett toured American alongside Blackberry Smoke earlier this year, kicking off the promo cycle for his upcoming solo album, Hard Lessons, with a handful of shows supporting the Georgia-based country-rockers. Months later, he sits down with frontman Charlie Starr and drummer Brit Turner for a new episode of Walking the Floor. Together, the musicians talk about vintage gear, The Simpsons and the benefits of maintaining one’s independence in today’s music industry.
Here are five things we learned from the podcast, which you can stream in full below.
Charlie Starr’s appetite for vintage gear began in 1992, with a fateful trip to a Georgia guitar shop.
“I was just out of high school in Atlanta, and I met a guy in a music store,” remembers Starr, who has since amassed an enviable collection of old-school guitars. “I shook his hand and was introduced, and he said, ‘Hey, you need this guitar.'” The instrument was a black Les Paul Jr. from 1956. “It was old, beat up and refinished,” Starr adds. “It belonged to the guitar player for the Georgia Satellites, and it was on consignment for sale. It was $600 or $650, which was all the money in the world to me.” Despite being strapped for cash, Starr bought the instrument, kicking off a longtime habit of buying vintage guitars. “That started the love affair … or the obsession,” he admits.
Blackberry Smoke formed from the ashes of an older band.
“Charlie and myself and my brother, we played together before this band, and recorded an album for Universal,” says Turner, referencing the short-lived group Buffalo Nickel, whose membership planted the seeds for Blackberry Smoke’s formation. Buffalo Nickel was led by a different frontman, though, and the guys were essentially his backup band, with little opportunity to contribute their own ideas. The chemistry between the three instrumentalists was undeniable, however, and they eventually regrouped under a different name, with Starr doubling as guitarist and singer. “We liked what we were doing together, and we were comfortable with each other,” says Turner.
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Now a proudly independent band, Blackberry Smoke took control of their own operations after it became clear that a major-label deal didn’t suit the band’s aspirations.
“It came out of necessity,” Turner says of the group’s self-run business. “There wasn’t anybody who was super interested. Nobody was saying, ‘Hey, let’s go — you guys are amazing!’ People tell me in interviews, ‘I really like the way you guys did it, man. You did it yourselves.’ And I say, ‘We had no choice!'”
After bouncing between indie labels for years, Blackberry Smoke signed with Zac Brown’s label, Southern Ground, and received permission to make a record without any outside influence. That independent process — and the album it birthed — proved to be the band’s breakthrough moment.
“I’ll wear this like a badge: always trust your own instinct and your hunch, because it’s never wrong,” Starr begins. “I don’t know why it’s taken me 44 years to figure this out.” Years before making that realization, Starr would become excited about a new Blackberry Smoke song, only to be told by industry experts that the song wasn’t commercial enough. Things changed when the group signed with Southern Ground, a label run by fellow Georgia native Zac Brown. “He let us make the record we wanted to make,” Starr adds. “Those were his exact words. We went in there and recorded the exact songs that I’d previously been told, ‘No, not these.’ And that’s our fans’ favorite record. It’s called The Whippoorwill. And that collection of songs is what made us realize people were listening. That’s when the ticket sales started to grow … There was no argument about the songs not being radio-friendly or not being hits. We just made a record.”
They’ve been lucky enough to receive the support of the countrified Southern-rockers who came before them.
Blackberry Smoke have toured with some of the pillars of Bible Belt-based classic-rock — including Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd — since their early years. “They’ve always been very gracious,” Starr says of those groups. “It was sort of like, ‘You’re doing good, kid!’ Now, 20 years later, it makes sense that their fans liked what we were doing, because what we’re doing is not terribly removed from what [those other bands] did.” The trick to Blackberry Smoke’s own longevity, Starr adds, is mixing a fresh musical approach with a somewhat familiar, guitar-driven sound. “I don’t think we’ve ever made a record that’s so cartoony that it would sound like if there was a Southern-rock band on The Simpsons,” he explains, “with confederate flags and leather vests.”