Blackberry Smoke originated in Atlanta 16 years ago and acquired its fans the old-fashioned way — by building its audience through live shows. Perhaps this grassroots approach helps explain why they comfortably and successfully appeal to fans from a wide cross-section of genres.
The band’s latest album, Like an Arrow, was self-produced and recorded at Quarry Recording Studio in Kennesaw, featuring legendary singer Gregg Allman on one track. The record has topped numerous music charts and led Rolling Stone magazine to say that, with the new album, “Blackberry Smoke revived Southern rock.”
Blackberry Smoke returns home for their annual Brothers and Sisters Holiday Show at the Tabernacle November 25. ArtsATL spoke with Richard Turner, the band’s bass player (his brother, Brit, fills out the rhythm section on drums), to discuss Blackberry Smoke’s evolution as a band, new album and upcoming show at the Tabernacle.
ArtsATL: I understand when you were growing up, your father was a colonel in the Air Force and your mom was a teacher. Did your parents support the love of music you and your brother had early on?
Richard Turner: Somewhat. There was a generation gap in that they had a different view of what actually qualified as music. I wanted an electric bass, so I could join or form a band with the local kids. Mom and Dad weren’t having it as they felt you “couldn’t sit around a campfire and sing along to an electric bass.” As a compromise, I received [a Les Paul-copy electric guitar]. I was not very happy about it, but managed to take some lessons. It wasn’t really for me. I genuinely wanted to play the bass. I wasn’t one of those people who tried guitar but winds up playing the bass. I wanted the bass from the start. Eventually, I traded the guitar for a Robinson Racing Products BMX bicycle and slaughtered the locals at every race. Later, I grew out of that and bought a bass and resumed whittling away at it until I could hang with the other kids playing their various instruments.
ArtsATL: What was your first bass?
Turner: A Guild Pilot. It came with interchangeable necks — one with frets and one, fretless. Pretty neat.
ArtsATL: When did you first start playing music, and what was the catalyst in your life that drew you to it?
Turner: Originally, around third grade, I played my dad’s vintage clarinet in the elementary school band. I didn’t enjoy it. The further along I progressed, the less I liked it and just basically faked my way through performances — much to the dismay of the instructor. I did learn to read music, but I’d never heard anyone blowing any clarinet in a rock band. I’ve come to desire rekindling my clarinet playing and to throw it in on an eventual Blackberry Smoke composition — we’ll see how that goes. I might as well use it, as I still have it.
ArtsATL: Who were your top three music heroes when you were growing up?
Turner: I’m going to go with John Paul Jones, Geddy Lee and Steve Harris. Later, after discovering who influenced those guys, I came to love Jaco Pastorius, Charles Mingus and Willie Dixon. Bob Babbitt is probably the top player in my mind, may he rest in peace.
ArtsATL: If you hadn’t become a musician what else might you have chosen as a career?
Turner: I was about to join the Air Force — like my dad — but they wouldn’t let me fly, due to my eyesight. I am very technically inclined and basically walked in from the street and nailed a job at AT&T for a short time and could have really flown high over there, but music came calling again and I eventually left.
ArtsATL: Blackberry Smoke has tremendous appeal with a vast array of fans and can please hard rock, Southern rock, jam band, bluegrass and country audiences. In a word — a single word — explain this ability your band has for doing this.
ArtsATL: Do you think possessing this kind of universal appeal creates more stress or less on the band?
Turner: Less stress, as we are able to play whatever style strikes us. When a band like Led Zeppelin dives into the Caribbean stylings of “D’yer Mak’er,” or The Rolling Stones jump on the disco wagon and make huge waves with “Emotional Rescue” or “Miss You” — both songs are dripping with disco rhythms — you can’t deny they are genre jumping masters. Had they stuck to a single style, neither band would have made it very far. We take note of this and play whatever makes us happy, and I think that translates to our audience. Not to say we haven’t upset some fans, but we really are in it to make ourselves happy. We are not so naive as to think we aren’t going to alienate some folks along the way — too bad for them — we are an epic band. Just ask us! [laughs]
ArtsATL: So many bands experience breakups and/or replacement of members after being together for a while. With exception to keyboardist Brandon Still, who joined the band in 2009, Blackberry Smoke bandmates have remained the same over the past 16 years. What keeps you wanting to play with each other night after night, year after year?
Turner: What else are we gonna do? I’ll be damned if I’m going to kiss anyone’s ass and I think the rest of us are pretty entrenched in the idea of not kissing asses. We are our own bosses and we like that very much.
ArtsATL: Not only have you caught enormous attention from audiences; Blackberry Smoke has caught the adoration of many music legends, as well. Gregg Allman spoke of his high regard for Blackberry Smoke in my recent interview with him. What are your thoughts on having been invited to share the main stage along with ZZ Top and The Gregg Allman Band a couple of weeks ago in Atlanta, at Allman’s Laid Back Festival?
Turner: Apparently, Gregg received the bribe! [laughs] Actually, we have been turning heads in the industry for many years and whether or not we are at the top of a chart, we’re always doing things our way and that is the same ethic the Allman Brothers and ZZ Top share. We all dig that we all suffered the slings and arrows of bad reviews, ups and downs, etc. Perseverance is an admirable quality in anyone, and we’re brimming with that particular attribute.
ArtsATL: Blackberry Smoke’s latest album is Like an Arrow. I read that you said this one is your favorite album. Why is that?
Turner: Well, it’d be kinda silly — as players — for us to long for the previous record, you know? We aren’t trying to become progressively less interesting to ourselves. We are actually just getting started — after 16 years.
ArtsATL: Is there a song on this album, or on any Blackberry Smoke album, which speaks to your core more so than any of your other songs?
Turner: “Waiting for the Thunder” pretty much wraps up a lot of our disdain for the things that piss off the collective humanity. We’re all sick to death of getting fucked by those we elect to keep us from getting fucked in the first place. Selling of the office of the various elected officials to the highest bidder is a crime. I’ll leave that right there.
ArtsATL: What three things move you most?
Turner: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
ArtsATL: What’s been the hardest thing about becoming famous for you?
Turner: The bigger you get, the more the contemptuous among us try to take from you. Some people actually think we owe them our income in some twisted idea that they created us or supported us in a way that makes us indebted to them. It is absurd.
ArtsATL: How did your upcoming Brothers and Sisters Holiday Show at the Tabernacle come to be and come to be an annual thing?
Turner: The venue itself begs to get a Blackberry Smoke show as the audio system is top-notch. Add to that the fact it is in our hometown, and we really desire to be with our families on such a holiday. Christmas would be too crazy to expect to sell out a show — what with all the out-of-town fans flying to all corners of the world. The Tabernacle and the Brothers and Sisters fan club go hand in hand — it’s a beautiful experience.
ArtsATL: Can you explain what the show means to the band?
Turner: In short, it means we can spend the night in our own beds after the show.
ArtsATL: How would you describe Blackberry Smoke’s evolution since the inception of the band?
Turner: Spiraling ever upward into the stratosphere? Seriously, we just follow our own little path in the musical wilderness and, hopefully, others join us along our merry way.
ArtsATL: If you could look into a crystal ball and see the future, what would you say that Blackberry Smoke might be doing 10 years from now?
Turner: I’d, personally, like to be enjoying the rewards of many years of a very challenging labor of love — that is, playing with my friends — and, maybe, play another planet.