Charlie Starr (vocals, guitar), Paul Jackson (guitar, vocals), Richard Turner (bass, vocals), Brit Turner (drums), and Brandon Still (keyboards).
[In 2020, they added touring personnel Benji Shanks and Preston Holcomb].
Rock the Joint Magazine was thrilled to talk to Paul Jackson and Brandon Still from Blackberry Smoke this month as we looked ahead to their tour. We will be at one of the shows, reviewing the Birmingham gig for our readers, and we have the tour link here for those looking for tickets.
In 2015, they released “Holding All the Roses,” which was the first independently-released record to hit #1 on the Billboard Country album charts in modern history. “Like an Arrow” followed in 2016 (a top 10 album in the UK), again putting them at #1. 2018 saw the band outsell all other releases with their self-produced “Find A Light” plus the acoustic accompaniment, “The Southern Ground Sessions.” Blackberry Smoke’s latest album, Homecoming: Live in Atlanta, was released in 2019. It is a recording of the band’s annual show in Atlanta, which is also its home city. It also debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Americana/Folk sales charts.
So, this is a band with pedigree, noted for their live shows, energy, and professionalism. Having navigated the time differences, we began by talking about the tour, which arrives in Europe (Madrid) on March 3rd and reaches Birmingham (UK) on March 26th.
Paul- We are very excited to be back; it’s been too long. I think in 2018 we had the shutdown, and we were scheduled to go over there just before the pandemic. But then we were shut down.
Paul- Twice yes. So it will be so good to get back over there. We have such great fans in all the countries, and we are over in Europe for five weeks. I know there aren’t many tickets left for some of the shows; we have some sold-out shows right now. We love the history of the place, the experience, and the food.
Brandon- We have made a lot of friends that we miss.
We had to raise an eyebrow at the mention of British food, which does not always have the greatest reputation, although we now have some very fine international restaurants to enjoy.
Brandon- When it comes to the UK, I have always gone for the fish and chips! It is a good excuse to indulge.
The whole Atlantic divide provides a great dynamic. It’s interesting how often American bands regard the United Kingdom as a special place, wanting to visit Abbey Road Studios and the clubs where the Rolling Stones and The Beatles performed. On the other hand, many British musicians think of Nashville and Memphis as places where music was born.
Paul- So much great music has come from both sides of the pond. We kind of represent the melting pot of all that.
The band has been together since 2000, so there has been a lot of drama over the years, but the band has stood firm. If being in a band is like being in a marriage, then we wondered what the recipe for success would be for staying together.
Paul- We have a great time and are rock’n’rollers at heart, but these days we have families and are very serious about music. If we do have differences, then we can handle them better. We have made it to the point where we are more mature.
So you feel more mature now?
Brandon- Well…yes. I kind of miss those immature days, but I have a family now, and that helps. We have made it to the point where we change.
Paul- I’m looking forward to the sillier days again; my family is older now, so maybe it will all go full circle. For me, the secret to sticking together successfully is all about the bunks on the bus. You can find your place.
Brandon- Our bus is pretty full; you have to do a little dance when you pass each other in the hall or make a coffee. It looks choreographed, but it comes from years of bus life together. It is bus life.
Over the decades, social life on the road has changed. We note that life in an era of selfie culture must get intrusive on occasion.
Brandon- Oh, we love it. But it’s always better when the person taking the photo knows how to use their camera, as you’d be surprised how many times you are called for a selfie but the camera isn’t turned on or facing the other way. We occasionally take the phone away from them and perform the shot. But we love the fans, and any chance to take pictures with them or say hello to them is a positive.
There has been a change in the whole experience of touring; many bands do meet and greets now, and the fans are closer to the band than perhaps at any time in the past.
Paul- It goes with the territory; we have always been that way since starting out as a band with a loyal fan base that is like family. We have grown with that concept, and we are always happy to see people on the road. We have had fans from the start who are still with us; we know them by name. We all have our ways of finding quiet time if we need it, and we know sometimes people need that.
Brandon-It’s easy to do. There is a time for everything; there is time to say hello and time to be quiet. It is all part of the road, and we enjoy it.
The band are wonderful storytellers with strong narratives in the songs. A favourite here is “Ain’t the Same”
“That the days seem so much brighter
And thе breeze could blow the troubles away
You could see angels dancin’ in the flame…” (Songwriters: Keith Edward Nelson, Charlie Starr)
Also, although they hit the top of the country charts, this is a band that has a strong rock sound (took part in the Download festival in the UK in 2015) and a real blues feel in “Sunrise in Texas,” among others. BB King’s daughter, Shirley King, once said to us that if you scratch the surface of any great song, you will find the blues. We wondered what the band thought.
Brandon- The blues are absolutely important. Charlie is the main storyteller, and I love his lyrics. He tells these great stories. As far as the blues are concerned, I am the keyboard player and I draw on the blues piano because those stylings really suit our rock n’roll blend and the same is true of Paul’s guitar playing. We love all kinds of different music. We play the blues, and I find the blues ideas and licks to fit well with the music we do. I draw on that to create a part of a song.
This interviewer has a teenage son who is getting into playing the drums and guitar. What advice do the guys have for young people trying to break into the music scene today? How did they get together initially?
Brandon- Paul can speak for the earliest of days. You meet your musical brothers through life, whether in college or work,whatever or the clubs you are in. You see and meet musicians through your joint love of music. My advice is get out there and gig! Blackberry Smoke went out there and did gigs and grew the audience. We tour a place and then that is the key, especially with the way record sales are today. There is so much music out there, you have to get out there and be heard and surround yourself with the people you want to be around. You can be a wonderful person, but if you can’t get along with others, you’re not doing yourself any favors; no one wants a slob on the bus!
So is Paul easy to get along with, then, Brandon?
Brandon- He’s not too bad. The only thing would be the snoring! But I can get on board with that, Paul and I are great road buddies. We find a great place to eat, find a pub, or whatever.
In the digital age, the band has done great, one million streams of their last album, that is damn good going. But it’s harder to convert the downloads into money the same way that vinyl or CDs do.
Brandon- The streaming aspect of it isn’t a problem for me. When I stream music, when I pay for Spotify or whatever, if I love the record, then I have to buy the record on vinyl and hold the physical record. A million streams sounds like a lot, but the money from streaming is not great.
Anyone of an older generation will remember the pleasure of getting hold of a vinyl record and looking at the sleeve, the lyrics, and everything about it.
Brandon- This was the era when you didn’t know much about the band other than what was in the album pullout or maybe what was in the physical printed music press. There was a mystique that doesn’t exist now, and I miss that.
The band has moved into the acoustic scene recently. There is a great video of them performing with Amanda Shires (on violin) that is really worth checking out; it is very smooth. But the band’s music adapts well to being unplugged.
Brandon- She was terrific to work with, there was a great vibe in the studio that day. We did a couple of songs with her.
Paul- We had a couple of guests that day, and we had a great day. She has a great voice, a great memory.
The band has exciting times ahead, they have a new album in the works and a busy time ahead with the tour. So a very active band back then, as it is now. Paul and Brandon both referred to the band and the fans as a community and how the show will be a rock show to look forward to, full of energy and excitement.
By Benny (the Ball) Benson
Mark C. Chambers.
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