Blackberry Smoke’s Brit Turner Interview: Sadness To Salvation

Brit Turner Interview: Sadness To Salvation
By James Calemine                                                      

“Keep your head in the clouds
Keep your hands on the wheel
Keep both feet in place on the ground
Keep your nose to the stone and keep your eyes on the prize
But I’ll keep on keepin’ on ’til the day that I die.
–Blackberry Smoke

     I’ve planned to interview Blackberry Smoke’s Brit Turner for months. Of course, I’ve been familiar and a fan of the Atlanta band since their inception in 2001. I knew it was only a matter of time we’d go on the record. He doesn’t do many interviews. Brit and his brother, Richard, are founding members of the band including Charlie Starr, Paul Jackson, Brandon Still, Benji Shanks and Preston Holcomb. Blackberry Smoke ranks as a rock & roll force.

     Blackberry Smoke has released seven studio albums, two live albums and they count as the only band on an independent label to score a #1 hit on the Billboard Country Music chart. During their ascent, the band has recorded, collaborated, performed and served as friends to artists such as ZZ Top, Gregg Allman, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Hank Williams Jr,. The Black Crowes, Warren Haynes, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Zac Brown, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jamey Johnson, Eric Church and others.

     Their most recent album, You Hear Georgia, suffered from Covid weirdness like every touring band. It’s been a strange two years. However, the group continued writing, working from home and continued raising money to fight children’s cancer. Blackberry Smoke never put a distance between the band and their fans, and they’ve been repaid with a loyal fanbase, not to mention the group’s sheer talent.

     Early in Blackberry Smoke’s career, Brit’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Brit and his wife experienced the lowest feeling any parent can endure. Through the years they achieved and deserved triumphs few artists attain. His daughter now shines as a talented actress in the TV industry. They are heroes of the highest order. The mojo surrounding Blackberry Smoke emanates from hard-work and inherent soul. Let this interview serve as a reminder that there is always someone in the world who has it worse than you. 

     Our interview ran much longer than space allotted–so this serves as the condensed version–long as it is; many great stories Brit told me will be saved for another day. So, we’ll say this is Part One. I must say every story he told me inspired respect. He’s a good guy and a talented individual. We discussed how people can help with the charity, a few stories, the band’s upcoming tour and what’s on the bright horizon for Blackberry Smoke. 

JC: Hey, I wanted to ask you, last week I noticed the bright green car on your Instagram. Is that a Chevelle?

BT: No, that bright green one is a 71 El Camino. But the front looks like a Chevelle. Exact same front end so you were close. I’ve got a bunch of cars. I just bought that the other day as a present for me and my wife’s anniversary on the 25th of February.

JC: Tell me about a couple of your favorite cars.

BT: I’ve got a 62 Vette that my dad bought brand new. That’s the car that made me fall in love with cars. We didn’t ever think we were going to be able to drive it. The joke was he was going to be buried in it. We grew up around it. I’ve got a 65 C10 lowrider truck. When I met my wife she was driving a 59 Chevy. We still have that. Y’know I saw that one picture of yours–that Jesus Saves sign–that’s great. I love that stuff.

JC: Thanks man. You may not remember this but I was writing about Marc Ford, and he was playing in Atlanta–maybe Smith’s Olde Bar–and it was just Marc, his son Elijah and I hanging out backstage and three guys walked in. Nice guys. And when they left, I asked Marc–’They look familiar. Who were those guys? And he said, “Ah, those are my buddies from Blackberry Smoke.” This is 2007…

BT: Yeah! That was Smith’s Olde Bar…

JC: That’s right. And I remember the sad feeling I had hearing the Black Crowes announce “a Tiny Crowe needs help”, which was about your daughter getting sick. That led to your brutal experience that turned into you and your band’s inspirational work to raise money to fight children’s cancer. I even hate to ask how it all transpired.

BT: It was Absolutely heartbreaking. When we were in the hospital with my daughter we saw so much shit it was overwhelming. It was so heavy. You hear that expression there’s always someone who has it worse than you–it’s really so true. We had one child and we lived 3 miles from Egleston Hospital and 10 miles from Scottish Rite Hospital. It happened to be the best place for her protocol. We saw one child out of six from a trailer in Oklahoma and I thought how are their parents going to do this? The Ronald McDonald House is overrun. Where do they stay? Fortunately with some hospitals like St. Jude, you don’t have to pay. Surprisingly enough our insurance held up pretty good throughout the whole thing. It’s definitely not about the money. If your kid gets sick, you’ll fucking rob banks. With children’s hospitals there’s so many people there ready to help. We saw so many people that just a gas card meant so much to them. This whole experience was terrifying. We literally watched children die.

JC: All these evil people running around while a small child is sick with cancer is heartbreaking. Any parent’s worst nightmare…

BT: How it happened was she said her leg was hurting and she was two years old so she couldn’t really articulate what’s going on, but she was holding her thigh. We go get an X-Ray and they say oh she just twisted her knee. I said she’s not holding her knee! I was being an overprotective parent that I’m happy to be. They sent us on our way with an Ace bandage. They said it will get better in a couple of days. A couple days later, she was walking but didn’t want to walk at all. That’s unusual for a 2 year old. So we’re on the road in Europe and my wife calls and says “she’s holding her other leg.” She said “I’m taking her to the doctor and I’m demanding a blood test.” They got the blood test and basically said you have to go to Scottish Rite right now.

The doctors said there’s something very wrong with her blood. She just turned 3 at that point. They said she’s definitely got cancer. We just don’t know what it is yet. So, we had 5 shows left. We were scheduled to play 25 shows in a row without a single night off.

JC: Serious exhaustion…

BT: Yeah, in Europe. In a fucking van. I had to leave. I got on a plane and had 3 stops before I got to the hospital in Georgia. I was like what the fuck is going on here? The only person I ever knew that did anything with children’s cancer was a guy I knew named Kappy. He was a real sweet dude. He knew a bunch of nurses that worked at children’s hospitals and volunteered at Camp Sunshine. I called him and said I needed help. He helped us in many ways in the beginning of her treatment.  Chris Robinson had a friend whose father was a doctor or knew doctors at Sloan Kettering. He put me in touch with someone up there.

The doctors were saying they hoped it was leukemia. It turned out to be much worse.  I’m freaking out. I was trying to figure out what to do. I didn’t know what to do or know how to do it. So I just started talking to doctors. Within 2 or 3 days they all had a sample of her tissue. They communicated so well. They told us we were in the best place. We didn’t need to go anywhere. We could stay in Atlanta. We even had Rickey Medlocke call us from St. Jude, saying he was up there and said, “We’ll help pay for anything you need.” The support from our musical community was amazing.

JC: I can’t imagine as a parent how freaked out your family must have been.

BT: It was heavy. Every day she was blowing these doctors’ minds. She had 6 tubes running in and out of her feet, hands, a port in her heart and she’d be jumping up and down on the bed. I remember one doctor saying “kids jumping on the bed is a big reason they come to the hospital. But, I’m gonna let this one go…”

JC: It’s great she’s okay now.

BT: Yeah man. She kept going and going and beating the odds. Some kids died. Some re-lapsed. She is truly a survivor. 

JC: Her story is inspirational.

BT: So I left the tour with 5 show shows to go, and the fans obviously knew something was wrong. The band played acoustic to finish out the run. Fans started sending hundreds of stuffed animals. The hospital said they’d never seen anything like it. They said you should start a fund. I said I don’t feel comfortable asking for money. It’s such a weird thing to have my hand out. It felt odd.

JC: I feel weird asking people to buy books. I’m not a good self-promoter.

BT: Most real artists aren’t. My friend said you’re gonna get all those stuffed animals that are a waste. You may need the money. He said if you don’t need the money you can give it to the hospital. So, then I was like, ok–here we go. All I could think about was her. And getting past this thing there was like thousands in the account and it was crazy. We ended up not having to use it. So, we gave it to charity–back to the hospital.

We had just changed labels and we used to go out to the merch booth and meet people to increase sales at that time. Then it got crazy and we decided to do a meet and greet. Our label was like you can’t charge for a meet and greet. We decided to charge $25 for two people. First night–there were hundreds of people there. We wanted to give our fans the opportunity to do what they wanted to do and interact. At the same time we weren’t trying to put some big price on it. And we decided–hey, let’s give the money to charity. That’s how it started and everybody was comfortable with that. It’s just weird to charge people for that. Hell, they just paid to get in. We never told people we were doing it for charity in the beginning. We just did it. I see so many bands–no matter what it is–I see them do a PR blast about what they gave. That’s fine if it’s really going there, that’s great but it felt awkward to us to announce such a thing.  We were so new at it but eventually we decided we were  gonna tell them where their money was going. We’ll do a check presentation at one homecoming show and say thank you and here’s what your money did this year. There was this guy that had been coming to our shows. He hit me up the next night when we were out of town playing. He said my name is so and so would you like to go to dinner? I was like, sure. I went to dinner with him and his wife,  he said I had no idea you guys did fundraising for children’s cancer–that’s amazing. I told him the story and he wanted to match our donation. We gave 40k and he said who do I send the check to? Then I realized we need to let people know we are doing this. I think I cried. Pretty sure I cried. 

 JC: People legitimately want to help.

BT: Yeah, and some people have so much money they have to do that stuff. But most of our fans are working class and their money is hard won.  It all happened kind of gradually. It’s not some PR plan behind our business. Hell, we do everything ourselves for the most part. 

JC: Looking from the outside it’s one of the best causes out there.

BT: Right. That’s the thing. If somebody doesn’t know one of our fans will tell them. Back then I felt like there was nothing I could do. I’m not a fucking doctor. I can be there for my family and I can try to bring money in as much as I can. I was spinning my wheels. At the time, I wanted soil sample of my whole fucking property to see if something was causing this. I was going crazy really. Trying to figure it all out and looking for an answer. Then I was going to start a 501c3. A real official charity. The fucking government makes it so complicated I was like fuck this and I just dropped it. We were just going to do these meet and greets and we were going to raise money to help children with cancer. 

JC: Talk about the charity rides a little bit.

BT: Anytime we stay somewhere for 3 or 4 nights we try to do these motorcycle rides for fun and to raise money for the charity. Our fans get into that. None of the other dudes in the band really ride so it’s a fun thing for me and Richard to do together. People like it. We do cool event shirts. People get what they want and they always give extra. It’s fun and people really feel part of it. We’re going to do a big ride on May 22. It’s going to start at New Realm Brewery in Atlanta and it’s gonna end up at the Braves stadium. Then we’re doing one in Maryville, Tennessee, at The Shed. We’ll play three nights there and then the next day we’re gonna ride up the Dragon’s Tail. That’s in June.

JC: You guys have raised about a half a million dollars for children’s cancer.

BT: At least. Documented. One time we bought two monitoring machines for kids that were getting treatment at Vanderbilt Hospital. We gave to Scottish Rite Hospital. We gave to Egleston Hospital. Then we gave to Aflac and Cure Childhood Cancer. Cure is a organization that helped us out the day we stepped into the hospital. 

JC: You don’t get those parts without talent. She’s already done some TV, right?

BT: Yeah man, She was on a show that’s on D.C Comics called Doom Patrol. She played the main character’s younger self. She was in a couple of episodes. Then she was just in two episodes of Sweet Magnolias. It’s a huge production. I hope she gets written into that–the last couple of episodes they kinda leave it open for her to come back. Then she’s going to be in this huge show that we can’t print yet…

JC: She definitely deserves it. That’s so cool. 

BT: She does. She’s good. She loves acting. She’s always wanted to take acting classes and has fun doing it. 

JC: I remember I wrote a review of Little Piece of Dixie–the second record. That seems so long ago.

BT: Back then we were recording in Kennesaw, Georgia, with Jesse Dupree of Jakyl fame producing.  I remember we went on tour with Jakyl slinging our new cd and we almost paid the whole studio bill off in one night. Then we started recording another record, and I put a demo out on MySpace and this Nashville publishing guy named Bruce Burch hit me up and asked if we were interested in being on a label. He asked if he could send these recordings to some producers. Then I got a call from Dan Huff who was a major player in Nashville. He said “I love rock & roll music and what you guys do.” We said.. Let’s try it out. Fuck it. They put us in a room with these songwriters like Aldo Nova. It was pretty hilarious.  They also played us a couple of songs. “Good One Coming On” was one of them. They asked if we would record it, so we did. They played us another song and we were like… is Nashville full of great rock & roll songs? Then after 3 songs it was a floodgate of the stupidest shit you’ve ever heard. At that point, we were like nevermind–we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing. Then Dan Huff said “I want to record your next four albums.” Off we went.. Not in a hurry. 

JC: Back then you guys started playing the Skynyrd cruise…

BT: There’s another crazy Black Crowes intertwining. I always kept in touch with Chris because we are very involved with art for our bands. We’d send each other poster and t-shirt ideas. He has always been very involved with art and design for his groups.  Once, he invited me and my wife to New Orleans because he was throwing a surprise birthday party for his then wife. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band played. It was cool. Chris was being managed by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s manager, Ken, during his New Earth Mud era. We went down for that and my wife and I were sitting with his manager and his wife. Chris just walked by and said “Ken, this is Brit–you should book his band with Skynyrd.”and kept walking.  Then we started getting Skynyrd offers. We did like 9 cruises with them. They were always very sweet to us. Rickey Medlocke married a girl that my wife grew up with in Mississippi. We really had a great time doing those cruises.

JC: So, Blackberry Smoke is hitting the road this week. I think Oklahoma City is the first stop.

BT: Yeah, we go out this week. They’re also adding a bunch of shows.

JC: I’m sure there’s new material you guys have ready. I guess Covid stunted the last record and tour cycle. Hell, everybody’s last project got killed by Covid.

BT: We definitely have some songs. We have scraps of songs. Charlie is putting together material now. He’s basically the chief songwriter. It’s funny because each record we had more than enough songs. We scrap pretty good songs. So, we have more than enough songs for the next record.

JC: It’s been an eerie last 3 years…

BT: Yeah, we never really got a chance to tour the Georgia record. The UK was canceled. Any thoughts of going overseas at all were out. Things were canceled and rescheduled. We ended up doing the whole Spirit of the South tour, which was supposed to be right before the Georgia record was released. So everything was very awkward how it landed. It’s not like any song is going to be pushed on the radio like Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart” or something. It’s like the song-tour cycle was disrupted.

JC: You guys are touring Canada in the spring so that’s encouraging.

BT: Exactly. We went to do a tour of Canada in 2020, and we got set up for the third or fourth show and the news blasted that they were about to close the borders. We got on the bus and went straight to the airport to get on a plane. Ironically, the name of the theater was the Corona Theater. We were like what the fuck is going on? Then we heard that we should give it two or three weeks. Then it’s a year. If there was a band that probably needed a break it was us. Not for any reason other than exhaustion. Even some of our fans were like “we love the opportunity to see you guys, but don’t y’all ever go home?” Or “hey, ‘you guys look exhausted”.

So, we’re going out and they’re trying to connect dots on this run. At this point we all just want to go out and play. We paid our salaried crew during the first Covid shut down. That was hard but we slept better at night. 

JC: Tell me about recording with George Jones.

BT: Oh, man. Charlie suggested we record this song. He said, “Let’s get Jamey Johnson to sing on it”. It was cool. George and Nancy were opening “The Possum Inn”. We called and said we wanted to record his song, and they were like what do you think about George singing on it? We laughed. We thought they were kidding. So, we get there. And there’s this dude deep frying two turkeys. And we were like who’s that for? They said, that’s all George wanted to do the session. We were like you’re fucking kidding. So, we set up. We didn’t want to wait until he got there and make him wait. So we laid the song down. Jamey came in. The producer was like Jamey “you’ll sing that part, Charlie will sing that part and George will sing that part.” Jamey was like, “George?” And he was like, “yeah George Jones will be here”. Jamey said, “George Fucking Jones is going to be here?” We just knocked it out. When George arrived the first thing he said was, “goddamn this is the way country music should sound.” That to me was it. I told my wife you’re not gonna believe this; she has a huge country music collection from her parents–and her Mom. It really hit them when I played the song for them.

JC: Did they say, “I think this music thing is gonna work out for our son in law?’” (collective laughter)

BT: That’s spot on. I just saw how they looked at me changed. Instead of “she married a guy in a band from Atlanta”–and they love me and I love them–but you could see the respect level go up. Then George asked Charlie to sit in with him at the Ryman. Hell, we played George’s 80th birthday party at The Opry!

JC: I mean, c’mon. Playing the Possum’s 80th birthday party speaks for itself. Tell me what else is coming up…

BT: Well, for years, this Caffeine & Octane TV show has been wanting me to go on. I’ve had several cars over the years. By that time, I put all my cars in storage and or up for sale. Caffeine and Octane said they wanted to film me pulling into our annual Homecoming Show in Atlanta and do a little piece.  When I went to pick up one of the cars, the guy was writing up a bill of sale for my C10. I figured if I over-priced them no one would buy them and I could still store them. My Camaro had also sold. So, I ended up driving my wife’s car over there. There’s a funny bit in the show where the guy is like, “Is that your wife’s car?”–heh heh. So that’s coming out pretty soon…

JC: Before I let you go, tell me that Willie Nelson story you mentioned earlier…

BT: So, we’re playing New Year’s Eve in Austin–holy ground there. We’re obviously huge Willie fans. So, at some point our tour manager was like I’m going to try to get a picture of him with you guys. So, later their tour manager was like ‘he’s going to be coming up this elevator to go onstage. So, just stand here–don’t strike up a conversation and he’ll do a photo’. And we were like okay, whatever.

So, Willie came up and said, ‘Where y’all from?’ We said Atlanta. And Willie goes, ‘Ah, I love Atlanta.’ He said ‘I loved Alex Cooley from Atlanta’. Alex was a big promoter in Atlanta that I worked for years earlier. He wanted to talk, and I see his tour manager just looking at us and his watch…

JC ‘:…I said no striking up a conversation…’

BT: Right! So, Willie says, ‘y’all know Roger Miller’ We were like yeah, we know who he is. And Willie said, ‘he was in Nashville on a car lot and the salesman came out and says are you thinking about buying a car?’ And Willie goes, Roger said–’I’m thinking about pussy. I’m definitely buying a car!’ And then Willie walked out onstage…

JC: Ol’ Willie never disappoints. Man, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me…

BT: Thank you, man. Talk to you soon.

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