We took Blackberry Smoke record shopping and this is what happened

Blackberry Smoke holding records
(Image credit: Heidi Ross)

Grimey’s Music is more than just Nashville’s best-loved record shop. Since 2004 it’s been the busy hub for all that’s hip in Music City, with a selection of more than 9,000 new and re-loved vinyl LPs, a friendly, knowledgable staff, in-store shows by everyone from the Black Keys to Mumford & Sons to Metallica, and an intimate downstairs music venue, The Basement, that plays host to local and national acts every week.

Standing among the album racks near the Bs, with one hand resting covetously on David Bowie’s Who Can I Be Now? box set, Brit Turner says: “When we find a good indie record store like this we’ll always come back when we’re on tour.”

On a warm October afternoon, the soft-spoken Blackberry Smoke drummer, all bushy beard and sunglasses, is here with his four bandmates to play a special acoustic show to promote their latest record, Like An Arrow. With an hour before soundcheck and a record-buying stipend of $75 from Classic Rock, the guys pursue their respective vinyl quests to all corners of the shop.

“I’ve been digging deep into the Bowie thing on vinyl lately,” says Brit’s brother Richard, also eyeing the new box set. “It’s great when you start to find out who the musicians were and how they made these records. Bowie would just sort of hum along, banging on his twelve-string, and give the band such liberty to create their parts. And a lot of times they captured the first or second take, before they’d really even learned the tunes. I think it influenced us a bit on the new album, which is self-produced. You know, you can definitely overthink a great song right out of your ears.”

The Turner brothers were record buyers from a young age. “Our record store growing up in Atlanta was Wax ’n’ Facts,” Brit remembers.

“Also, we had Turtles, a southern chain,” Richard adds.

Happy shoppers: Blackberry Smoke are all fans of vinyl

Happy shoppers: Blackberry Smoke are all fans of vinyl (Image credit: Heidi Ross)

“Yeah, that’s where everybody camped out for concert tickets,” Brit continues with a smile. “They had a good, well-lit parking lot where our parents allowed us to sleep in the Volkswagen van. Back then everybody bought vinyl, of course, but today that’s what we look for, because it sounds better and you can appreciate all the artwork and detail. And we get some help with collecting these days, because a lot of our fans bring us records as gifts.”

Richard, the group’s giraffe-tall bassist, dressed in overalls, tye-dye shirt and a Homburg with a matchstick stuck in the hatband, moves to the R&B section, gathering up classic albums Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On and Parliament Funkadelic’s Mothership Connection and The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein.

“There’s so much stuff that’s being reissued, but I don’t care if it’s the original issue or not,” he says. “What matters to me is the music and the experience of listening to vinyl. I like getting up every fifteen-to-twenty minutes and flipping a record over. It’s almost like being ten years old again.”

When Richard was 10 he was mostly digging into his father’s huge big-band collection. “My dad played saxophone, and most of the people on his side of the family were involved in music. My uncle Ben was the director for Holiday On Ice. There was so much precision timing with instruments complementing the moves on the ice. It gave me great respect for performance and interplay. But as Brit and I started buying our own albums, my dad said: ‘We need to get them their own turntable and put it in the basement, because they’re not playing a Led Zeppelin record up here in the living room.’

“My dad and uncle passed before we really got Blackberry Smoke together,” he says wistfully. “There were years of struggle. ‘When you gonna get a job?’ At one point I quit and worked for AT&T. I made great money, but I wasn’t happy. I had people around me who were about to retire, one foot in the grave, and they seemed miserable. I didn’t want to become one of them. Then I got the opportunity to play some more, and never went back to that job. But my parents would’ve freaked out at the struggles we went through in this band. And then, after they’re gone, we suddenly break.”

“Ooh, look at this!” Brit Turner thinks he’s struck gold

“Ooh, look at this!” Brit Turner thinks he’s struck gold (Image credit: Heidi Ross)

The father-son theme continues as I catch guitarist Paul Jackson flipping through the ‘T’s to show me the first album he ever bought – Triumph’s Allied Forces. “I grew up in Pensacola, Florida, and I bought it at the Humane Society, of all places,” he says. “It was across from the fire station. My dad was a firefighter. He gave me a dollar, and I went and bought this for ten cents. I got it because of the metal Flying V on the cover. But it’s a great record too.

“To me, record stores mean that people still consider how great music sounds on vinyl. When everybody was getting back into the craze, I was like: ‘Eh, I don’t know.’ But then I got my turntable and receiver, and I thought: ‘I get it.’ My twelve-year old boy has been getting into vinyl too. The first record he bought was Zeppelin II. And my seven-year old picked up Black Sabbath out of nowhere. He asked me the other day if we could listen to Planet Caravan, and I was like: ‘Wait! Where did you hear that?’ And it’s from a video game. He knows all the words. It’s crazy.”

“Hey Paul…” Brandon Still, the group’s baby-faced keyboardist and resident extrovert, is holding up a reissue of the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St. “I need a new one,” he says with a smile. “I wore out my old one.” He says this is an “important record” for the band, one they’re all united in their love for. “You just can’t go wrong with it. If you have company over, put it on and everybody’s going to be happy. People who don’t really know the Stones will say: ‘What is this? It’s really good.’ I have a young roommate and live in a part of town where there are folks a lot younger than me, so I have to kind of educate them.”

Still started buying albums while growing up in South Carolina in the early 90s, when vinyl was out of style and could be had for a dollar. “But the albums connected me to older music,” he says. “The artwork, the sound. They took me back in time, whether it was the Stones or Zappa.” Then he smiles and says: “And you could roll your joints on them. The first records that really changed my world were Dark Side Of The Moon and Paranoid. But I also really loved Yes. I remember buying Yessongs. I saw that artwork, and thought: ‘This has to be good!’ But I learned too that just because an album has cool art doesn’t mean it’s gonna be good. Those other bands that Roger Dean designed for were not always as good as Yes.”

Lead singer and guitarist Charlie Starr is nearby, chatting with a female fan who drove four hours from Georgia to see tonight’s show. She asks him: “Will you please play Up The Road? I’ll be at the next two shows, and that’s my favorite song. Of all the times I’ve been to hear you, I’ve never heard it.”

“Sure, no problem. We’ll do it either in Chattanooga or Memphis.”

“Thank you so much, Charlie!”

This brief exchange shows the easy rapport the band has with its fans, affectionately known as the Brothers and Sisters. And, like a family, they are supportive in the old-school traditional way of 1970s-era rock fans – buying vinyl, going to shows, sharing stories, photos and live recordings. A week after this interview, Like An Arrow debuted at No.1 on the Billboard Country chart (No.12 on the overall album chart), unseating radio titan Jason Aldean. That feat is even more amazing when you consider that country radio doesn’t even play Blackberry Smoke, and this is their second No.1 country album, after Holding All The Roses. “Our fans are the ones who make the record number one, not a program director,” Charlie says. “Those are the people that go out and spend their hard-earned money to buy a record.” All of this support has spread to the UK, where the band regularly sell out large theaters, and recently appeared on Later With… Jools Holland.

“We’ve built our audience one fan at a time,” says Brit. “And we’re always amazed by how passionate they are.”

A few of the Brothers and Sisters are in Grimey’s, waiting for their moment to say hi, ask a question or maybe grab a pic.

And speaking of Brothers and Sisters, Gregg Allman sang on Free On The Wing on Like An Arrow. “When we were tracking it, it sounded like it would be perfect for Gregg,” says Charlie. “Which may sound ridiculous, but we had become friendly with him over the years, doing some shows together. So really, it was just asking: ‘Would you sing on it?’ And he said yes. There was no red tape. He did ask to hear the song first, probably to make sure it wasn’t a metal song or something. But it was surreal hearing that voice through the headphones.”

Blackberry Smoke’s thoughtful frontman, clad in denim and beads, reminisces about Nader’s Music, where he grew up in Alabama. “It was owned by two brothers,” Charlie says. “They had mostly blues and R&B, but that was okay with me. When I was about fourteen I bought Van Halen’s 1984. But there was also this Mississippi Fred McDowell blues record. I thought it looked so cool, just the cover – it’s got a picture of him holding a resonator guitar, and he’s got sunglasses on. I was drawn to that record. I still have it. But the Nader brothers were really cool to me when I was a kid, because they sold instruments as well, and I’d go in and bang around on guitars. I might not be here if it wasn’t for them.”

As Charlie and his bandmates gather at the shop’s front register, they show each other their vinyl choices, then head out to the tour bus to drop them off before soundcheck.

“Some days there’s just vinyl all over the bus,” Paul Jackson says, laughing. “We have to keep it out of harm’s way.”

“We always joke that with music there’s only two categories: good and bad,” says Richard Turner, with a smile. “I think every record we got today definitely falls in the first category.”

Blackberry Smoke tour the UK from March 27 – April 8. For details visit blackberrysmoke.com

Five Senses

How Blackberry Smoke spent Their $75 Record Shop Budget

“It’s so easy to go on Discogs or Amazon and find anything you want,” says Charlie Starr. “But that doesn’t have the same joy of being in a record store.” Blackberry Smoke definitely found their joy at Grimey’s.

Paul Jackson (guitar) - Metallica – And Justice For All (1988)

When they recorded it, Lars made them turn the bass down. It’s insane, it’s almost non-existent. They blamed it on the producer, but it was Lars trying to get his drums way out front. I wish they’d remaster it, but it’s still a great record.

Brit Turner (drums) - Wings – Venus & Mars (1975)

This is a record I grew up loving, and really the beginning of the whole album experience for me – just putting it on, opening up the gatefold and staring at the picture of them in the desert.

Brandon Still (keyboards) - Cheap Trick – Heaven Tonight (1978)

It’s one of their best, just great from start to finish. But I’m particularly fond of the title track.And we cover California Man in the band every once in a while. We met Cheap Trick recently, and they were so cool and friendly.

Richard Turner (bass) - Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971)

A magic record. The songs, and the arrangements, so dense and amazing. And it has James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt, my two favourite bass players of all time.

Charlie Starr (vocals/guitar) - The Grateful Dead – Live At Cornell bootleg (1977)

This might be the best show the Dead ever played. It’s a bootleg but it sounds fantastic. It’s fiery. Also, they edited out all the tuning and silence in between songs.

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Bill DeMain

Bill DeMain is a correspondent for BBC Glasgow, a regular contributor to MOJO, Classic Rock and Mental Floss, and the author of six books, including the best-selling Sgt. Pepper At 50. He is also an acclaimed musician and songwriter who's written for artists including Marshall Crenshaw, Teddy Thompson and Kim Richey. His songs have appeared in TV shows such as Private Practice and Sons of Anarchy. In 2013, he started Walkin' Nashville, a music history tour that's been the #1 rated activity on Trip Advisor. An avid bird-watcher, he also makes bird cards and prints.