Brit Turner, Blackberry Smoke drummer, dies from cancer

Georgia rockers had just released new album
Blackberry Smoke drummer Brit Turner, was a driving force not only in the music of Georgia rock band Blackberry Smoke. He was also a driving force in the band's success. He died this month from cancer.

Credit: Andy Sapp

Credit: Andy Sapp

Blackberry Smoke drummer Brit Turner, was a driving force not only in the music of Georgia rock band Blackberry Smoke. He was also a driving force in the band's success. He died this month from cancer.

After bandmate Benji Shanks recounted to Blackberry Smoke drummer Brit Turner the misery of showing up late and short-handed for a recent, rainy cruise performance, Turner leaned forward and whispered with a smile: “(expletive) crew. Can you believe them?”

Turner, off the tour and less than three weeks away from death, could still crack a joke. The founding member of the Southern rock band died March 3 after battling glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, for nearly two years. The 57-year-old Atlanta musician left behind fans and a line of musicians he had befriended and mentored, as well as his wife, Shannon, and daughter, Lana. Turner’s brother, Richard, plays bass for Blackberry Smoke.

Turner was described by bandmates and friends as a highly creative musician and artist, a shrewd businessman, and a nonconformist with no pretense. He had a unique sense of style and a sharp sense of humor.

Zac Brown Band guitarist Coy Bowles called Turner “the king of cool.”

Friends also described Turner, who played on a little kit, as an authoritative drummer with a heavy metal background and as Blackberry Smoke’s indisputable leader.

Charlie Starr, the band’s lead singer, said Turner “was the most driven human I’ve ever met.” Preston Holcomb, the percussionist, said Turner was an extraordinarily generous “genius” who, according to Holcomb’s wife, could “print money.”

“People like myself grew up such loudmouth extroverts. All the obnoxious things that I said, did, or fashion choices that I regret like you would a high school yearbook photo, he never made me feel like a jackass for being that way,” said Grammy-nominated producer, songwriter and musician Butch Walker. He met Turner in his early 20s and eventually owned a recording studio next door to Turner’s. business. “And he never was that way. He just always has been mellow and cool. That’s how he vibrated through life,” he said,

Turner, a Michigan native who grew up in Smyrna, formed Blackberry Smoke with his brother, Starr and guitarist Paul Jackson in 2000. The band, which added keyboardist Brandon Still in 2009, released two studio albums and an EP before reaching the Top 40 of the Billboard 200 with “The Whippoorwill” in 2012. The band’s 2015 album, “Holding all the Roses,” climbed to the top of the Billboard Country Album chart, making Blackberry Smoke the first small, independent act to do so.

Blackberry Smoke energized the crowd for a 2020  show in the parking lot of Ameris Bank Amphitheatre in Alpharetta. This was part of the "Live From the Drive-In" concert series produced by Live Nation. Photo: Robb Cohen for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Robb Cohen for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Robb Cohen for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Walker called Blackberry Smoke’s rise a “Cinderella story.” The band built a fan base playing in bars in front of a handful of patrons and rose to performing sold-out shows at the Fox Theatre and the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

“And they did it without ever conforming to the norm, never swaying from their course musically, without the help of disposable pop radio songs or anything like that,” Walker said. “And you got to hand the lion’s share of that to Brit Turner for keeping the vision.”

In a 2017 interview with Echoes And Dust, a digital music publication, Turner said: “People say, a lot of times, ‘Hey, I really love it that you guys did it your way!’ I said, ‘Well, we had no other choice, there were no other options!”

Turner was so hands-on with the band that he designed all of Blackberry Smoke’s album covers and its merchandise. A graphic designer, Turner who’d run a T-shirt business, founded Merch Mountain, a Scottdale-based company, that sells everything from art to guitar pedals to rare collectibles.

“He always had an idea going for something, whether it was for the band, for art, or for a product for another band or just all kinds of stuff,” said Holcomb. “He was a very smart guy.”

When his daughter was struck with cancer as a toddler, Turner created the Lana Turner Foundation, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars through a variety of charitable events. The nonprofit’s work still continues even though his daughter has long been cancer-free.

Helping other people spilled into his business and musical endeavors. In 2018, when the band was seeking to beef up its sound, he turned to Holcomb, a fellow alumnus of Campbell High School, to round out the rhythm section during tours. The group also enlisted Shanks. Holcomb and Shanks became permanent members of the band in 2021.

Holcomb said he was working in a picture framing shop when Turner asked him to join the band and work for his company.

“Because of all that, it allowed me to be able to buy the house that I’m living in,” said Holcomb as he held back tears. “There are just all kinds of things he ended up doing that were positive for me by being my friend. And there’s countless other people he affected the exact same way.”

On February 16, two days after Turner’s 57th birthday and Shanks’ last visit with him, Blackberry Smoke released “Be Right Here,” the drummer’s last album. The record jumped to number one on Billboard’s Americana/Folk Albums, Current Country, and Current Rock Albums charts, as well as number four for Best-Selling Current Albums. The album was recorded after Turner had suffered a heart attack but before his cancer diagnosis.

“It seemed like these sessions were a little more precious, because he was still with us,” Starr said. “And when I listen to it now, I’m like, geez, this might be his best drumming. It’s our eighth album, and like, he saved the best for last.”