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In Nashville, it all starts with a song. So what happens if you take three songwriters with a gift for live performance, put them on a stage with one of the best drummers in town, and turn the speakers to 11? Crank up “Why God Made Summertime,” the new single from Nashville-based quartet Blackjack Billy, and there’s your answer.
After gaining widespread exposure thanks to 2013’s breakout hit “The Booze Cruise,” these grassroots heroes are bringing their trademark “Redneck Rock” sound back to the airwaves with “Summertime,” launched May 5 with a two-week exclusive on SiriusXM The Highway – where “Booze Cruise” made its mark, selling hundreds of thousands of copies to that station’s fervent fans. It was hard-earned yet unexpected success, and with “Summertime” – an anthemic tribute to the glories of warmer weather, released by new label Reviver Records and headed to terrestrial radio later this month – the four members of Blackjack Billy are looking to capture lightning in a bottle for the second time.
Hey, if anyone can do it, it’s this charismatic foursome. After all, you could say the band itself was born out of a stroke of fate. The members of Blackjack Billy hail from different parts of the country, and each brings his unique background and influences to the table: Vocalist Noll Billings is from the boot-heel of Missouri, while bassist/vocalist Rob Blackledge is a Mississippi boy. Jeff Coplan, a guitarist who also handles production duties, is a Canadian who migrated to New York City. Only drummer Brad Cummings was born and raised in Music City. “One thing I love about being in this band is playing around with our musical diversity,” says Blackledge. “The first time all four of us were in the studio together, it was immediate magic.” Billings emphasizes that the diversity stands in service to a common goal: “At the end of the day we love country music, and that’s what we set out to do.”
Blackledge, Billings, and Coplan moved to Nashville as songwriters – “for the love of lyrics and melodies,” as Blackledge puts it – and they were soon pulled towards one another in the town’s tight-knit music community. Coplan, the New Yorker, was especially inspired by the collaborative spirit of Music Row, coming as he did from the “dog-eat-dog world” of Manhattan. He started building his community, eventually producing Love & Theft’s first album, and writing their No. 1 hit “Angel Eyes.” Through that duo, he first met Blackledge, who co-wrote LNT’s first single, “Runaway”; meanwhile, he and Billings shared a publisher, EMI. Ultimately, Coplan says, collaborating as a trio just felt natural. “This whole town is based on co-writes and relationships,” he explains. “I thought the three of us should get together to write, and we hit it off.” But as great as their songwriting chemistry might have been, it was the musical chemistry in the room that brought Blackjack Billy to life. “Noll and Rob are both great singers on their own, but when I heard them singing together for the first time I thought, ‘Wow, this is killer,’” Coplan remembers.
The trio decided to showcase their original tunes on stage at the Basement in Nashville, bringing in hired sidemen to fill out their sound – which can range from the Rolling Stones to Alabama to AC/DC at any given moment. The reaction to the energy of that live show was so strong, the three friends suddenly realized they needed a more permanent solution. Drummer Cummings – a Hendersonville, TN native who learned at the feet of his uncle, a touring and session musician – came recommended by another member of their same tight-knit community. The first time he sat in with the trio, Billings remembers thinking, “This is it. This is the crew.” The band had to go to Key West the next day for seven shows, and Cummings didn’t know much of the set list. But he learned the songs – all the songs – on that drive to Florida, and the rest, as they say is history… in the making.
With “Why God Made Summertime,” country music fans who had these guys pigeonholed as just another party band will be pleasantly surprised. “We’ve grown a lot since we released ‘The Booze Cruise’ two years ago,” says Blackledge. “We were fortunate to be given so many opportunities because of that song, and now I believe ‘Summertime’ shows a little insight into another side of our band.” Coplan agrees. “We definitely do enjoy a good booze cruise,” he laughs, “but summertime is so much more than that.” With its imagery of baseball games and tire swings, barbecue grills and lazy weekend afternoons, the track takes the listener through the vacation months with imagery that’s so evocative, you can already see the music video in your head. “There’s just no better time of year,” Blackledge says, then elaborates in the words of a born songwriter. “As soon as the mercury breaks 75, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than on the back porch at Grandad’s house, watching the sun go down while we grill up some fresh-caught fish. Or getting up early and heading to the ballpark for a doubleheader, then wrapping up the night down by the lake with friends.” In other words, the song works – because these guys have lived it.
Lightning in a bottle: it implies a certain amount of luck… but luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. The indie success of “The Booze Cruise” is proof that Blackjack Billy may sing about the weekend, but they’re all business as musicians. From writing the songs to producing their own record, playing their own instruments in the studio, and even driving their own bus to the hundreds of must-see live shows they perform every year, this self-sufficient band of brothers is sticking to the goals that brought them together in the first place. The first step, says Coplan, is simple: “We try to write the best country songs we can.” But equally as important, says Blackledge, is keeping some perspective. “I think in this business, you’re either quitting, or the future looks bright,” he says. “In Nashville, when you’re just having fun playing your music, that’s when the really good stuff happens.”
Now give “Summertime” another spin, and ask yourself one more question: Who’s having more fun than these guys?