Opening act coming up aces

URBANA — An experienced group of songwriters, the members of Blackjack Billy are back on the performing side, with a big hit in "Booze Cruise" and a new one in "Blood, Sweat and Beer."

They will be playing at 7 p.m. Friday at the Champaign County Fairgrounds to kick off the fair.

Rob Blackledge sings and plays bass or guitar in the band, and lives in Nashville. He just bought a new bass and is like a kid with a toy, he says.

All the members of Blackjack Billy are veterans of the music scene.

Blackledge thinks he remembers playing in Champaign-Urbana and likes the town but can't remember what band he was in then to save his life.

Originally from Mississippi, he toured as a solo artist while attending music school in Nashville. He co-wrote Love & Theft's single "Runaway," which reached No. 10 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.

Singer Noll Billings, originally from Missouri, signed a publishing deal as a songwriter with EMI Music Group while he was a solo artist.

Montreal's Jeff Coplan, the lead guitar player, has produced or engineered projects for Bowling for Soup, Love and Theft and Tim Hicks. He co-wrote "Angel Eyes" for Love and Theft.

"Once upon a time them boys started jammin' and God looked down and said, 'It is good,' " is the band's motto.

The name comes from Coplan.

On their charts, "he'd always write Blackledge and Billings," Blackledge says. Then he combined them.

"That's a terrible name!" Blackledge responded.

"Well, I already told everyone that was the name," Coplan said.

With three songwriters and years of experience, Blackledge and Billings share lead vocals.

Joined with drummer Brad Cummings and Patrick Cornell on bass, Blackjack Billy has a unique sound.

And touring about 150 dates this year, they're pretty cohesive, Blackledge says.

"One of the keys to our band is that, enjoying what we do so much, we actually like each other," he says. "You hear horror stories about some other bands, but we're a bunch of pirates all on the same ship."

The "Booze Cruise" hit is an example of how different members bring their skills together in an almost goof-offy way.

On a steamy summer day, Billings said that a fun way to spend that day would be to get on a booze cruise. The hit was put together in less than an hour.

Billings sings most of the leads.

"I have a natural ear for harmonies, but I'm not a frontman by personality," Blackledge says. "It doesn't bother me to sit back and play bass and sing harmony."

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