would rather talk about Howlin’ Wolf than Mark Knopfler.
Both men figure on Bramblett’s new record, Devil Music
—the bluesman in spirit, the Dire Straits guitarist as a guest on the dire swamp rocker “Dead in the Water.”
Bramblett would be well within his rights to casually mention the presence of Knopfler. But the subject Bramblett keeps returning to, in conversation and on record, is the primordial sound of the old blues players.
“Just the power of it, the roughness of it,” he says, marveling. “It’s also got a certain sadness that’s appealing to me. Maybe it’s just from going through stuff I’ve gone through as an adult, but I can relate to this stuff now. I haven’t suffered like these guys did, except in my own mind.”
Bramblett was born to play. As a four-year-old in southeastern Georgia, he taught himself piano. His dad built extensions so the boy’s feet could reach the pedals. Soon, Bob Dylan and the folk revival at large inspired him to take up guitar. In eighth grade, having also learned tenor sax, Bramblett was getting paid to play. His first band, King David & the Slaves, adhered strictly to an all-black-music repertoire. As he recalls the band’s influences, it comes out with musical cadence, like a song lyric or dropped rhyme.
“Memphis and Muscle Shoals music, and Motown, too, those things were the heart of the music that we loved. And James Brown—Otis and James … Ray Charles
,” he says. “We just didn’t hear anything that could even compare to it.”
He and his bandmates may not have been unique in their repertoire, but their version of the music that moved them was a cut above that of their peers. Still, as a high school senior (now proficient on three instruments and beginning to write his first songs), Bramblett had no plans to make a life of music. He enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill, studied psychology and religion and continued playing in bands.
He and his pals would drive to Mississippi for a weekend gig, but come Monday morning, he would be back in class. Bramblett strongly considered pursuing a divinity degree at Harvard, but a high draft-card number made it unlikely that he would be called to serve in Vietnam, freeing him up to follow a path of his own making.
“I wrote Harvard a letter saying I think I can study religion better if I’m a songwriter and musician,” he remembers. “And they said, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ It was a different time then.”
Bramblett headed back to Georgia, this time to Athens and its burgeoning club scene, where he began writing and playing full-time. Concurrently, he developed a love for the craft of building a song in the studio. He started to recognize what had been evident to others.
“People always said I didn’t think enough of myself, but I never really thought I was gonna be a professional musician, certainly not a songwriter, until I guess my mid-20s,” he says. “That's when I started thinking maybe, maybe I could actually make a living doing this.”
His initial foray into the big leagues was as a member of Cowboy, a vehicle for songwriters Scott Boyer and Tommy Talton and the de facto house band for Macon’s Capricorn Records in the ’70s. Bramblett joined in 1973 and was a busy session musician, playing on records by the likes of Gregg Allman, Elvin Bishop and the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Meanwhile, he kept writing, and the songs kept getting better. He landed a record deal with Polydor in 1975 and, supported by fellow studio musicians, made two of his own albums. Rolling Stone
called 1976’s Light of the Night
“one of the classic Southern albums of the ’70s” and praised Bramblett’s “incredibly subtle songwriting.” But the record failed to sell, and Bramblett’s record deal died a quiet death. He had little to show for his solo career, save a couple of glowing reviews.
Somewhere in the midst of the solo career that didn’t take off, Gregg Allman called and asked him to play horns on a tour. Times were lean, so Bramblett was willing to embrace the role of sideman. By 1977, though, he joined the roots-and-jazz hybrid Sea Level. He was contributing songs and influencing the band’s direction this time. By the turn of the decade, Sea Level had run its course, but Bramblett toured with Levon Helm and worked on the Carny soundtrack
with Robbie Robertson. He had righted himself professionally, but he was in trouble otherwise.
“Things had been going downhill for years,” he says. “I’d lost myself somewhere in there, years before I ended up getting sober. I was at a point where I had to change, or I wasn’t going to make it.”
The pull of family became critical. He entered rehabilitation in 1983, and when he did, he let go of music. For three years or so, he wrote nothing. With help from The Artist’s Way
, a recovery-themed guide to creativity, he started slowly, writing every day—music or just words—and not judging it: “That’s what they say: If it’s supposed to come back, it will.”
In the meantime, he got a job—his first outside of music—watering plants in office buildings. When that proved too boring, he went back to school, earned a graduate degree in social work and contemplated life as a psychologist and
musician. Music won out. In 1990, Steve Winwood asked him to join him on tour. Bramblett agreed, but first he had to scramble to find a saxophone and get his lip in shape. It had been that long.
Another decade would pass before Bramblett went full-on solo again, reemerging in 2001 with No More Mr. Lucky
on New West. It was the first music he made sober. The record didn’t make much of a splash initially, but when Bonnie Raitt covered the haunting “God Was in the Water,” it seemed to announce that Bramblett was indeed back.
“It may not have the craziness of writing on drugs, or alcohol, the abandon you can sometimes get to,” Bramblett says, “but it has an authenticity now that I wouldn't trade for anything.”
So, what would it take for Bramblett, more than a decade later, to play to audiences larger than the typical 100–200 people? A Springsteen cover? A breakout performance on The Late Show
like Future Islands? (Not likely, as Bramblett is not much of a dancer.) The more realistic platform is cable TV. After all, Bramblett’s sweet spot is writing the kind of dire-sounding swamp blues songs that have become de rigeur for series such as The Sopranos
, The Wire
and True Detective
. The fact is, were “Dead in the Water” to be picked up by a TV series, his life may change radically.
“We might could get a new van, then, you know? Wouldn’t have to worry about breaking down,” he says with a laugh. “But yeah, everybody says that: ‘You need to get into some kind of advertising theme or a movie theme or an HBO theme.’ But it’s not like that’s a new thought. Everybody’s trying to do that.”
As he gears up to tour behind Devil Music
, Bramblett’s not really thinking about monetizing his assets. He’s thinking about the logistics of playing this new crop of songs on the road. And he’s thinking beyond that, about the fact that pretty soon he’ll have to get out of performance mode and into receptive mode because he’ll need some new songs. Bramblett’s not the type who can just wake up with a song in his head.
“Everything is humbling these days,” he says. “Getting older, not selling many records, not having a huge crowd of people come see you: all that stuff is humbling. But I know I’m making good music.”
The Randall Bramblett Band plays Southland Ballroom Saturday, Sept. 26, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15–$18.