There were a few years there when Randall Bramblett’s name was certain to be added to the list of great Southern musicians who crashed and burned at the intersection of Drugs and Alcohol.
After a couple of critically–worshipped solo albums in the ‘70, a high–profile gig with Gregg Allman and a lengthy stint in the great, Georgia–based jazz/rock band Sea Level, he seemed to disappear.
Bramblett is a soulful vocalist with a silky but road–weary voice that lends a letter–perfect R&B flavor to rock ‘n’ roll. He’s also a delightfully literary lyricist, a guitarist, a saxophonist and a masterful keyboard player.
With a four–piece band, the Jesup native – and current resident of Athens – will perform at Loco’s Friday, May 28.
It took British rock legend Steve Winwood, of all people, to bring him back to the spotlight after he’d all but killed himself. Starting in the early 1990s, Bramblett played in Winwood’s road band – a gig that lasted more than a decade – and was the onstage utility man for the 1994 Traffic reunion tour, with Winwood and Jim Capaldi.
The other founding member of Traffic, Chris Wood, had died of the very abuses that would later sideline Bramblett.)
That, as Bramblett explains in this interview, was the begin of a career renaissance, of what he calls his “second life.”
He’s since played with Levon Helm, Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic, the Allman Brothers Band and Bonnie Raitt. Frequently, he collaborates with his old Sea Level buddy, Chuck Leavell.
Although he still records and tours with a big, funky band, Bramblett’s current project showcases his words, and melodies, and that priceless singing voice.
The CD, The Meantime, features Bramblett on piano, with a standup bass and a drummer. And that’s it.
Once an artist, always an artist.
This record is something of a departure for you. How did it come about?
Randall Bramblett: It really just came naturally. I was working in a studio, and just happened to be playing the grand piano, and things just started coming to me.
I had met this upright bass player – we’d actually been playing together some – and that kind of opened the door, because this relies on an upright bass and a drummer that can do that brushes thing, and that sizzle–cymbal thing.
Did you think ‘Are people ready for this?”
Randall Bramblett: Yeah, there was a question of, will the fans be disappointed because it’s not a guitar record, or there’s no saxophone on it? But I just went with it, because it felt right to me. I’ve been doing band stuff for so many years, a pretty strong and powerful sound, and this felt like a resting place kind of thing, you know? Where I could just let the melodies flow and not worry about whether the songs were too nice, or too romantic, or not edgy enough.
Is it good, after all these years, to be able to make whatever sort of left turn you choose?
Randall Bramblett: Well, that’s the nice thing about not selling a lot of records – you can do whatever you want to! When you start selling hundreds of thousands or millions of records, the record company gets real involved, and so do many other people. I can’t even imagine the pressure that’s on people who have successful records to follow up. Me, I’m kind of under the radar.
I feel like I have to write songs. I can’t just rely on what I’ve done in the past. I’ve got to keep writing and pushing the envelope a little bit. This record, even though it’s more standard in a way, pushed the envelope for me.
You are, in every sense of the word, a survivor. Both commercially and personally. Do you ever sort of feel lucky to still be doing this?
Randall Bramblett: Oh, yeah, all the time. I could have been dead easily, the way I was living back in the rock ‘n’ roll days. And luckily, or whatever, I got straightened out – and started a new life, really. Music really came back to me later.
I had to drop out of music for a while, just to get straight. I went back to school and got my Masters in social work. I was doing some counseling. I kinda figured well, I gave it a good run and I’ll just do my stuff for fun, write songs for fun.
But then I got the call from Steve Winwood, and that put me back in the Big Time all of a sudden, and that led me on to doing more writing, and doing more records again. It all kind of fell together, but I had to let it go for it to come back.
And now, it’s like I got a second chance, and I’m doing everything without so much self–indulgence and destruction.
The muse never leaves you, does it?
Randall Bramblett: Well, the urge to write doesn’t seem to leave. I put it away for a while because I figured I couldn’t do it straight. I didn’t know how to do it straight. But it turns out that I just had to learn how to walk again. It really was kind of a “starting over” for me.
How did your association with Winwood come about?
Randall Bramblett: His musical director was looking for people for a tour, and he called me out of the blue. I was the most insecure, because I hadn’t really played, professionally, since I’d got sober. I was not up to speed on saxophone; didn’t even own a tenor sax.
But once I got through the extreme anxiety – God, it was terrible – I eventually got through that first tour and started feeling better about my playing. Because I was up there playing with all these guys like Russ Kunkel, people who are road warriors and great studio players. So I had to catch up, and it was frightening.
But I got called back on all the tours, and everybody else faded away. I guess I was like the recovering Chris Wood or something.
Do you think you reminded Winwood of Chris in a way?
Randall Bramblett: It’s possible. Yeah, we talked about Chris. Steve went to meetings with him, and tried to help him out, and he just didn’t get it.
Tell me about Jim Capaldi.
Randall Bramblett: He was fantastic, great, kind of a super ADD guy – from one thing to the next, to the next, to the next. Just full of creativity. He kind of embodied, to me, the rock ‘n’ roll spirit. Of “Go for the feel, let’s rock ‘n’ roll!” He didn’t like anything slick; it needed to be free. And rockin.’
He was full of ideas. He didn’t have drug and alcohol problems, he just was real full of ideas. And a real funny guy.
We were getting ready to do another Traffic tour when he died, in 2004.
Are you happy to still be living in Georgia? Does this feel right at this time in your life?
Randall Bramblett: Yeah. I don’t know where else I could be. I don’t want to be in L.A., and I don’t want to be in New York. And Nashville is a good town and all, but it’s just not me.
I just like it down here; it feels right to me. It’s got a quirkiness, it’s got a music scene that is really different and comes up with all these great, cool groups. It’s pretty easy living down here.
Where: Loco’s Grill & Pub, 301 W. Broughton St.
When: At 10:30 p.m. Friday, May 28
Artist’s website: www.randallbramblett.com