This extended conversation with famed Georgia musician Randall Bramblett took place by phone in advance of his band's upcoming Savannah show at the Live Wire Music Hall on River Street:
Where are you speaking to me from?
Randall Bramblett: I’m driving through Southwest Ga. coming back from a gig.
Where did you guys play?
Randall Bramblett: We were in Tallahassee last night at a cool place called the Bradford Blues Club. It’s an old honky-tonk after-hours joint that’s been there forever. Back in the day, Ray Charles and Chuck Berry and all the old blues and soul guys used to play in Tallahassee, and then they’d some way out in the woods to this place and get on stage. It’s a very fun place to play. They have fried catfish late in the evening, and we had a very high time.
Is it much different now than it used to be in those days?
Randall Bramblett: Well, it used to be owned by black people and now it’s owned by white people, so it’s a fairly integrated place now. But it still has a lot of the flavor of the original business. They even have singer-songwriters and folk people come through sometimes now, but it used to be strictly a blacks-only juke joint. This is our second time down there, and it’s a great place for us to stop on our way back and forth from Athens when we’re playing a run of shows in Florida.
You’re on a niche label at a time when so many artists are taking the completely indie route. At this point in your career, what are some of the key benefits to being on a label such as New West — and could you foresee a time when you might just press and sell your records independently without the aid of a larger company?
Randall Bramblett: Well, New West is an independent, but it’s a lot different than doing everything on your own. What I like about being on some sort of existing label is the kind of support you can get. First of all, you get an album budget, and you get marketing and promotional support. Distribution of the records is of course, already in place. The trade-off is that you’re giving up a lot of your royalties. But otherwise, you have to hire all these people to promote and distribute your music — unless you want to do it all yourself. There are a lot of people who do that, but personally, I don’t wanna have to! (laughs) It might come down to that one of these days if I don’t sell enough records for New West, but for now, I’d much rather have people on staff to do that for me. I mean, we’re going up to play the big CMJ fest and the Americana Festival in NYC, and we’d have to borrow money to cover our expenses to do that, because neither of those gigs actually pay you anything. It’s the same way at South By Southwest in Austin. Those are important gigs that can really help your career, but if you can’t afford to even travel there, it means nothing. It’s also prestigious to be on a label like New West, because they have so many good artists on there.
What’s the response to the new record been so far from those who have had the opportunity to hear it?
Randall Bramblett: It’s been great. People think it’s the best thing we’ve yet given to New West. We’ve just started playing the new songs live over the past couple of days, and they’re going over great with folks who have never heard them before. I mean, you never know what the end result will be. But it’s a very commercial sounding, bigger sounding record than our last CD, and it’s not an Americana record at all. It’s more produced. There’s a kind of Beatles feel to some of the songs as well as some psychedelic stuff. Our last album was more of an alt.country things, but these songs were written over time since that last record, and they lent themselves more toward structured production. So this one’s much more planned out, as well as bigger and more energetic.
Was there any resistance from New West to this new direction. I know sometimes bands throw their label a curve ball, and the truth is the record company would much rather have a follow-up that sounds essentially like the artist’s most recent release.
Randall Bramblett: No. That’s one of the good things about being on a smaller label, or at least on New West. They let us do what we want to do artistically and creatively. If I give them a demo of 15 songs, they’ll certainly tell me which ones they like best. But then again, I’ve sometimes wound up leaving off songs they liked! (laughs) We do what we wanna do. That’s an advantage of not selling millions of records. When you do that, the labels usually get heavily involved in your creative process. They insist on picking the producers and engineers and where you record, and everything. It’s all about protecting their investment. (laughs)
I hear a lot of Southern —and specifically Georgian elements in the songs on your MySpace page - there’s some vintage Macon soul music in there as well as some funk grooves that were obviously influenced by James Brown. Tell me a bit about how growing up in this part of the country has shaped the sort of music you create?
Randall Bramblett: Yeah. I grew up in Jesup, out in the suburbs — or whatever the suburbs would be in Jesup. (laughs) It was a nice place back then. We walked everywhere. We’d walk downtown to the movies. Everyone knew everyone. But there was another aspect to that: the Okefenokee Swamp and the Altamaha River. We used to go around there as high school kids, and I found that those places were very sacred and awe-inspiring. They provided a kind of awareness of —or a longing for— that kind of transcendental or mystical or spiritual part of life that came up out of the swamps. The ancient history of the surrounding area that we’d visit as kids or hunt and fish in fueled a kind of romantic idea in me. We experienced the wildness of nature, and I find that this comes out in my lyrics. I notice a lot of nature references and metaphors.
We all grew up listening to soul music, and James Brown of course! WAPE in Jacksonville, Fl. played the Young Rascals and the Beatles and all that stuff, but I would also listen late at night to WLAC from Nashville. It was the only station of its sort you could pick up in my town, and I could only catch it on my little radio late at night as I was going to sleep. So, that’s how I discovered the blues and sermonettes and gospel music. Bob Dylan influenced me lyrically in a huge way, too. So, it was Motown, Muscle Shoals soul, Stax, James Brown, Ray Charles and Dylan.
I saw James Brown play live when I was in high school. We went over and heard him at some municipal auditorium in Waycross, and it literally changed my life. Plus, I have an older sister and she’d bring home albums by folks like André Previn, Elvis and Henry Mancini! All of those are my influences, I guess, and that’s not unlike a lot of people in the South. But I can’t overemphasize that WLAC did put gospel and blues music into my consciousness that I don’t think I could have gotten anywhere else.
As I listen to the songs on your last record, I can only imagine it’s hard to make a dent in the current rock or soul scene when so much of it is geared around the packaging of youth and a visual image — which is not to say you guys aren’t handsome. But the truth is the music you’re making would likely appeal to a much wider variety of people —especially young people— if you guys seemed more like the rest of the artists getting shoved down their throats on radio and TV. Is it dispiriting to know that in such an image conscious industry, often the music being made is ignored or discounted simply because of perceived complexities in marketing the artist, or have you been around long enough to not worry too much about those sorts of things?
Randall Bramblett: Well, it does impact us, because is so hard to get heard these days. Radio is pretty much not a factor anymore. There’s so few places my records can even get played.
Has satellite radio been a good outlet for your band?
Randall Bramblett: Yeah, it has to an extent. XM, Sirius, World Café, they’ve all been good to us. We’ve recorded some live songs in XM’s studios and we’re gonna do that again sometime soon. It’s helped, but it takes a lot more than just a few small formats playing you to really make a big difference in listeners knowing who you are. Getting heard is just so much more difficult than it was when I used to be with Sea Level. The problem is the combination of so many more CDs being released every year nowadays than we could have ever imagined, along with the major formats now being Modern Rock, Urban and R&B or whatever you call it. We just don’t fit easily into any of those formats or classifications.
For a band like ours, getting heard comes down to hopefully getting a songs featured in a film or an advertisement or on a TV show that breaks through somehow. Or, possibly, coming up with a song so great that it just can’t be denied. But when you’re relying on Triple A radio to help you out — well, there’s not even a single Triple A station in Ga., I don’t think. There might be one in South Carolina. So, it’s almost impossible to break through to a larger market. It’s an uphill battle. Plus, we’re not like a Gov’t Mule or a Derek Trucks Band that does a lot of jamming or soloing. We’re a song-oriented band and we rely on a crowd that likes to listen and respond to that sort of thing. Sometimes that’s an older crowd. But last night we played to a lot of younger people. Some younger people know me from my playing with Widespread Panic, and we will do a bit of soloing and jamming if we feel like it, but really, we’re much more about the songs. That’s what we’re concentrating on.
How much of a role do your bandmates play in developing these songs? Are they written as a group, or do you come in with fairly complete songs or demos and then help direct their parts to achieve an overall sound that you’ve heard all along in your mind?
Randall Bramblett: This particular record, I had the songs written ahead of time by myself, and I had pretty much fleshed out the demos. So, it was a challenge for everybody to work at coming up with our own stuff on this and not just repeating the demo parts. There’s a few songs we took and changed everything and essentially started over from scratch. On the last record, we developed those songs as a whole band. But it just so happened that for this record, I had things that I was already happy with.
This album was not all fun and games. You know, the fun part is when you get together as a band and come up with everything based on nothing but a singer and a guitar and a basic idea. This record was more like trying to piece a puzzle together. It was a bit harder for us to make because we couldn’t see the end result or the finished product until the very end of the project. We were working on it piece by piece, and had to have faith that the final result would be great. And it was.
What are some examples of songs which were re-worked in the recording process?
Randall Bramblett: Gerry Hansen, who’s our drummer, producer and engineer —he has his own studio, and that’s where we record— suggested we took “Blue Road”, which I guess has wound up being considered the first single off the CD, and shift it in a kind of Herbie Hancock direction. It wound up turning into a really groovy thing, and not at all like the original demo. The rest of the songs —except for “You Better Move”, which he suggested we speed up— wound up just like I brought them in. But people did insert themselves into them. Everyone is always encouraged to add stuff. You know, if you got something to say, then say it! If it works, we’ll use it. This time was definitely harder, though, because I was already so attached to a lot of the parts and loops and riffs that I had already put down.
You’ve played over the years with a pretty dazzling array of famous and respected musicians, either as a guest or as an actual member of the group. When you look back at the circuitous journey your music has taken you on, what are some of the most important or lasting lessons you’ve learned along the way that could only have come from collaborating with some of these artists?
Randall Bramblett: I’ve been influenced by and learned from everyone I’ve ever played with. I played with Goose Creek Symphony for a while and that was just fun.
Those guys are crazy.
Randall Bramblett: You know it. (laughs) Then I moved down to Macon and started doing some work with the Capricorn Records people like Gregg Allman, Cowboy and Sea Level. Those were my very first tours, so I learned how to tour from those guys. I learned how to put on a show, you know? The kind of production and rehearsal it takes to make something truly memorable. I learned some organ techniques from Gregg Allman, because I’d never played much organ before. I learned how to use the stops from watching him play. With Sea Level, I was playing a lot of piano and sax, and we had a good run with that. I learned a bunch from Chuck Leavell, too. His piano playing is really fantastic. I found out what it takes to make a good record in the studio by working with good producers like Stewart Levine and in good studios in NYC and Los Angeles. My first producer was Steve Tyrell in NYC, and after getting to work with great musicians in the studio I realized that’s why folks like that are in the music business. If you put great players in a great studio, you’ll come up with a good record. That’s all they think about.
Levon Helm was my next big influence. What I learned from him was just the pure exuberance of playing. Just having fun and loving to play. It didn’t matter if he was in a juke joint or wherever. In fact, a juke joint was much better to him than some big concert in a giant venue. That’s the stuff he grew up with when he was playing “Milk Cow Blues” with The Hawks in the clubs. I love Levon to death, and I saw him just the other day. We were able to sit down and chat on his bus for a while after the show. He’s doing and singing great these days.
Playing with Levon back then was just plain fun. It reminded me that you just gotta have fun when you play and not take it too damn seriously. Steve Winwood taught me a different thing altogether. When I first started with him, he was at the height of his career. We were doing big productions, and I mean big. We had wardrobe people! (laughs) I had always loved his songwriting and his voice and I learned a ton about organ playing from watching him. Figuring out how to really stretch out and play.
As a result of playing with so many people, you’ve been on massive stages as well as gigged in small bars and nightclubs. How much does the actual feel or size of a room dictate what sort of approach you and your band takes to a given show?
Randall Bramblett: On a bigger stage, we tend to do a bigger show, and a lot of times, I don’t know if that’s right, but for example, when we play in front of Widespread Panic, we tend to do the big, fast songs to make sure we get and keep people’s attention. You feel like their crowds aren’t there to sit and listen. They want to dance and party, so we usually go over the top. But, when we played with Bonnie Raitt, we knew her audience was a listening audience, and those shows were in theaters. So, we didn’t try to bowl people over and beat through their consciousness. There are a few smaller, listening rooms where we can play a lot of the softer songs. I actually like the combination places the best — like the place we played last night, or The Melting Point in Athens, where we’ll do our CD Release Party next week. There are balconies and seating, but there’s also people right up front who are dancing. It gives you a charge and a lot of energy to have both types of crowds.
You’ve played Savannah many times over the course of your career. Do you remember the very first time you ever appeared in this town?
Randall Bramblett: I think it was at the Night Flight, but I could be wrong. That was a great place we used to play in the 1970s, and we played there a good bit. Back in those days, it was the best place to do a show in Savannah. Of course, we played the local coliseum with Sea Level, and I know I’ve played there with Widespread. Plus, my band played the Savannah Music Fest with Shawn Mullins a while back and the Blues & BBQ thing at the Roundhouse. I thought the venue we played at the Savannah Music Fest was really cool. People were into the music, but they listened as well. I had a lot of fun that night.
A couple of years ago you were part of a sold-out double bill with Shawn Mullins at the Savannah Music Festival that I believe was co-sponsored by our newspaper. Was that an unusual sort of gig for you, or does your band often play sit-down, listening-room shows like that?
You share at least one bandmates with Shawn Mullins, correct? - Would you say there is a certain kindred spirit between his work and your own?
Randall Bramblett: Right. He uses Gerry as a drummer sometimes, and we do play with him occasionally. But Shawn doesn’t really do that many band dates. He draws a lot better than we do, and it’s still too expensive for him to take a band out on the road! (laughs) So, most all of his dates are solo gigs. We go out sometimes with Chuck Leavell’s group, too.
These days, who are some singer-songwriters that you find you can always rely on to inspire you with their work, whether it be current or from decades past?
Randall Bramblett: Let me think of who I’ve been listening to a lot lately. I really like Lucinda Williams. I like what Robert Plant and Alison Krauss are doing together. It sounds great. I got to hear them at Bonnaroo this year. I was playing with Widespread right after them, so I got to watch from the side of the stage.
So, Robert Plant opened up for you and Widespread Panic?
Randall Bramblett: Yeah, I guess so! (laughs) Well, you know. People love Widespread, so it worked. But creatively, their set was a different take on both ends — Led Zeppelin and bluegrass music. The crowd was huge, but they were really paying attention, and so Robert and Allison could use dynamics. They’d play really softly and then all of a sudden they’d rock out. To me, pairing those two together was a great example of using your creativity in different ways. They had T-Bone Burnett playing guitar with them and this crazy drummer who was playing a kit with no hi-hat and no crash cymbal. He had this big, weird ride cymbal, and a blanket on top of the drums. He was also playing a lot of maracas and percussion. But he could also rock out when he needed to.
It was inspiring, and it opened my eyes to just how far you can go in front of a huge audience. If you just have the nerve to try stuff like that, you can often get away with it. Then again, it was Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, but still. And Robert Plant sounded great! I guess I never realized what a really great singer he is.
That drummer sounds like it was probably Stephen Hodges, who used to play with Tom Waits and now does a lot of work with Mavis Staples and John Hammond.
Randall Bramblett: Yeah, that sounds right. Tom Waits is another songwriter I really love. I don’t listen to nearly as much music as I need to or should. I enjoy Buddy Miller, and I really dig women singer-songwriters a lot — like Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse.
What can folks expect from this show at the Live Wire - what material will be included in your set?
Randall Bramblett: We usually do several songs off the last three records. We’ll do some older stuff as well, like “King Grand” and songs off the very first record. We do stuff like “God Was In The Water”, which Bonnie Raitt covered on her last album, and a few things like “Where Are You Tonight” where I play acoustic guitar. But we’ll also be doing six or seven songs off the brand-new record. We’re in the head right now of trying those out on crowds. This weekend is the very first time we’ve played them in public, and so far, they’re going over great. So, almost half the show will be new material.
I appreciate you taking so much time to speak with me.
Randall Bramblett: No problem. This was a great interview. You asked the right kind of questions. (laughs) I appreciate you being interested and writing an article about us coming to town. I know this is a new place, and it’s gonna be dicey down there. We don’t know if we’ll get a crowd down there or not — even though we’ve played Savannah before. These days you never know if you can get people to come out.
The Randall Bramblett Band (with WormsLoew’s Andrew Gill & Steve Gerard)
When: 9 pm, Sat., Aug. 16
Where: Live Wire Music Hall
Cost: $10 adv./at door