On The String: Randall Bramblett Keeps His Georgia Groove Torch Burning
With its nods to Weather Report’s jazz fusion and yacht rock breezes, the 1977 album Cats On The Coast by the band Sea Level makes easy listening for jam band history buffs. On the cover, we see Allman Brothers refugees like Chuck Leavell and bassist Lamar Williams chillin’ on a beach. And in the foreground, with his head tipped back and looking, shall we say, unnaturally happy, is the newest member, sax player, singer and songwriter Randall Bramblett.
“Oh, man, I was way too happy back then,” he says with 40 years of hindsight from his home studio in the new episode of The String. “I needed to come down to earth a little bit. But we were not in that mode at all. We were just flying high.”
Bramblett was approaching his 30th birthday at that point, established in the scenes in Macon and Athens, Georgia, not far from his hometown of Jesup. He’d already released two albums as an artist on Polydor Records, but they hadn’t taken off. But if those years sealed Bramblett’s destiny as a sideman, he transcended typecasting, earning respect for his wide-ranging pursuits and skills. He’s worked the road and studio as a sax man, keyboardist and singer with the Allmans, Steve Winwood, Widespread Panic and Elvin Bishop. His songs have been recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton and the Blind Boys of Alabama, among many others. And in the 2000s, he reset his career as an artist, releasing a steady stream of distinctive and dynamic albums on New West Records.
Now in his early 70s, with a resinous croon that sounds as great as ever, Randall Bramblett will release on Friday his ninth album for the label, the sophisticated and smoldering Pine Needle Fire. Written in the shadow of recent politics and upheaval, the artist says his songs came out resonating with the striving of working people amid a miasma of injustice and the realities of growing old in a world gone a bit haywire. Opener “Some Poor Soul” is a notebook of observations about folks getting up brutally early to head off to whatever it is that pays them too little. “I’ve Got Faith In You,” released early as a single, is a straightforward blessing song that features the quasar dense tone of Duane Allman’s Gibson SG, loaned from a guitar museum for the session and played by former Allman colleague Tommy Talton. The title track, on a mist of ambient instruments and subtle beats, marks a rare gesture of nostalgia and personal longing, as the smell of burning pine needles provokes brainstem-level pleasure memories of young love.
After coming of age in those piney woods in southeast Georgia, Bramblett attended UNC in Chapel Hill, NC where he studied religion, played in a weekend band and prayed he wouldn’t get drafted, which he didn’t. He actually got accepted to Harvard’s divinity school, but music won out, and he moved to Athens, GA and started playing experimental rock and improv as a sax and keys player. Time and recording sessions in Atlanta and Macon led him into the orbit of Capricorn Records, including Greg Allman and Chuck Leavell, about the time the Allman Brothers hit a rocky patch and disbanded. That’s how Bramblett joined Sea Level for several years, before withdrawing to New Orleans to sober up. Just as he was feeling quite lost career-wise, he got a call from Steve Winwood, which set the tone for the years to come as a high-value musician, songwriter and an artist where possible. For the past ten years, he’s been able to be a touring leader almost exclusively.
I came upon Bramblett’s music through his first release on New West, No More Mr. Lucky in 2001. The updated R&B Americana songwriting and singing were fresh enough, but what really set the tracks apart was the production, with its cagey blend of horns, washy keyboards and beats that hybridized electronic and acoustic drumming. That vibe remains a signature these two decades later, and Bramblett says that having grown up entirely enthralled by 1960s R&B and a particular passion for James Brown, groove was always at the forefront for him. He didn’t see any tension when he picked up skills on Acid beat-making software. His longtime producer (and drummer) Gerry Hansen helps it find the right place in the mix.
“Yeah, well, Gerry gives me a lot of s*** for bringing in loops sometimes you know, because it's aggravating. Sometimes you don't want to be locked into that. And sometimes it doesn't work with drums,” he says. “What it did was inspire me as a songwriter. So I ended up having these background loops, whether they were just ambient noises or whatever, that became part of the song. It was really hard to let them go when we started recording the record. So we usually brought them in and use them. And Gerry has a way of working with those with real drums.”
You could scan the roots landscape and have a hard time finding a more complete and compelling musical mind with more earned soul, songwriting chops and percussive sense than Bramblett. I personally wish he were better known, and I hope the interview here leads you into fandom if you’re not already.