When Randall Bramblett graduated from the University of North Carolina many years ago, he gave some serious consideration to enrolling in seminary school. But weary of academia and eager to jumpstart his music career he opted not to.
â€œI told the seminary people I could do better theology if I was a songwriter,â€ Bramblett says. Decades later on The Bright Spots, his 11th solo album, heâ€™s still exploring those theological themes.
Itâ€™s been a circuitous path for Bramblett though, one that has seen his solo career go through starts and stops, all the while performing as a sideman for acts like Steve Winwood, Gregg Allman and Widespread Panic.
Throughout his career, heâ€™s been a musicianâ€™s musician, the kind of in-demand guy who is revered for his musical chops, but mostly operates behind the scenes and out of the spotlight.
But all that time, he’s been honing his songwriting skills, and he fuses all of the musical elements of his past with his inquisitive rumination on sometimes supernatural elements of the human condition. All these years later, he’s stillÂ wrestling with angels and demons.
The songs of The Bright Spots are populated with saints and devils, peppered with spooky incantations that conjure swampy highways and dark water creeks. There are spirits in the water, the fields are moaning. The sense of place is so strong that it is a lively, living entity, seeping and breathing its way into each song. This produces an atmospheric, waking dream characteristic to the collection.
Bramblett incorporates groove-laden R&B, blustery blues and plaintive gospel tinged flavors in service of that ambiance. But he also steps out to absorb newer technology than his roots-flavored past might suggest.
The smoky, slow burn funk of â€œTrying To Steal A Minuteâ€ features Bramblettâ€™s adroitly smooth saxophone lines over a looped electronic beat. â€œJohn The Baptistâ€ similarly utilizes a looped sample, this one of a sitar.Â It has a swampy drive with an ominous baritone sax and a wah-wah wash, but the sitar gives it psychedelic leaning and supernatural menace. The use of loops serves Bramblett double duty. In addition to adding to the flavor of the song, it served as songwriting inspiration as well.
â€œThatâ€™s a loop that I just wrote that song to,â€ he explains. â€œ I write to loops. Itâ€™s more inspiring to me sometimes. Gives me some rhythm to write to.â€
That theme is apparent on the first track, which yields the lyric for the albumâ€™s title. â€œRollâ€ starts with a bluesy guitar intro over a Latin rhythm, chugging along with pulsating beat punctuated with horns and backing vocals. Detailing a list of roadblocks, the concluding message is to simply stick with it.
â€œ[That] song is about chaos and what do you do with it when you donâ€™t understand,â€ says Bramblett. â€œThings are falling apart and your mindâ€™s going a million miles per hour and nothing makes sense. What do you do? You keep on rollinâ€™.â€
There, and elsewhere, Bramblett employs some clever linguistic acrobatics in the lyrics. Here itâ€™s â€œLizard in a whirlwind, monkey in a trash bin. Thatâ€™s just the bright spots!â€
Other tracks are deceiving. The standout single, â€œ â€˜Til The Partyâ€™s All Gone,â€ is straight out of Muscle Shoalsâ€”a joyous soul inflected tune with a rousing groove, it sounds like a party anthem until you discover the invective underneath. Bramblett, who has been in recovery for years, isnâ€™t praising the party, heâ€™s frustrated by the lack of responsibility that comes with it, the likely familiar notion of not being able to get through to someone.
Itâ€™s illustrated on â€œJohn The Baptistâ€ too, where Bramblett conflagrates the twin issues of recovery and theology.Â Here we find a character, a drunk denizen of a well-known Athens bar, who is quite literally â€œlooking for Jesus.â€ Heâ€™s both drunk and crazed it seems, each side of the coin maybe being the cause or symptom itself.
The recovery theme is addressed more head-on elsewhere, on the ballad â€œDetox Bracelet.â€ Itâ€™s a plaintive tune, sparse and reflective. There are other such moments, such as â€œMy Darling Oneâ€ with its smoky voiced, elegiac, gospel tinged, hymn-like quality. But the thread tying it all together a general gospel buoyancy, exhibited most by â€œShineâ€, an anthemic, sweeping tune with a rising chorus.
Though these gospel notions seem to infuse much of the album, the music wasnâ€™t a big influence on Bramblett growing up.
â€œI guess Iâ€™ve always loved the Arehta Franklin live record Amazing Grace, which is a gospel record,â€ says Bramblett. â€œSo gospel has influenced me but what I like is the Flying Silvertones, the old-timey black gospel. I guess on this record, I used all the influences I had growing upâ€”soul music and Motown, a little bit of jazz and â€¦I donâ€™t know, Iâ€™ve never done anything this bluesy before.â€
Bramblett credits much of his creative process to his practice of meditation, a habit he developed through the help of Julia Cameronâ€™s book, The Artists Way (a book cited for its influence by other musicians and artists, including Phishâ€™s Mike Gordon.)
The book advocates daily journaling, called â€œmorning pagesâ€ that allow one to clear the mind of distractions to be better prepared for creative output. Combined with meditation, the method is designed to help the creativity flow.
â€œWriting those morning pages,â€ explains Bramblett, â€œShe gets you writing without any editing or criticism, just free form writing. That really helped me a lot getting ideas for songs. The worst is thinking â€˜this is not good enoughâ€™, or thinking â€˜what am I going to come up with today?â€™ Itâ€™s a hard way to write. I like her idea to just get it all out there and something will come up, throw it all out there without editing.â€
â€œI like the idea of trying to work on a steady basis. In the old days, weâ€™d have a record coming up and weâ€™d think, ‘Time to do a record’ so weâ€™d just stay up and try to write a bunch of stuff and we thought that was the way you were supposed to do it. I canâ€™t do that anymore. I try to be more persistent at it. Just put up and show up. Hopefully something will happen eventually.â€
And it is happening, as his approach is ongoing and yielded a fine batch of songs that make up The Bright Spots.Â
â€œI usually write some everyday in my journal, do a little meditation and write,â€ he says. â€œSometimes out of that writing I get some ideas. It gives me, instead of a blank page it gives me some ideas to sing, it makes it easier to get something going if you have some idea, or some seed to work with. Then the song can develop like that I just play with it. Once I start writing I get more inspired. I get more ideas coming in. I try to stay on it every day.â€
His ideas on theology keep finding their way onto those pages too, day after day.
â€œWeâ€™re just part of this nature thing but we try to figure it out and make sense of something when it really doesnâ€™t make sense,â€ he says. â€œI still struggle with all this. Maybe thereâ€™s something deeper we cannot understand. But thereâ€™s a lot we can understand, and a lifetime of exploring.â€