Tag Archives: Randall Bramblett

Accidental Saint: The Theological Ruminations of Randall Bramblett

Randall BrambelttSMALL
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.

“I told the seminary people I could do better theology if I was a songwriter,” Bramblett says. Decades later on The Bright Spots, his 11th solo album, he’s still exploring those theological themes.

It’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, he’s been a musician’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 still 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 “Trying To Steal A Minute” features Bramblett’s adroitly smooth saxophone lines over a looped electronic beat. “John The Baptist” similarly utilizes a looped sample, this one of a sitar.  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.

“That’s a loop that I just wrote that song to,” he explains. “ I write to loops. It’s more inspiring to me sometimes. Gives me some rhythm to write to.”

In channeling these supernatural presences, Bramblett ruminates on perseverance in the face of adversity.RandallBramblettCOVER

That theme is apparent on the first track, which yields the lyric for the album’s title. “Roll” 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.

“[That] song is about chaos and what do you do with it when you don’t understand,” says Bramblett. “Things are falling apart and your mind’s going a million miles per hour and nothing makes sense. What do you do? You keep on rollin’.”

There, and elsewhere, Bramblett employs some clever linguistic acrobatics in the lyrics. Here it’s “Lizard in a whirlwind, monkey in a trash bin. That’s just the bright spots!”

Other tracks are deceiving. The standout single, “ ‘Til The Party’s All Gone,” is straight out of Muscle Shoals—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, isn’t praising the party, he’s frustrated by the lack of responsibility that comes with it, the likely familiar notion of not being able to get through to someone.

It’s illustrated on “John The Baptist” too, where Bramblett conflagrates the twin issues of recovery and theology.  Here we find a character, a drunk denizen of a well-known Athens bar, who is quite literally “looking for Jesus.” He’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 “Detox Bracelet.” It’s a plaintive tune, sparse and reflective. There are other such moments, such as “My Darling One” with its smoky voiced, elegiac, gospel tinged, hymn-like quality. But the thread tying it all together a general gospel buoyancy, exhibited most by “Shine”, an anthemic, sweeping tune with a rising chorus.

Though these gospel notions seem to infuse much of the album, the music wasn’t a big influence on Bramblett growing up.

“I guess I’ve always loved the Arehta Franklin live record Amazing Grace, which is a gospel record,” says Bramblett. “So 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 up—soul music and Motown, a little bit of jazz and …I don’t know, I’ve never done anything this bluesy before.”

Bramblett credits much of his creative process to his practice of meditation, a habit he developed through the help of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artists Way (a book cited for its influence by other musicians and artists, including Phish’s Mike Gordon.)

The book advocates daily journaling, called “morning pages” 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.

“Writing those morning pages,” explains Bramblett, “She 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 ‘this is not good enough’, or thinking ‘what am I going to come up with today?’ It’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.”

“I like the idea of trying to work on a steady basis. In the old days, we’d have a record coming up and we’d think, ‘Time to do a record’ so we’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 can’t do that anymore. I try to be more persistent at it. Just put up and show up. Hopefully something will happen eventually.”

And it is happening, as his approach is ongoing and yielded a fine batch of songs that make up The Bright Spots. 

“I usually write some everyday in my journal, do a little meditation and write,” he says. “Sometimes 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.”

His ideas on theology keep finding their way onto those pages too, day after day.

“We’re just part of this nature thing but we try to figure it out and make sense of something when it really doesn’t make sense,” he says. “I still struggle with all this. Maybe there’s something deeper we cannot understand. But there’s a lot we can understand, and a lifetime of exploring.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Randall Bramblett readies ‘The Bright Spots’ for May 14 release

A jewel of Southern music, Randall Bramblett shines on his latest release, The Bright Spots, due out May 14 on New West Records. Fresh off the inclusion of one of his songs on Bonnie Raitt’s Grammy-winning album Slipstream, he has put together a masterful recording soaked with the soulful feel that has defined his music and that of his Southern contemporaries like Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes. From Howlin’ Wolf to Ray Charles and “dark Motown” influences, sitar samples, gospel strains and even a snippet of water-splashing pygmies, The Bright Spots mixes diverse elements that dovetail into Randall’s finest album yet.

Although sometimes associated with the Southern rock scene built around the ’70s-’80s Capricorn label’s core, Randall has never identified with that sound. “Black music is what I grew up loving and the folk scene really hit me too,” he says. “So it’s a combination of Dylan and Ray Charles.”

Elements of pop, soul, blues, and the sounds of the church combine with Randall’s often wistful, beautifully conceived lyrics on these dozen ruminative, roots-based tunes. “Some of the words come from dreams. I do meditations in the morning and write in a journal,” he says. His lyrical strength is mixing unusual thematic concepts with dry humor. That helps explain the album’s upbeat title. “In almost every song there is darkness, yet some thread of humor. The irony of the bright spots is that there is a lot of hurt in these songs and there are the bright spots too. It’s pain and joy simultaneously. There are gifts of desperation.

That takes the form of the lowdown “Whatever That Is,” his most overtly blues composition, and the sing-along gospel of “Shine,” which sports an anthemic chorus different from anything Bramblett has previously written. “I’ve tried to push the boundaries, but we always follow the song and see what it needs. If the song doesn’t like something, it will tell you.”

With five songs recorded in Nashville and seven more tracked with his longtime touring band on his home turf in Athens, GA, the multi-instrumentalist (guitar, keyboards, woodwinds) says his ninth studio release was the easiest and most organic to record. “It felt good and went quickly,” he explains. “It just fell together easily compared to my other records. We did not obsess about this one. A lot of it is live in the studio; we didn’t do a lot of takes or overdubs either.”

Perhaps that’s because the songs come from the experiences accumulated during his extensive career, starting in the ’70s as a member of the jazzy Southern band Sea Level. Add to that a far-reaching resume of work with artists such as Steve Winwood (for 16 years), Gregg Allman, Chuck Leavell, Levon Helm, Widespread Panic, and Gov’t Mule, and the touchstones of Randall’s music emerge.  “All these songs came from my life, just feeling that I’m getting a little older and trying to squeeze out a little more time or creativity before it’s too late.”

Having a surfeit of original material to choose from, and highly creative, imaginative musicians in both Nashville and Athens to flesh out the tracks and mold them into bold, soulful statements also helped. “I had 18-20 songs and chose the best 12. As you start recording, you get a feel for where the record is going and it starts to have a life of its own. I have a lot of different styles I can do . . . I like variety but it shouldn’t sound like it’s arbitrary.” As in the past, Bramblett’s dusky, soulful voice and sympathetic backing is unified by the sharp production of veteran shotgun-riding drummer Gerry Hansen. He effortlessly ties the somewhat disparate elements that include short bits of African pygmy children splashing water, and the occasional R&B horn section, together into a cohesive set.

It helps to have high profile fans too. The multi-Grammy winning Raitt has been a Bramblett devotee since the late Stephen Bruton gave her a copy of 2001’s No More Mr. Lucky. She invited Bramblett’s band on the road to open shows and recorded his compositions “God Was in the Water,” which appears on the album Souls Alike, and the gutsy “Used To Rule the World” (which has become a focus track) on Slipstream, which in addition to winning Grammy gold has sold more than 300,000 units to date.

The self-effacing artist downplays his previous sideman status, yet is grateful for valuable lessons gained from his work with Gregg Allman (“I learned about organ, vocals and drama through the bluesiness and dynamics of his playing”), watching The Band’s Levon Helm (“his joy of playing freed me up”) and Steve Winwood (“he taught me a lot about organ and melody, working out details and how to create the background beds he was so good at”).

The challenge of composing moving, often emotionally driven songs with words that aim to stir the listener’s feelings has always motivated Bramblett and creates this inspired album. Writing a song is “like playing with the pieces of a puzzle or playing in the sand until you start seeing something,” he asserts.

Despite Bramblett’s antecedents in Americana and specifically Southern music, this is no stroll down the red clay back roads of his youth. The album bridges the past and the present in the loop-driven rhythms of “John the Baptist,” “Trying To Steal a Minute” and the upbeat groove funk of “’Til the Party’s All Gone” as well as the more meditative keyboard based ballad “Detox Bracelet.” Overall The Bright Spots is steeped in soul with a modern edge. “I didn’t want to make a retro record. I like doing something different every time,” he says.

Randall Bramblett continues to push the envelope of his Southern soul into areas that further illuminate his past, while expanding and nudging his roots into the future. The music reflects “a lot of angst, salvation and redemption but it all comes from my experiences,” he concludes. “It’s an honest album that has heart.”