While Randall Bramblett has found notoriety as a sideman to stars such as Gregg Allman and Steve Winwood and Widespread Panic, he has almost quietly forged a solo career over the past 20 years grounded in some of the most compelling original songs of any Southern writer.
The singer/songwriter/keyboardist/saxophonist initially came to fame with his association with Capricorn Records in Macon, first as an anchor in Gregg Allman’s solo band for tours in 1974 supporting his classic Laid Back album, then as a member of Sea Level, the jazz-flavored group formed by former Allman Brothers Band members Chuck Leavell, Jaimoe and Lamar Williams.
After leaving the music business to sober up and go to school to be a social worker, Bramblett was coaxed back on stage in 1988 when Steve Winwood called to ask him to join his tour band.
Bramblett began to write songs again and revived his solo career in-between tours with Winwood. He moved to Athens, and his career as a solo artist began to hit its stride after 2001 when Bramblett recorded a series of critically acclaimed albums for New West Records.
His 11th album, Juke Joint at the Edge of the World, will be released July 7, and Bramblett will perform a release party this Saturday night at the Vista Room in Decatur.
Born in Jesup in 1948, Bramblett recently sat down with ArtsATL to discuss his career, his approach to songwriting and thoughts on the recent deaths of Southern music icons Colonel Bruce Hampton, Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks.
ArtsATL: You’ve been writing and playing music for a long time. How did that begin for you?
Randall Bramblett: Professionally, it began by playing at the Elks Club in Jesup, Georgia, for around ten dollars a gig. I think I was in eighth grade. We had a little combo. I played with older guys and got to play sax and piano. We eventually graduated into a cover band for soul music and traveled all around Georgia. That continued all the way through high school and until college.
ArtsATL: Why did you start playing music?
Bramblett: I just loved the way the piano sounded very early on. So, I started playing it at age four. My dad made extensions so I could reach the pedals. I’ve been playing it ever since. The sax came quite a bit later — when I was about 12 years old.
ArtsATL: You’ve become accomplished at playing both. Do you prefer one over the other?
Bramblett: I’m not sure how accomplished I really am at playing either of them, but I will say I’ve learned how to do what I need to do with them with regards to the songs I’ve written. And we’re always reminding ourselves to serve the song because that’s what it’s really all about. You have to remove your ego and let the song tell you what it needs. So, I think I can pretty well do that with keys and sax.
ArtsATL: Who were some of your early musical influences?
Bramblett: My sister brought home the first Elvis record, and that got me interested in rock ‘n’ roll. Of course, like everybody, I’d been listening to and liked Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis growing up. Then, I discovered black music and soul music: B.B. King and Bobby Bland. That opened up a complete new world to me. I discovered how powerful soul music was.
ArtsATL: What influenced your songwriting?
Bramblett: Well, when the folk thing came along and Bob Dylan came along, that opened up a whole new lyrical world to me.
ArtsATL: How so?
Bramblett: It just opened me up to a social consciousness. Before that, I never even thought about racism or classes. And, before I got opened up to it, I never thought you could really write about it or much of anything except, like, love. Now, my music is really a combination of the early influences of soul and the influences Dylan had on me.
ArtsATL: When writing a song, do you feel like a poet, or a storyteller — or, is there a way to accurately describe your mindset?
Bramblett: When I’m writing, mostly, I’m just trying to avoid clichés as much as possible and capture something that’s a little unique. The song has to feel right for me to sing. It has to feel authentic to me. It’s easy to slip into musical and lyrical clichés because that’s where your mind immediately tries to go. So, I’m always trying to find something unique to write about.
ArtsATL: The fourth track on your new album, “Garbage Man,” is not going to be accused of being cliche. While it appears as a fun, silly song, does it not have underlying meaning after you scratch its surface?
Bramblett: That song really exemplifies my childhood — living in the suburbs of a little Southern town — with the reality of separation, racism and the classes. Yet, the garbage man seemed to have all the humor and wisdom. And the garbage man is living in the real world. He gets up and does it and then gets up and does it all over again. He’s the real world.
ArtsATL: Do you feel your lyrics often encompass distinct dichotomies like joy and hope rubbing against depths of despair?
Bramblett: Yes, they definitely do. In my songs, there’s a lot of yearning and a lot of loss. There’s a lot of displacement of characters, and it describes how I’ve felt at times in my life with just loss. And, there’s always the deeper joy and laughter that goes with it and lies underneath it. But, sometimes it’s hard to tell which one of those goes deeper. I do feel they are together. I don’t feel like I can just go to a place where it’s all hopeless, but it’s not all joy, either. I was just thinking this morning that there’s a lot of movement in these songs on the new CD. People are lost trying to get somewhere. They’re traveling. They’re trying to get to somebody or some better place.
ArtsATL: I recently heard a statement that it helps if a writer knows the feeling of being an outcast. Do you think of yourself as an outcast?
Bramblett: I had a pretty normal upbringing, and I wasn’t bullied or anything. But, I started feeling different when I got out of college and was asking myself, “Okay, what do I do now? How do I find my way in music?” And, I did, then, start feeling like an outsider. I’ve never fit into a certain music scene. I never really did fit into a label. I wasn’t Southern rock. I couldn’t find a place or definition for myself. I never have. So I do identify with being lost (chuckles).
ArtsATL: Do you think that helps explain why you can write songs to which others can so well relate and connect with?
Bramblett: Yeah, it’s about that universal yearning — we all have that yearning to find a home and we all have that yearning to find peace. At least with our society, these days, it seems so many people are just floating along — looking for that next consumer item to make them feel good. In the not-so-distant past, we, as a people, were connected to family and connected to the land. I feel there’s just a huge longing to go back to a connection with the Earth or spirit or something.
ArtsATL: We’ve lost Colonel Bruce Hampton, Butch Trucks, Gregg Allman all within the past few months. Have you any words you’d like to share about the loss?
Bramblett: Well, Bruce and I got to be friends through Widespread Panic. We shared a lot and connected on many levels. We both loved Bobby Bland. Once I got to know Bruce’s genius and eccentricities, I just loved the man. Of course, everybody loved him. I miss him. I listened to the Brothers [Allman Brothers Band] growing up and was definitely influenced by them and their music. I did two tours with Gregg and was very grateful to have been given the opportunity. He was such a great talent. The losses of Butch and Gregg are just tremendous.
ArtsATL: You’ve been a favorite guest of Widespread Panic and their huge fan base for many years. How did that lovefest begin?
Bramblett: I played on some of their early stuff at John Keane Studios in Athens, and they invited me to a Fox Theatre show. I remember Bruce was there, too. They just started asking me to come on here and there. Then, of course, when Mikey [Michael Houser] got sick, they asked me to play in the summer and fall. They didn’t want to cancel their tour. So George [McConnell] and I started filling in. That’s where I really was playing a lot with Panic — playing in a lot of their sets with them. Then, we put the horns together for their New Year’s Eve shows, and I got with them on special events. And, it’s just been a long and great relationship over many years.
ArtsATL: You also have a long relationship with Atlanta. Tell me about that one.
Bramblett: The first record I cut was at Bill Lowery Studio in Atlanta when I was in high school. It was a single — two sides. Then, in the early seventies, I started recording at Studio One, where Atlanta Rhythm Section recorded, and ended up doing a ton of songs there. We always played Alex Cooley’s Great Southeast Music Hall and the Moonshadow Saloon. Sea Level was always playing the Moonshadow. Atlanta has always been a place for me to play my music.
ArtsATL: How’d your many years of touring with Steve Winwood help prepare you for your solo career?
Bramblett: It gave me a boost to get back into the music business. I’d stayed out of the music business for a while and gone back to school to get my social work degree because I needed a way to make a living and support my wife and family. And, then, half way through school, I got a call from Steve. I’d always loved Traffic. But I wasn’t prepared. I had to buy a tenor sax because I didn’t even own one. I’d always played soprano and alto, and I had to switch altogether. But I had rehearsal every day and ended up staying with him for many tours. So, not only did it get me back into the music business, but it also helped me to start writing and, ultimately, get a record deal. Steve taught me a lot about musicality. I watched him play the organ; I looked at how he was playing and the sounds he was getting. It’s really just invaluable what all he taught me. And he’s such a sweet guy, as well.
ArtsATL: How’d you actually decide to go solo?
Bramblett: When I signed with New West Records, I began to have scheduling conflicts. I really had to decide whether I was going to stay with Steve and be a sideman the rest of my life or go for this thing. Eventually, Steve and I parted ways. Definitely, the easier thing would have been to just stick with Steve and do my records on the side. But, that wasn’t giving the records their due. I had to make a decision, and I’m glad I did.
ArtsATL: How has your songwriting evolved over the years?
Bramblett: I think I have more intention and more authenticity now. I’m not loaded like I used to be. It used to be I was always under the influence. And in a way, when you’re high, you have a million ideas. You’re uninhibited and sometimes those ideas make sense and sometimes they don’t. But I feel I’m much more of an authentic writer now. I have to work harder at coming up with ideas now, but it feels right to me now. The challenge is to not be on drugs and alcohol but allow your writing to be uninhibited on its own. So I’ve had to learn to free my mind without using drugs or alcohol to do it. And when I initially got away from being high, I didn’t write for three years because I couldn’t figure out how to do it without the chemicals. It seemed too scary and too chaotic to play straight. But now the songs feel real to me without me having to get high.
ArtsATL: What inspired the name of your new CD?
Bramblett: The name is really a tribute to all the small clubs and all the people dancing in them. They’re so different from the large gigs. The lyrics just line up with the fact that the edge of the world could mean anything. But this one is for our small fanbase. They will take the time to listen and pay attention. And this is where I want it to be.
ArtsATL: In a single word, what does the world need more of?