Sometimes, the best-kept secrets in music are more than ready to be revealed. Concurrent in every genre, there are musicians and songwriters who, through no fault of their own, travel on a semi-clandestine, albeit admired, orbit. Hosannas don’t always pay the bills, but they sure as hell can make you feel less alone. Even the phrase “doomed to obscurity” could be turned around as “blessed with autonomy”; no expectations are made on your career and you gain an audience of like-minded people who want you to evolve artistically.
Randall Bramblett has prospered in just this environment for decades, making career choices based on savvy intuition and creative combat wisdom, rather than sales spreadsheets and trend-hopping. A native of Jesup, Georgia, in the mid-’70s, Bramblett released two folk-rock-leaning albums that critics deemed “rich, funky, hip and raw.” It was during this era when Bramblett cofounded Sea Level with three members of The Allman Brothers Band–Jaimoe Johnson, Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams–an offshoot that went even further into jazz-rock and fusion than their better-known predecessor. Bramblett also became a key player on the Capricorn Records label, appearing as a guest artist on several releases. In the decades since, multi-instrumentalist (keyboards, sax, guitar, vocals) Bramblett has been an on-demand side player.
Over the course of a career of more than 40 years, the now-69-year-old Bramblett worked with likes of Gregg Allman, Bonnie Bramlett, Widespread Panic, Steve Winwood and Traffic. That last gig lead to a 16-year run with the innovative supergroup. Bramblett is routinely labeled as a “Southern rock singer-songwriter,” a categorization that’s as off the mark as calling Duane Allman a “Southern rock guitarist.”
Bramblett is known primarily as a lyricist, albeit one with a helluva bluesy, soulful voice that can deliver. He’s released more than a dozen albums, both solo and with other artists. While Bramblett’s heady topics–the complexities of love, spirituality, addiction, etc.–might go over the heads of pop audiences, they certainly go straight to the hearts of music fans able to tune in on his wavelength.
This year, the veteran musician releases his new album, Juke Joint at the Edge of the World (New West Records), on which he and band–Nick Johnson and Davis Causey (guitars), Michael Steele (bass) and Seth Hendershot (drums)–do a serious reboot of rootsy music.
Never one to step back from test-driving new ideas, Bramblett uses this 10-song collection to propel his forays into sonic textures even deeper, with electronic sounds and unique production ideas that most of his peers wouldn’t dream of exploring.
Lyrically, Bramblett is true to form. From the end-of-the-world shuffle of “Plan B,” whose narrator has a serious case of the “fuck-its,” the socially conscious “Pot Hole on Main Street” and the syrupy funk/romantic send-off of “I Just Don’t Have the Time,” to the paean to everyday mysticism of “Mali Katra,” Bramblett maintains his top-level skills as an incisive songsmith.
Bramblett’s story is a survivor’s tale. He’s witnessed cultural and music trends, from psychedelia to the record biz crash, and outlived many of his peers, surely due in no small part to his getting clean and sober decades ago. It’s a lifestyle choice he acknowledges helped ramp up his game, and his subsequent, critically acclaimed discography bears that out.
Folio Weekly rang up Bramblett at his longtime home in Athens, Georgia. Here are some highlights from our talk.
Folio Weekly: Your latest release is called Juke Joint at the Edge of the World. Does that title allude to the current, apocalyptic bounce house we’re living in?
Randall Bramblett: [Laughs.] That’s pretty good: “apocalyptic bounce house.” I could’ve called it that. But yeah, I guess it’s kind of tied together with all of the craziness that’s going on. But a lot of it’s about the feel of the music–which kind of has some of that low-down stuff going … fun dance music, but it’s also kind of weird. It fits with the title for me. I’m just trying something different, keeping it fresh. The music came out of playing places where people dance and then we can have fun just kind of improvising–and most of the recording is pretty much live.
I wouldn’t say the album is a departure from your previous work but, sonically, you’re really stepping out. What inspired you to go that deep with this vibe?
Well, the first song [“Plan B”] has some serious weirdness to it. [Laughs.] But I’ve always been into that kind of sonic ambience and I don’t want to play straight-ahead stuff all of the time; I want to take you to another place, sonically. I’ve always had some of that [experimentation] but this one probably has a little more of it in there. Like on “Plan B,” there’s a keyboard, ring modulator solo that’s really out. [Laughs.] And I was really thinking of things like Miles and Bitches Brew–just pulling from that stuff, you know?
The lyrics go equally “out.” “Mali Katra” seems based on an almost-mystical consciousness, or at least realization, of reality.
That song is like an Eastern, Indian thing. I kind of dreamed that song; especially the chorus. I don’t know what the chorus means–they’re just words that I used; but again, I didn’t try to think about it too much. I just left it as is: “Mali Katra / Mali Sutra.” I had this experience of seeing a bunch of buzzards on a cell tower, and thinking about death a lot, the end of my life, and getting older … all of that stuff. I thought it was good if I could integrate technology with buzzards and cell phones ringing, with death on the other end. [Laughs.]
Over the years, have you created any deliberate method to kind of “go within” and hit a deeper level of emotionality, if not vulnerability, when you’re writing?
You know, I’m always trying to be authentic. What’s my authenticity? It’s just my experience, especially after getting sober. But also my experience before being sober–it was rough. I thought I was going for something, like when you think you’re making progress or trying to be “spiritual” or whatever. And you’re fuckin’ up bad and just the pain from that experience. I’m trying to draw from that because I don’t have the pain of childhood as much as a lot of people do. But I can draw on what I’ve learned and the people I’ve met, the stories that I hear. So what do you draw on to be authentic? I’m trying to draw on what I’ve learned and what I feel now, in sobriety. Writing sober is one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to learn how to do. It’s worse than learning how to dance. [Laughs.]