Randall Bramblett may be the best Southern musician who's not famous

by Walter Tunis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

23 September 2008


As he discusses by phone the contrasts behind his newest songs, Randall Bramblett is looking out his basement window.

Inside, on the line, talk touches on inspirations of loss, death and seemingly dashed faith that strike a soulful Southern nerve on his new album “Now It’s Tomorrow.” But through the glass, into the open air of a late summer morning, he can view the ageless beauty of the woods near his home in Athens, Ga.

The inevitable sadness and desolation of death; the unending joy and richness of a world still so vibrantly alive - welcome to just one set of seemingly opposing themes that continue to make Bramblett one of the most literate and engaging Southern songsmiths you probably have never heard.

“Even something like the drought we’ve been having down here plays a role in the music,” said Bramblett. “Just using the drought as a metaphor. ... It’s like writing about living in a painful world but always looking at the beauty of it, too.

“I can’t fully explain what influences like that are, except that it’s my experience you see all these terrible things happening in life, all these awful things that can leave you so discouraged. But, God, you look out at the world and it’s just beautiful.

“So what do you do? You keep going.”

And Bramblett, indeed, keeps going. He was a vital member of the Capricorn Records roster of artists out of Macon, Ga., that forged a national visibility for contemporary Southern music in the early ‘70s. In ensuing decades, Bramblett - a multi-instrumentalist versed in keyboards, saxophone and guitar - became a longtime ally of Steve Winwood. That association culminated with the induction ceremony of the band Traffic into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. At the celebration, Traffic played Dear Mr. Fantasy as a streamlined trio with Winwood on guitar, Jim Capaldi on drums and Bramblett on organ.

There have been scores of other affiliations. Bramblett has shared stages with Bonnie Raitt (who recorded “God Was in the Water,” a 2001 tune Bramblett wrote with longtime bandmate Davis Causey), jammed with Widespread Panic and has frequently crossed paths with onetime Allman Brother Chuck Leavell. The latter’s late ‘70s fusion/funk band Sea Level prominently featured Bramblett on four of its five albums.

But there is still the matter of Bramblett’s own music. Listen to any of his seven solo recordings - the first, “That Other Mile,” was in 1975, and the new “Now It’s Tomorrow” surfaced in August - and you hear a poetic but highly unassuming Southern scribe at work.

Take “Blue Road” from “Now It’s Tomorrow.” It moves at a spry, jazzy gallop that suggests Steely Dan until Bramblett’s scratchy Southern singing brushes aside all comparisons. That the tune’s lyrics are considerably darker than the tune’s sunny exterior only adds to the fun. The album-opening “Sun Runs” inverts the strategy with lyrics of frank emotional devotion set against a more ominous, percolating groove.

“I always feel uncomfortable when a song is just totally straightforward, when it heads only one way,” Bramblett said. “I don’t see life that way. I don’t experience it that way, either.”

In its most emotive moments, though, “Now It’s Tomorrow” is unavoidably human. Figuring highly in two of the album’s reflections on mortality are the deaths of Stuart Collins, Bramblett’s tour manager (on “Some Mean God”) and his mother (on “Where a Life Goes”).

“It’s kind of a child’s question,” Bramblett said of “Where a Life Goes.” “‘What’s it like where you are?’ I can’t imagine that when someone dies they just disappear. I guess that’s human nature. Songs like that just came bubbling up over the last two years.”

All this suggests Bramblett’s songwriting gifts are most abundantly displayed through his lyrics. But for insight into Bramblett’s instrumental finesse, listen to how the light, autumnal tone of his soprano sax work glides alongside Leavell’s piano melody on “Altamaha,” a tune from the latter’s all-instrumental 2005 album, “Southscape.”

“As far as I’m concerned, Randall is the most treasured singer, songwriter and performer we have in the South,” Leavell said in an interview last month. “I still can’t understand why he’s not a household name.”

Why indeed? Bramblett also has wondered why he has remained a “best-kept secret” artist over the years.

“People like us when they hear us,” Bramblett said. “It’s just that they don’t get to hear us these days. That can be hard after a while. It’s a situation that’s challenging, discouraging and frustrating. It’s takes a lot of persistence and patience just trying to believe that what you’re doing is worthwhile.”

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