If you were a top-tier touring musician in the last four decades, Randall Bramblett had your back. His career as a sideman included backing such notables as Steve Winwood, Gregg Allman, Levon Helm, Elvin Bishop, Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, Rick Nelson, and B.J. Thomas. He also lent his talents on sax and keys to The Allman Brothers, Bonnie Bramblett, Sea Level, The Atlanta Rhythm Section, Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic, and Hot Tuna. He was onboard playing sax and flute for Traffic’s one-off 1994 reunion tour.
But he’s equally lauded for his solo work on 13 albums to date. His latest, Pine Needle Fire, is as eclectic as his résumé, a ramble through a soundscape with as much rough and rocky terrain as smooth valleys and gently rolling hills. It’s a blend of what rubbed off from hanging with his musical compatriots over the years, from rock to jazz to country to soul to gospel. Bramblett had some practice composing as well as playing in those fields, penning gospel for the Blind Boys of Alabama, soul for Bettye LaVette, and Piedmont-style blues for Hot Tuna as well as tunes for Allman, Raitt, McClinton, and others.
The title cut revisits Bramblett’s childhood in Jesup, Georgia, a paper mill town where the cash crop is pine trees. Bramblett bypasses the stink quotient for a more pleasant scented reverie about the pine needles burning, “smoke rising like a black snake in the sky.” He also manages to tie in the burning pain of young love with his orchestral ministrations.
But not all the material is filtered through a gauzy curtain of nostalgia that screens out the bad times. “Rocket to Nowhere” is a clear-eyed look at his old habits, his protagonist waking up on the wrong side of town with a headache that won’t quit, the bright side of his evening of debauchery being that at least the powers that be didn’t look in the glove compartment of his rocket to nowhere when they stopped his journey. It’s a cautionary tale, scored with an aisle-leaping gospel/funk/soul crossover like Steve Winwood hanging out with the Blind Boys.
The biggie here is “I’ve Got Faith in You,” a blend of past and present, bringing in longtime Bramblett associate Tommy Talton, with whom Bramlett played for years in Cowboy as well as in Gregg Allman’s band. As a bonus, Talton got permission to borrow Duane Allman’s Gibson SG, the one Allman used on “Statesboro Blues” from the Allman Brothers’ classic 1971 release At Fillmore East. Talton’s slide solo is a fitting tribute to Allman as well as the music that shaped Bramblett’s career.
As we’ve come to expect from him, Bramblett has delivered another masterpiece, a guided tour through a unique soundscape that makes us all feel at home.