Randall Bramblett: Inspired by Howlin’ Wolf, Dylan & the Band, Leon Russell, and More
Randall Bramblett says his new album, Devil Music, is “a good bit nastier and edgier than my other records.” With such a title, that aim may be understandable for the veteran singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. The album and its title track refer to Howlin’ Wolf, who, when he met his estranged mother, was spurned for playing “devil music.”
The melodies and chord structures on Devil Music are “simpler and more primitive” than his nine previous albums, he says. “Lyrically, the subject matter is darker for the most part.”
Critics have called Bramblett’s songwriting moody and cinematic, and he doesn’t take issue. “In general, I agree,” says Bramblett, who says Bob Dylan and James Taylor were his influences when he began composing songs in college. “When I’m writing, I’m coming from a place of feeling and looking at the visuals of a scene. I just find it more interesting to start a song from a place — such as the Huey Long Bridge — or a strong feeling, like ‘Wolf cried all the way to Memphis.’ It gets me going.”
“Wolf cried all the way to Memphis” is the opening line of the new album’s title song. The album features guest appearances by Derek Trucks, Mark Knopfler, and Chuck Leavell.
In the 1970s, Bramblett was a member of Leavell’s band Sea Level, and he has played with Gregg Allman, Steve Winwood, Widespread Panic, and Levon Helm. His songs have been recorded and performed by Bettye LaVette, Hot Tuna, Delbert McClinton, and Bonnie Raitt.
Despite touring with so many notable musicians for decades, Bramblett says some of his happiest and most satisfying moments were in small clubs with his bands. “Things just happened that were magic,” he says.
Other onstage highlights were Woodstock ’94, Carnegie Hall with Gregg Allman, and a recent opening set for Winwood at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre.
“I was very thrilled to be in front of the big crowd at Woodstock ’94, and I was very nervous at Carnegie Hall,” he says, referring to the the 25th anniversary of the original Woodstock festival.
The best concerts that Bramblett attended as a spectator were James Brown & the Famous Flames at the City Auditorium in Waycross, Georgia, in 1966, and Bob Dylan and the Band at the Omni in Atlanta in 1974.
“I was in high school for the James Brown show, and he was one of my idols at the time,” Bramblett recalls. “I had never been to a big show before and certainly never one with a full house of black people jumping to the most powerful, funky, and exciting showman of all time.
“The place was on fire with the funk. I remember James doing his cape routine with Bobby Brown and thinking ‘this music is from another world.’ It was a new thing altogether that no one else had done. We spent hours with our drummer trying to reproduce the James Brown beats.”
The Dylan and the Band concert occurred when the Band had become “one of my all-time favorite American groups,” Bramblett says. “Being from the South, I really identified with the songs, the voices and the instrumentation. It felt like a traveling medicine show. They just complimented Dylan so well, and he was actually playing his songs they way they were recorded—at least during his acoustic set. Powerful stuff.”
While those shows have proven inspirational, he says the most influential concert he’s ever seen was another one in Atlanta: Leon Russell.
“I can’t remember the venue, but Leon Russell and his big band played in Atlanta at some big place around 1972. It was a religious experience but not just the chemicals. It changed my piano playing.”
Bramblett says the best album he ever appeared on was probably Gov’t Mule’s Live with a Little Help from Our Friends. The double live album — also released as a four-disc collectors’ edition set — was recorded on New Year’s Eve 1998 at the Roxy in Atlanta.
“I had no rehearsal and didn’t really have time to think much about what I was playing,” Bramblett says. “It was late and somehow it all came off great.”
Bramblett says the best album he has listened to is Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis. Davis teamed with another jazz innovator, Gil Evans, for the 1960 album that’s universally known as a masterpiece. “It’s so beautiful, moody and innovative,” Bramblett says. “The chords and melodies still influence me today.”