Randall Bramblett – Lost and found
On the eve of putting the finishing touches on his new album, No More Mr. Lucky, Randall Bramblett was going over its songs with his wife, looking for common themes and traits. See Through Me, his exceptional 1998 album and first under his own name in more than 20 years, failed commercially. Even anticipating more support from his new label, New West, than he got from his last one, Capricorn, the veteran Georgia rocker was of the mind that he could better target an audience for No More Mr. Lucky if he had a stronger sense of its overall appeal.
Not that Bramblett has ever needed an excuse to scrutinize himself, his work, and his place in the world. An album of Springsteenian romanticism shot through with Southern soul, See Through Me was streaked with questions: “Where do we stand on the trembling earth?” “What do we know when we don’t know what love is worth?” “Are you gettin’ any closer to what you really meant to be?”
The new album, produced by John Keane (best-known for his work with R.E.M.), has a cleaner and more polished sound than its guitar-driven predecessor. A multi-instrumentalist who started out as a session saxophonist and also plays guitar and keyboards, Bramblett hears it as more sophisticated and less rootsy. Keyboards are given greater prominence. Some tracks feature lighthearted ambient effects. Jabbed and jolted by his “psycho alien horns,” the lead tune, “Get In, Get Out”, is an adrenalized swing through Bruce Hornsby territory.
But for all that, No More Mr. Lucky is no less meditative or mystically inclined than Bramblett’s other efforts, including his 1975 debut That Other Mile and its 1976 sequel Light Of The Night. He is not one to indulge in boy-girl, June-moon stuff. With his sandy, spiritual, easily intimate vocals and speak-song, he offers vignettes, still lifes, dream images. In most of them, contentment and self-security prove elusive.
“I don’t know why exactly, but there do seem to be a bunch of songs about getting lost and found,” said Bramblett. “For me, getting lost isn’t always a bad thing. Like I sing on ‘Lost Enough’, your best chance of finding yourself may be allowing yourself to be cut off from all the things that give you security.”
A carpenter’s son who hails from the southern Georgia town of Jesup, Bramblett studied religion at the University of North Carolina. He recorded That Other Mile in New York with leading session players including Hugh McCracken and Randy & Michael Brecker. He cut Light Of The Night in New Orleans, again with studio pros (including the great Allen Toussaint on one cut).
These albums were released when the Southern rock movement was in high gear. But though he recorded and toured with Gregg Allman, Bramblett wasn’t interested in climbing on that bandwagon. “Nothing the Allman Brothers did corresponded with what I was into,” he said. “I was open to different genres, to experimentation. I was into Ray Charles and Bobby Blue Bland and Miles Davis more than rock guitar.” A healthy dose of acclaim couldn’t keep Light Of The Night from sinking from view.
Bramblett enjoyed some success after being recruited by the super-session band Sea Level, which included future Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell. But the group, which remade some of his solo material, had its initial momentum drained and its internal relations ruined by outside pressure to write hit songs. The experience left Bramblett bitter. Drinking heavily, a tendency that had surfaced earlier, he disappeared from the scene for years, living in New Orleans.
After returning to Athens in 1987, he began putting his career back together via sideman jobs with artists including Steve Winwood and Gov’t Mule. Hooking up again with guitarist Davis Causey, his longtime songwriting partner going back to the late ’60s, he got his own projects going. “We work incredibly well together,” Bramblett says of Causey. “He’s like my alter ego.”
Bramblett prefers not to dwell on his bouts with substance abuse, but he does acknowledge his fascination with the relationship between drugs and alcohol and art. “Aching For A Dream”, a song on the new album, reflects his interest in the Beats, particularly Neal Cassidy, and their role in advancing the notion that getting high “jump starts” the creative process.
“The question becomes, can you attain that sense of freedom and abandon without alcohol and drugs?” he muses. “Are you really an artist without them, or do you have to do drugs to play like Jimi Hendrix? Do I need something more than what I’ve got inside to write a great song? You can bypass your feelings of inadequacy with drugs and alcohol, but can you do that without them?”
The answer certainly seems to be yes for Bramblett, who is more active than ever in writing and recording songs and pursuing outside projects. He recently flew to New York to record vocals for an album by Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover. Though Bramblett found that an odd match, “the material wasn’t what you would expect from him,” he says, adding: “He really likes my voice.”
When you’re on a second wind, you let the opportunities come where they may.