Always a sideman, never a star?

Randall Bramblett

Doors are opening for Randall Bramblett.

Randall Bramblett has kept some fairly righteous musical company over the years: This Southern-rocking soul man — an adept singer, keyboardist and sax player — was a member of the Sea Level, the ’70s-era Allman Brothers spinoff band, and has also gigged with the likes of Gregg Allman, Levon Helm, Traffic, Widespread Panic, Atlanta Rhythm Section and Steve Winwood.

In fact, he was a member of Winwood’s touring band for 16 years.

So, when he re-launched his solo career in 1998 — more than two decades after releasing his 1975 debut album — he could have wandered in many musical directions. After so many years of playing with Winwood, he could have chosen to make polished pop-soul records. Or, given how much fun he had on his two tours with Helm, he could have opted for the rustic, woodsy Southern Americana vibe of the Band, one of his biggest influences.

And he did in fact commingle several different styles on his last few solo discs. But given his Georgia roots, it was probably inevitable that Bramblett would find his way back to the Southern-soul path. More specifically, his latest CD, Rich Someday (New West), is a uniquely Southern mix of country soul, classic R&B and sinuous but supple folk rock.

Bramblett’s previous disc, Thin Places (’04), offered a sleeker version of Southern R&B and roots rock, but Rich Someday is “trashier sounding,” as he likes to say — capturing the grittier side of the classic-R&B tradition that inspired him as a kid: Ray Charles and Otis Redding were among his early heroes.

“Yeah, I remember, late at night, I could pick up WLAC out of Nashville,” recalls Bramblett. “They played a lot of deep soul and gospel and off-kilter R&B that you couldn’t hear anywhere else on the radio.”

Those memories evidently stayed with him — or at least returned — when it came time to record Rich Someday. Bramblett, who performs Friday at Downtown After Five, stresses that “I wanted to make sure it didn’t come out too slick; I wanted it to sound more trashy, and make sure it had an edge. I wanted some sounds that are not so pretty, because the lyrics to these songs” — mostly wistful ruminations on loss, or melancholy recollections of past times — “needed music that wasn’t middle-of-the-road stuff.”

While Thin Places was helmed by Nashville producer Michael Rhodes, Bramblett turned to his drummer, Gerry Hansen, to produce Rich Someday. The difference is striking — Hansen’s production offers more warmth and immediacy. Also contributing to the disc’s organic feel is that it was recorded with Bramblett’s touring band of the last two years. And of course there is Bramblett’s voice — a grainy, fine-sandpaper instrument he uses to emotive, down-home effect.

“Like music being played at a Mississippi roadhouse — for aliens”

“We all agreed we didn’t want it to sound like a ‘studio album,’ we wanted more of a live feel, and Gerry sort of led the way, and I agreed with just about everything he suggested,” says Bramblett by phone from his home in Athens. “He had this concept of how it should sound, compared to my previous record — that we should make it sound as spare as we could, and not cover up the urgency, and not do a million takes.”

At the same time, the disc definitely benefitted from the unhurried nature of the sessions. It was recorded at Hansen’s home studio, in Lawrenceville, near Atlanta. “So we had the luxury of working on the tunes for a while, then dropping it if we started to burn out, and then go[ing] back to it later. It was great not being under the time constraints you usually have, like when you’re renting studio time and fly in a bunch of session guys from New York. The sessions were spread out over a couple of months, so we were able to let the songs evolve.”

A couple of songs on Rich Someday were actually reclamation projects — “More You’re Fading” and “Queen of England” were initially recorded during the Thin Places sessions, “but we didn’t put ’em on the album, because they just didn’t sound right to me. They sounded too average, too normal.” However, “on the new record, they sound … a little distorted and trashy, like music being played at a Mississippi roadhouse for aliens or something.”

While the black soul artists of the ’50s and ’60s were key to Bramblett’s musical development, he was also one of countless others who drew major inspiration from Bob Dylan when it came to crafting lyrics. “When Dylan came along, he changed everything — he totally changed the way we looked at how lyrics could be used to convey and combine images.”

And while some Dylan critics talk about how Dylan was doing fists full of amphetamines in the mid-’60s, when he wrote his most surreal and kaleidoscopic lyrics, Bramblett knows better than to attribute genius to chemistry.

“I mean, anyone can take speed. But not too many people can write an album like Blonde on Blonde.”

For the better part of the last 20 years, Bramblett has primarily made his living as a sideman, with Winwood being his main employer. But all of those gigs have inspired his own music in one way or the other, and he has fond memories of interacting with so many different artists from varying sub-genres.

“Like, touring with Levon Helm was one of the greatest, most fun experiences of my life,” he effuses. “The Band was a big influence on me, right up there at the top, and I got to play a few Band songs on those tours. At first, I was sorta star-struck, being up there playing on songs like ‘The Weight’ and ‘Up on Cripple Creek.’ But Levon just loves to play, and he’s funny as hell, and the most important thing was that we just had a ball playing. The band was billed as the Muscle Shoals All Stars, so it had that sound. And a lot of times we were playing the kind of places where it didn’t matter if we screwed up.”

A more poignant gig was the 2002 tour he did with Widespread Panic, after Panic guitarist Michael Houser first took ill with the cancer that claimed his life not long after. “I did that one because Mikey was sick, and they didn’t think he was going to be strong enough to make it through all of the shows.” Bramblett played sax, while George O’Connell filled in on guitar. Together, the pair interpreted Houser’s guitar parts.

“They’re a great bunch of guys, and they have a real rock attitude — they’re opposed to learning a song too well, because they don’t want to sound too polished,” recalls Bramblett. “I had played on a couple of their early records, but I didn’t know their music that well. I remember freaking out during rehearsals, because there were like two or three different versions of a song going on at once. But that tour was a real shot in the arm for me in terms of getting my name out there.”

That’s key for Bramblett at this point in his career, since he’s decided to devote all of his time to his solo work after relying on sideman paychecks for years. “I’m trying to find my own musical and lyrical voice, and I really want this solo thing to happen.

“I’m committed to this project, this record, this tour. This is the music I want to make now.”

And if Winwood were to give him a call in a couple of months with an offer to go on the road?

“Oh, I’ve already talked to Stevie,” affirms Bramblett. “So he knows this is where my heart is right now.”

[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom can be reached at]

The Randall Bramblett Band plays Downtown After 5, a free show at Pack Square (plus beer and food vendors), on Friday, Aug. 18. 5-10 p.m. Stephanie’s Id opens. 251-9973.

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