by Michael Buffalo Smith
Randall Bramblett has a hot new album out this month on New West records, (Now It’s Tomorrow) but this ain’t his first rodeo. Bramblett has been playing keys and sax and singing in his smoky, near perfect voice for nearly four decades, performing solo as well as with Gregg Allman, Cowboy, Sea Level, Traffic and more. He was a major team played during the glory days of Capricorn Records.
His songwriting is unparalleled. His songs have been recorded Rock’n’Roll Hall of Famer Rick Nelson, roadhouse legend Delbert McClinton and, most recently, the incandescent Bonnie Raitt (who covered Randall and Davis Causey’s “God Was In The Water” on 2005’s Souls Alike).
Today, The Randall Bramblett Band is a unit of ultra talented players that can put on a show like nobody’s business, opening for bands like Widespread Panic and selling out their own gigs as well.
We caught up with Randall between takes at the recording studio in his hometown of Athens, Georgia for an exclusive GRITZ interview.
We finally made it! After trying to hook up for five years.
Yep. Now here we are.
Were you born in Georgia?
Yeah, I was born in Jesup - down near Savannah.
So have you lived in Georgia all of your life?
Pretty much. I moved to New Orleans for a while, for about eight years. And I went to school i North Carolina for four years. Other than that I’ve been in Georgia.
What was the first band you ever played in?
When I was in junior high I played in a band called The Five String Alongs. (Laughs) Then I played in King David and the Slaves.
Oh, I read about that band in the Hey, Hey Baby Days book.
Yeah. We played a lot during high school and my college days. It was just one of those bands that played mostly soul music covers.
There were a lot of those bands around that time I believe.
Oh yeah. A lot of them.
Who were your earliest musical influences and inspirations?
Probably people like Elvis and Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. People like that and James Brown. And Bob Dylan started me writing songs, really.
You were a big part of the whole Capricorn Records scene during the seventies. I know you played on Gregg Allman’s Laid Back album and then toured with him, which is chronicled on the On Tour album.
That was the first time I ever went on a national, big tour. Before that I was playing with Cowboy and living out at Idlewild with them and doing sessions in Macon at Capricorn Studios. I think it was a blossoming of Southern music going on at that time. It was a real exciting chance for me to go out with a big tour and play some music that was really good too with Gregg. I had been recording and playing some before that in Atlanta and in Athens, but going to Macon I think really helped me get started in the music business. There was just so much going on then. Capricorn was doing real well and Gregg’s tours were doing real well. We had an orchestra and everything, it was just a real exciting time.
What can you tell me about Johnny Sandlin?
I still work with Johnny over in Decatur. We did a Bonnie Bramlett record recently and a Cowboy record. (See phoros of session here) Johnny is a great producer. He’s a real easy, laid back guy. He always gets those great sounds he’s always gotten, you know? He’s always consistent and really easy to work with.
You mentioned Cowboy. I know you have been working some with Tommy Talton lately.
Oh yes, Tommy. Our paths have been crossing a lot lately.
What are your memories of working with Boyer and Talton, Cowboy?
Well, most of us lived out at Idlewild. Tommy and Scott David Brown and me, out on the lake there in fish camp kind of situation, it was really fun. And we just rehearsed there at the house. I did one record with them and we toured. It was a great band. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for you know, for me. Musically I was more into rhythm and blues and they were more in a country rock vein. But it was fun while it lasted, and then I moved on to Sea Level and Gregg and doing my own stuff.
I know you played on two of Bonnie Bramlett’s Capricorn albums, as well as her latest record, Beautiful. The duet between you and her is amazing. What are your thoughts on Bonnie?
Bonnie's one of the classic great soul voices. She’s got such a spirit and energy about her when she sings. She’s a winner. She is a survivor. And she’s got that voice that nobody else has. She’s unique. I always enjoy working with her. She’s a great spirit. A kindred spirit.
How did you come to join Sea Level?
Well, Chuck (Leavell) and Jimmy (Nalls) and Lamar (Williams) and Jaimoe had already formed Sea Level and had done a record as the jazz side of The Allman Brothers. Chuck and my band had been playing some dates together, and for their second album I think Chuck wanted me and Davis (Causey) to come in and help with the writing and the singing. Just expand the group a little bit. That’s when I joined, right after my first solo record.
Any special memories of working with Sea Level?
Well, we rehearsed over in Chuck’s basement in Macon. It was a really exciting time. We played the Opera House in Macon, I think that was one of our first gigs. It was really fresh and new and exciting, the combination of jazz and funk and rock, or whatever we were doing, it was pretty unique. The first record we made together, Cats On the Coast, is a really good record. It had “That’s Your Secret” on it, which I think was Sea Level’s most successful song - that and “Shake a Leg,” I guess. It was a lot of fun at first, but then some of us, like me, were sidetracked with other issues, like partying too much and not writing enough and squabbling inside the organization. It was just a time when there was too much indulgence going on and we couldn’t sustain what we were doing. But we made some more records and there were some good ones. On The Edge was a good one. But it got less and less successful. Capricorn folded and we - I’ll speak for myself, I was doing too much of everything. But it was great playing with Chuck. And Jimmy Nalls - all of them.
How did you enjoy working with Steve Winwood?
Oh, I loved it.Steve’s a great guy and has great songs. I always loved Traffic when I was in college. He’s one of my favorite singers and players of all time. It was a great honor to be asked to be in his band. I played with him for about fifteen or sixteen years.
Recordings too, I imagine?
I did one album with him, and the Traffic reunion in 1994 which was recorded. He records most of his stuff himself, or with a couple of other people.
I found it interesting that you went 20 years between solo albums before you returned with See Through Me in 1997. Why so long?
I was working with other groups mainly. And when I moved to New Orleans I took some time off and just didn’t do anything for a while. Got into recovery and stopped doing alcohol and drugs and just focussed on that for a while. I got married. Then I got the call from Steve Winwood. I played with Levon Helm on a couple of tours in the eighties, but after that I focussed on recovery and sobriety. Then I got back into the music with Steve. But it was time to focus on my songwriting. People encouraged me to start recording again, and that’s when we did See Through Me in Atlanta for Capricorn.
Tell me about Davis Causey.
Davis and I have been together since ‘69. He was in King David and The Slaves, Third World Band I guess it was called then. Then we broke that up and just tried to write. We worked together and lived together for many years. He’s always been a close partner. He’s always been in my solo bands.He’s a great player. He’s running the studio now. That’s what he’s focussing on now. He and I used to write a lot together too. But I imagine we’ll always be playing together. He’s a great player. A very unique player.
Tell me about the rest of your band.
Davis and I had been doing some sessions with Jerry Hanson, the drummer. We knew he was a great drummer. And I called him up to see if he wanted to play some gigs. This was about four years ago. He eventually agreed, because he’s a real busy studio guy. He liked what we were doing, and I said well, we need a bass player and another guitar player, so he knew Mike Hines and Mike Steele from doing sessions with them. I had never met them before that. So we brought them in and after our first rehearsal we knew we had a great band. They were just kicking ass and they knew all the material.Then we did the album Rich Someday at Jerry’s house. Jerry’s a fantastic drummer and a great producer and engineer. He’s the best producer I have worked with. He is a song person - they are all song people, they pay attention to the songs. Jerry just knows how to make the best of a song. They are all just great, great guys and I feel fortunate to have found these guys and to have them working with me.
What are your thoughts on the new album?
I think it’s a bigger and more commercial sounding record than Rich Someday. It’s more structured and more produced in a way. I wrote most of the stuff myself this time so I had definite ideas about what I wanted to hear, But I believe its a more energetic, more commercial sounding record, I hope. It rocks.
I understand from James that the CD release party in Athens was a great success.
It was great. It was totally packed. We draw on the energy of the Athens crowd. It was fantastic. We had a great audience. Fans that have been with us since the seventies. And new people too.
You are not only a great musician but a very successful songwriter. Tell me a little about your process, how you write. Do you work from a title, or music first or a phrase?
I write in a journal every morning, kind of free form. If I get an idea out of that or a scene or a phrase I put it in the back of the journal. Then when I’m in a writing mode, I tear out the pages and take them downstairs to the computer and grab a guitar. It’s much easier for me to write if I have words to sing along. It’s a lot harder to have music and try to put words to it because you are constrained so much by the melody and the music. But if I write from lyrics first, I can just sing the thing and build the song around it. That’s the way I do anyway.
Do you have any favorite songs that you have written?
Well, I’m recording one right now that I really like. It’s called “The Grand Scheme of Things.” It’s just piano, bass and drums. There are several songs I like on each record that I’ve done. On this one “We Used to Rule the World” and “Some Mean God” are my favorites. I like “I Don’t Care,” and “Nobody’s Problem,” and “God Was in The Water.” And “Get in Get Out.” Those are some of my favorites.
As an aside, tell me a little about living in Athens, Georgia.
It’s great. It’s as laid back as you want it to be. Or you can get involved in the music every night downtown too. It’s the perfect town. I don’t think the job situation here is very good. There’s too much over qualification. Everybody’s got a doctorate. The living I think is perfect for a musician if you’ve got a little bit going on, or if you’re a writer. It’s my favorite town I’ve ever been in. It’s a kind of liberal oasis with lots of culture and music.
I know James Calemine is going to speak with you about your work with Widespread Panic...
...so I want to close by asking about your immediate future plans.
We are going to be touring and playing s much as we can behind this record and doing radio shows and promoting it s much as possible. We’ll spend several months doing that and going up the east coast and doing the CMJ thing and the Americana Festival and as much as we can do.
And you’ll be a couple of miles from my house when you play at Fall for Greenville in October. I’ll see you there.
Oh yeah. It’ll be fun. I look forward to seeing you again.And thanks for the interview.
My pleasure. Thank you Randall.
Randall Bramblett Discography
* 1975 That Other Mile
* 1976 Light of the Night
* 1998 See Through Me
* 2001 No More Mr. Lucky
* 2004 Thin Places
* 2006 Rich Someday
* 2008 Now It's Tomorrow
* 1977, Cats On The Coast, Capricorn
* 1978, On The Edge, Capricorn
Randall Bramblett Guest Appearances
* 1973 Gregg Allman, Laid Back, Capricorn, Randall-sax
* 1973 Atlanta Rhythm Section, Decca, Randall-piano
* 1973 Cowboy, Boyer and Talton, Capricorn, Randall-sax, vocals
* 1974 Elvin Bishop, Let it Flow, Capricorn, Randall- sax
* 1974 Hydra, Hydra, Capricorn, Randall-sax
* 1974 BJ Thomas, Longhorn and London Bridges, Paramount, Randall-piano, keys,vocals
* 1974 Gregg Allman, The Gregg Allman Tour, Polygram, Randall-organ, horn,sax, horn arrangements
* 1975 Bonnie Bramlett, It's Time, Capricorn, Randall-sax
* 1976 Bonnie Bramlett, Lady's Choice, Capricorn, Randall-sax
* 1975 John Hammond, Jr., Can't Beat the Kid, Capricorn, Randall-piano, keys
* 1977 Cowboy, Cowboy, Capricorn, Randall-sax, vocals
* 1977 Allman and Woman, Two the Hard Way, Capricorn, Randall-sax
* 1980 Robbie Robertson, Carny soundtrack, Warner Brothers, Randall-sax
* 1990 Steve Winwood, Refugees of the Heart, Virgin, Randall-sax
* 1992 Elvin Bishop, Sure Feels Good: The Best of Elvin Bishop, Polydor, Randall-sax
* 1993 Cowboy, A Different Time-The Best of Cowboy, Polydor, Randall-sax
* 1994 Various Artists, Woodstock `94 DVD, A&M, Randall-woodwinds, keys
* 1994 Traffic, Traffic Live 1994 DVD, Rhino, Randall-woodwinds, keys
* 1996 Jan Krist, Curious, Silent Planet, Randall-piano, keys, sax
* 1996 Francine Reed, Can't Make it on my Own, Ichiban, Randall-sax
* 1996 Johnny Jenkins, Blessed Blues, Capricorn, Randall-organ, sax
* 1998 Vigilantes of Love, Live at the 40 Watt, Paste, Randall-Hammond synth
* 1998 Allman Brothers Band, All Live, Polygram International, Randall-sax
* 1998 Doubting Thomas, Who Died and Made You King?, Oh Very, Randall-sax
* 1998 Filet of Soul, Incommunicado, Shank, Randall-sax
* 2001 Vigilantes of Love, Summershine, Compass, Randall-organ, piano, keys, mellotron,chamberlain
* 2001 Gov`t Mule, The Deep End, vol. 1, ATO, Randall-organ
* 2001 Enlightenment Road Band, Songs from the Road to Enlightenment,Five Feathers, Randall-piano, organ,sax, vocals
* 2001 Johnny Jenkins, Handle with Care, Orchard, Randall-keys
* 2001 Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons, Conscious Contact, Terminus, Randall-organ, keys,Wurlitzer, vocals
* 2002 Widespread Panic, Live in the Classic City, Sanctuary, Randall-sax
* 2002 Roger Glover, Snapshot, Red Ink, Randall-piano, keys, organ, sax, vocals
* 2003 Deep Purple and Friends, Purple and Other Colours, Snapper Music, Randall-vocal
* 2004 Widespread Panic, Jackassolantern, Sanctuary, Randall-sax
* 2005 Traffic, Last Great Traffic Jam, Legacy, Randall-woodwinds, keys
* 2005 Johnny Jenkins, All in Good Time, Mean Old World, Randall-organ, keys,sax, vocals
* 2005 Chuck Leavell, Southscape, Megaforce, Randall-recorder, sax
* 2008 Rick Fowler, Back on my Good Foot, Jammates Records, Randall-organ
* 2008 Bonnie Bramlett, Beautiful, Rockin` Camel, Randall-sax, keys, vocals