The Cox Capitol Theatre in Macon, Georgia is a symptom of the agèd city, a positive externality of the erosion of time and the dust-filmed glory of history.
I came to the Cox Capitol Theatre to interview Randall Bramblett on the heels of the release of his latest record, Devil Music. I was planning on conducting my interview later in the evening, but things were going smoothly with equipment setup and the gig was running ahead of schedule. When I was escorted backstage, I met with Mr. Bramblett, a remarkably approachable man. Though unassuming, Randall Bramblett still possesses an obvious luminance of talent and experience that he carries just as easily as the clothes on his back. We shook hands, exchanged introductions.
Randall went back to the stage to fine-tune his keyboard and then we went to the green room, stepping inside a narrow dressing room with four swivel chairs and a wall-length mirror. It was while sitting directly across from him for the first time that the full magnitude of his travelled knowledge began to sink in. I fired up my recorder and prepared for an unforgettable conversation. I was not disappointed.
Throughout your career you’ve worked with a bunch of different people – Gregg Allman and Steve Winwood immediately come to mind – and I know that you worked with Mark Knopfler on this album. Are there any stories that you can share about working with famous musicians that people have only heard of in legend?
(Laughs) Well, yeah but I don’t know if I want to share some of those… (he teases with a smile.)
Everybody I’ve worked with has been a teacher for me, you know? Gregg [Allman] is just a great singer, great organ player and I used to go over and…look at his organ settings when I was working with him and try to learn organ – and the way he sang is beautiful, too. With Levon Helm it was just the joy of playing, and playing a lot of songs with him that…I grew up listening to, and just riding with him in a van and listening to his stories, and it was a great experience for me…the joy he has for playing (or, he had). And Steve is just a great gentleman and a great talent, Steve Winwood. You know, you pick up stuff from ‘em and I used to watch Steve on organ, too, and listen to his soloing, you know? So they’re all just great people and I sound like Donald Trump: They’re all great! Great! Tremendous!
Well…you have been able to work with a lot of incredible talents so it’s only fitting. You worked with Mark Knopfler on Devil Music. How did the decision to bring him in on “Dead in the Water” come about?
He picked the song, but the reason we got him was because Chuck Ainlay…was the engineer for us in Nashville where we cut a lot of the stuff and he’s Mark’s engineer and built his studio in London so he suggested we send Mark some songs and see if he’d pick one or two to play on and I was like ‘yeah, right, he’s not gonna pick anything, he’s getting ready for his own tour,’ but he picked ‘Dead in the Water’ and we were overjoyed…he was in London so I didn’t get to be there while he was doing it, but we emailed back and forth and…he’s just a real gentleman, too, great guy and he did a fantastic job playing on this thing ,he just killed it…wish I could have been there when he was doing it, just to watch him, but he gets the sound like nobody else. The sound in his studios is just incredible.
At least you got to be together through the kinship of music.
Yeah, that’s right, and I was just thrilled that he picked a song and he wanted to play that one. Swampy. Yeah, ‘swampy’ is exactly right and the whole album has that feel and I love it.
What do you miss about the studio when you’re on the road, and vice versa?
Studio…it’s just a treat to be in the studio, you know? We’re not in the studio except once every couple of years unless we’re doing a session for somebody else. So, doing it this time, we got to be kind of the ‘guinea pig’ band for a brand new studio with all these great engineers who were doing a DVD on engineering. It was Chuck Massenberg and Chuck Ainlay and Elliot Scheiner…all these great engineers, and we got to be the band that they used to make this DVD. So they were explaining mic techiniques and recording techniques to the people who used this DVD and so it was kind of a master class in engineering.
So we got the benefit of that, and then we came back again and Chuck was our engineer for…most of the rest of the album, and being in the studio with those guys was just like an amazing treat and honor because they’re getting these sounds, and the studio itself was just beautiful, the Nashville Sound Stage. So working in the studio gives you the chance to build the song, get creative, listen to what other people are doing, and playing live is a different thing because you’re basically reproducing in a way and trying to solo the best you can…and trying to improvise in different ways, but [in] the studio…you’re building the song for the first time so it’s all brand new, there’s excitement and magic to being able to play in the big room and playing together, and we had Michael Rose playing bass so…just star people, they were all tremendous.
I know in your career you’ve been a session and touring musician. What is the biggest challenge about being a singer/songwriter as opposed to being a hired gun?
Just coming up with songs, you know? That’s the hard part. …Once you learn how to play well enough, and be with people well enough, to be a sideman or studio guy, you just keep doing it, but songs…every time I write a song it’s like the last thing I’ll ever write, I’m afraid, so it’s always the songwriting part…to me where a lot of the creativity comes, and there’s a lot of fear and insecurity associated with that, but once you get a song produced and recorded then you just have to learn it, and learn how to play it live, and bring it across live. …It’s a different mode you’re projecting, and going out with songs once they’re done, but when you’re writing it’s all inward and you’re trying to reach something from within and bring it out. …So it’s a different mode of working.
Since we’re already talking about songwriting, I know you talked about the beat writers like William S. Burroughs being a big inspiration for the lyrics in Devil Music.
Well, thinking about him being down in Algiers, which is [in the] New Orleans area, was an inspiration for one of the songs, but beat poets and beat writers…I’ve always been interested in them. Whether it’s Charles Bukowski, you know he’s not really a beat guy, but Jack Kerouac and all those guys influenced me a bit…It’s really thinking about their lives that I’ve written songs from, not so much…their writing, but mostly about ‘what was it like when William Burroughs was down there with his speed-freak wife (who he later killed)?’…but the way they were living, oh my God…I mean, it sounded kind of romantic in a way when Jack Kerouac would describe it, but it had to be terrible because they had little kids and, you know, he’s a junkie trying to score every night in New Orleans. I mean it was a rough scene down there, so that song just kind of came out of thinking about people who are kind of at dead-ends, I guess, and it’s not going to be long before they’re gone, you know? Because they’re living so hard.
Right, and so you get a lot of creative freedom with that.
Yeah, and the “Devil Music” song came out of reading …and talking to Hubert Sumlin…who was his [Howlin’ Wolf’s] guitar player. That story about his mom and them reuniting and him finding her and she still turned him away, and so he cried all the way to Memphis with his band…And after reading that biography again, I’m convinced he had PTSD from being abused as a kid because when he went into the Army he had that same reaction…when sergeants were screaming at him…and he had to be hospitalized in the Army for that…and I asked Hubert ‘Did he really cry the way?’ ‘Yeah, we just couldn’t settle him down he was just… broke up’ you know? Because his mama just wouldn’t accept him. So I thought ‘that’s a great song’ so that’s where that song came from and it kinda led to a lot of songs on the record having that bluesier feel.
That’s a great place to build from.
Yeah, ‘Whiskey-Headed Woman’ came out of that, ‘Strong Love’, you know? ‘Dead in the Water’ came out of that, I think, just the feel of it. I was like ‘this is so swampy and devilish’ and so a lot of the songs came out of that.
Absolutely. So, having had a steady career for a long time, you have a lot of longtime listeners. What do you think they’re going to expect from Devil Music and what’s going to surprise them?
It’s harder and kind of nastier than anything I’ve done. I think they’ll like it, it’s still kind of fun in a weird way. It’s powerful, I’m singing harder, I’m singing more like I used to, more bluesy…a lot of them are one-chord songs with maybe a little bridge section, but they’re very simple and kind of primitive…distorted vocals, and so…they have a lot of black music feel to them, and it’s different than what I’ve done before, but I think they’ll like it – it’s what I’ve got right now…These are the songs that I love right now so I think they’ll like ‘em, but maybe some people will think that’s it’s just too mean-sounding, too dark-sounding. That may be a reaction, I don’t know.
I know I, personally, loved it. Just got a couple more for ya. If you had to give any aspiring musician a piece of advice, what would it be?
Well…if you’re a player, you just got to practice and listen to different styles and learn that stuff. Our guitar player, Nick Johnson’s, like that. He’s a young guy, but he listens to everything, he works all the time. He took a lot of stuff from Jimmy Herring, you know? So he works at it all the time and you listen and you absorb. And songwriting is a different thing altogether. I can’t tell people how to write songs. I’ve been asked to do songwriting class kind of things. I don’t know. The main thing is just showing up and being receptive, keeping a journal, you know?”
“Little simple tools, writing stuff down all the time, paying attention to details and things, that’s what Kerouac and them did with details and that’s one of the cool things about…Courtney Barnett and people like that: they have details in their songs…It doesn’t have to be like that on every song, but it helps, I think, make a song unique and, you know, that’s what I do anyway, I try to make a song unique and try to make it…have some feel in it, but I never know…I never come to a song and write it in ten minutes. I always have to work on it; a lot of things involved, play with it a little like a puzzle.
The main thing is keep coming back to it, keep coming back. Take a break, take a day or two, keep coming back, then you hit it one day and that’s the technique for me. Other people they come out and write a song, they have an idea for writing a song, but that’s a different kind of writing than I do. Mine’s more like discovering a little piece of a treasure rather than trying to find the rest of it, and putting it all together.
Inspiration leads onto inspiration?
Yeah. Once you get a little kernel of it going, it’s ‘oh, yeah, that’s what the song’s about’ and I can go from there. Just getting going on it is hard sometimes.
Perfect. Obviously music is going to be your legacy and so, for the listeners who are new to your record, and for the long-time listeners, what do you hope they take away from it that they can either apply to their attitude toward music or the way that they live their lives?
God, that’s a hell of a question. What do I hope that they take away from it?
Mmmhm. Devil Music or just your music in general.
I hope the feeling of the records come through, you know? It’s not an intellectual exercise, that’s for sure, but I hope you can get a certain feel for these songs…I know I grew up admiring and loving black music because of its depth, its authenticity, its strength and spirituality, its humor, so all that stuff is what I look for in a song and I’m hoping…people can pick up on it, too, just like I did. I don’t know: fun, darkness, salvation, all that stuff is in those songs and I hope people can pick up on that.
Randall thanked me for my time, we shot some photos, and he returned to the stage to begin rehearsals. After two hours; a killer rehearsal; the arrival of some out-of-town friends of the band, Randall’s self-described ‘groupies’ who brought with them horned headbands and Fireball whiskey; and a beer with drummer Seth Hendershot, the band took the stage to a flurry of waiting applause and began their set with the title track from Devil Music, at once delivering a sour, gospel kick before guitarist Nick Johnson slid gracefully through the Mark Knopfler-penned solo on “Dead in the Water.”
The pale blues and biting reds of the stage lighting shrouded the already sinister music in a cloak of foreboding, but the attitude of Randall’s voice, the cruising melodies of the bass (played by Michael Steele), and the layer of sampled sounds that Seth Hendershot deployed through a Roland SPD-S revealed the playful Hyde lurking on the other side of Devil Music’s Jekyll, confusing darkness with levity in a twisted paradox of gray-shaded sound.
Randall, from all of us, don’t stop playing that devil music.
Interview by McKinnie Sizemore