Throughout the 1970s, you could find Randall Bramblett at the forefront of some of the most adventurous rock ‘n’ roll endeavors in popular music.
A Georgia boy who made a name for himself in the Athens scene, he was tapped by Gregg Allman to play as a sideman and session musician for a number of projects. Other bands and musicians, including the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Elvin Bishop and Cowboy, recognized his innate ability to make any project of which he was a part sound better and requested his contributions as well.
The Allman Brothers Band offshoot Sea Level, which fused jazz, blues and Southern rock, recruited him as the decade slid toward its end, and for several records and tour cycles, he was part of that groundbreaking outfit as well.
But then he walked away and spent three years watering plants.
That’s not all he did, of course: More than anything else, he held tightly to his newfound sobriety. After stumbling into a 12 Step meeting 37 years ago, spun out and defeated, he played one more gig with Sea Level before deciding he wasn’t ready, and that he might not ever be.
Fortunately, the new way of life on which he was working gave him the peace of mind to accept whatever the universe had planned, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.
“I just let it all go,” Bramblett said. “People in the program told me, ‘If it’s supposed to come back to you, it will,’ but I was willing to let music go at that time and start a new life. So I got a job with these guys who had this indoor plant service, and that what I did: I went around watering plants in these office buildings in New Orleans.
“It was the most humble job you could have on earth, just driving a van to these buildings and pushing around a cart with water in it, but actually, it was good for me. All I did was go to (recovery) meetings and push that cart around these buildings. Nobody knew me, and I was just soaking up the program.”
And then, three years later, the universe told him: It was time.
Now, almost four decades later, he’s releasing a new album, “Pine Needle Fire,” one of many notches he’s made since those halcyon days of early sobriety, and if the record is any indication, Bramblett’s life is an example of the things that sobriety promises: “Lost dreams awaken and new possibilities arise.”
And what a grateful man he is.
Randall Bramblett lights a 'Pine Needle Fire'
From the opening track, “Pine Needle Fire” — released last Friday — is a smorgasbord of sounds that resonate with the familiarity of his colorful career. A casual listen reveals that each track, sewn through with the thread of Bramblett’s technical and creative chops, might have found a place on the records made by a number of the contemporaries he's played with over the years: Steve Winwood, for example, or Widespread Panic.
However, any similarities come down to this: He doesn’t sound like the folks he’s worked with in the past on “Pine Needle Fire”: They sounded like they do on their respective records, tours and performances because Bramblett was there to fill in the margins with his sumptuous, soulful sound, tasteful playing and deft abilities to sharpen the melodies or turn the fills into exotic, adventurous soundscapes.
Throughout it all, the new record is a rumination, in many respects, on the ticking of the clock. In recalling his sobriety journey with The Ties That Bind Us, it strikes him that he’s been sober now longer than he had been alive when he first got that way at 35. It’s little wonder, then, that time’s passage is a big part of the overarching themes on the new album.
“There’s a lot about time slipping by, about not much time being left,” Bramblett said. “I really didn’t plan any of this out; I just try to write as much as I can and pick out the best songs that seem to work together, but I notice there’s a theme that keeps coming around. ‘Built to Last,’ ‘Another Shining Morning’ — several are like that, about how nothing is lasting, or that there’ just not that much time left.
“I’m 72, and I’ve become more aware lately that I don’t have many years left, compared to what I’ve already lived. It’s just being aware of mortality.”
It’s not a nostalgic record, although there are some songs that likely percolated in the recesses of childhood memories of growing up in South Georgia, songs like the title track and “Manningtown” — “That’s me thinking about growing up down there in the flatwoods, falling in love in the pines, that kind of stuff” — and some socio-political observations, as a song like “Another Shining Morning” takes aim at the injustice and frustration he’s felt over the past four years.
And then, he adds with a chuckle, there’s one that might resonate with anyone who’s spent a little time around an alcoholic, recovering or otherwise.
“It’s a good little codependent song called ‘Rocket to Nowhere,’” he said. “The guy is a total fuck-up, but the chorus goes, ‘When are you gonna come back home?’”
And while it isn’t necessarily autobiographical, Bramblett was, at one time, just like the guy in the song. But it didn’t start out that way — it never does, because despite the depths of despair that most addicts and alcoholics wind up in, none of them start out thinking a drug habit or drinking problem sounds swell.
“In fact, I was going to go to divinity school,” Bramblett said. “I was studying religion in college, and I didn’t want to go to Vietnam. But then I got a high lottery number and said, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to Athens and play music with my friends.’”
Music strikes the match
By that point, the boy who grew up in South Georgia had dabbled in penning songs of his own, and the siren song of music called more insistently that education ever did.
“That became more important to me than going to school anymore, because I’d found something I really love,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing in college, other than a lot of drinking. I hadn’t gotten into much trouble in those days, but it was coming.”
In Athens, he fell into a vibrant music scene, that played hard, pushed boundaries and partied harder. While the majority of the South may have been conservative at the time, Athens was a college town in which alcohol and drug use was wide open. Bramblett found his people, and most of them were already several steps ahead of him when it came to consumption of substances. But when he did partake, it always took him back to the first time, when a friend’s parents let him have a glass of wine, and it changed everything.
“Just drinking that and feeling that warmth, that stuck with me, even though her parents didn’t let us get drunk or anything,” Bramblett said. “I just remember feeling like I belonged in a grown-up world, like, ‘I’m not a kid anymore.’ And the next time I remember that we got really messed up, we got a guy to buy us some port wine, and we just drank the hell out of it and got tore up.
“I loved it from then on. I remember riding around by myself in high school with a quart of Budweiser between my legs, feeling grown up and feeling like everything was right. Of course, that was because I always felt pretty uncomfortable, insecure and inadequate, anxious around people, and like I didn’t feel at home in my own skin.”
If substances felt like a chemical suit of armor, however, music felt like the secret passageway to a higher plane of existence. It’s difficult to point to exactly what record during his formative years first gave him a glimpse of that portal, but it was most likely Dylan, he said — probably 1964’s “Another Side of Bob Dylan.”
“With the songs on that record, he really started expanding what you could write about,” Bramblett said. “all the songs were going into a much broader and cooler poetic place than anything I had heard before, and he was writing about things I didn’t know you could write about, like ‘Chimes of Freedom’ —just observing a thunderstorm and thinking about freedom being related to lightning. I mean, damn! Those songs really woke me up.
“The subject matter and the way you could say things could be much broader than I had imagined before, and that album showed me that. Before that, I was writing just pretty dumb songs, but I know that woke me up, and once I got out of college, I started really focusing on writing here in Athens and trying to do something different.”
Randall Bramblett: Musical heights and alcoholic depths
In 1974, the sole remaining Allman brother, Gregg, was putting together his own band to tour outside of the famous Southern rock outfit he’d established with his late sibling. Tapping into the rich tapestry made up of Georgia musicians, he asked Bramblett to play saxophone and keyboards, and if the Athens scene had a reputation as being a party town, it might as well have been a single-stoplight backwater burg in the middle of nowhere compared to life on the road with Allman.
“Before that, I think I had just messed around a little bit with other drugs, maybe taken some acid, but going out on a major tour with Gregg, cocaine was a big deal,” Bramblett said. “That’s where I got more into cocaine then, and drinking, too. We had a private plane, and it was nonstop partying.”
But playing with Allman opened doors to a number of other projects — most noticeably Sea Level, which formed when the Allmans broke up, and members Jaimoe, Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams used their musical chemistry to launch a fusion group that incorporated the jazz they all loved. Bramblett joined in 1977, and Sea Level started out, at first, as a serious endeavor, Bramblett said.
“Even though we got more and more into partying, I think I might have been worse,” he said. “It got really to where the partying was much more important than the music, and after a couple of records, it was all just about getting out and partying. That’s when I started getting consequences and hurting other people.”
The last three years were dark ones, he added. He recognized he had a problem, but when his peers and friends tried to help, he brushed them off. On the last major tour he was a part of, playing with drummer Levon Helm of The Band, he was a wreck.
“They had to talk to me a couple of times, telling me I was over the line the night before,” he said. “That kind of shook me up, and I told myself, ‘You need to cut back, especially if these professional people know what you’re doing.’ So I tried.
“I would switch over to Valium, or smoke weed to stop drinking so much. I even tried Antabuse (an anti-drinking medication), but I would just cut back on it and start drinking again. I just couldn’t do it very long. I just couldn’t stand to face life without taking the edge off.”
By 1983, he was living in New Orleans with the woman who’s now his wife, but his ability to be a partner, and a father to her son, was inhibited by his addiction. She didn’t lose sight of the man she knew he could be, however, and in the end, it was her tough love that helped him see the light.
“We were living in a little shotgun house, and I didn’t have anywhere else to go, really,” Bramblett said. “I loved her, and she was a together person compared to me, and she finally said, ‘We just can’t stand to see you kill yourself. You’re going to have to get some help or leave.’ I know that was hard for her, because she wasn’t accusing me of anything.
“I think I bitched about it for a minute, but then I said, ‘OK, I’ll call somebody.’ The truth was, I had been desperate for a long time, and I knew I had a problem.”
The building blocks of sobriety
His first call was to a drug and alcohol counselor, who asked Bramblett how much he drank. His answer: “A few beers” — not because he was ashamed, but because to his alcoholic mind, the problems he had stemmed from everything else in his life besides the booze.
“But then he told me, ‘I’m a recovering alcoholic,’ and then he told me some of his story,” Bramblett said. “After he did that, I said, ‘I drink a lot more than I told you. I’m really fucked up, every day I get up and throw up. My liver’s hurting, and all I know is that I’m going to start back sometime after I get to feeling better.’”
The guy suggested a 12 Step meeting, and the next day, Bramblett went to his first. It was, he said, like discovering long-lost family members with whom he immediately felt comfortable.
“After that meeting, I didn’t have any more cravings,” he said. “It just went away, because I just gave up. Of course, I had to get a sponsor, because about three months in, I realized I was fixing to go back out if I didn’t get some help. So I finally grabbed a guy that I was kind of afraid of, a real French Quarter character, and he saved my ass.”
He also walked away from music, quite literally. At three months sober, he got on stage with his old Sea Level bandmates, and it shook him up. He looked around, saw how much everyone besides him was drinking and felt awash in anxiety. At the set break, he stumbled through the back door, desperate for fresh air and determined to get the hell out. The security guard on that side of the auditorium, however, said something so completely random that it reset him, at least temporarily.
“The first thing he says is, ‘I know how to pray. You just get up in the morning and thank God for the sun coming up, and thank God for another day,’” Bramblett said. “He just captured my mind long enough to lose that crazy anxiety, and I went back in and played the gig. But then I realized I wasn’t ready to go back on the road with everybody drinking and me not.”
And so Randall Bramblett, the world-class multi-instrumentalist, became Randall, the guy with the water cart who gave plants a drink. And it was good — for about three years, when it became boring, and Bramblett thought, “There’s got to be more in sobriety than this.” So he decided to go back to school, at first thinking about becoming a biologist, but that felt wrong. And the more he pondered his future, the more he realized what was missing.
“I started thinking that I’d left a huge part of myself behind: this creative side, this musical side. My soul,” he said. “It occurred to me that I was afraid because it was all associated with drugs, because I used alcohol and drugs to write and to play, too.”
And so he tried writing sober for the first time, on a small portable piano at home. As it turned out, he still had the gift, and while he was still in school — having switched to social work, with the intention of becoming a counselor — he convinced his wife and son to move to Athens, Georgia, so he could be closer to his writing partner. But while dipping his toes back in the waters of music, something came along and gave him a mighty shove.
Randall Bramblett: A full circle return to the stage
“I got a call from Steve Winwood’s musical director, and they were rehearsing in Nashville for a big tour, and they wanted me to come play with them and be a horn and piano utility player,” Bramblett said. “I said hell yeah, because I love Steve Winwood, and I love Traffic. So my wife and I talked it over, and I told them, yeah, I’ll do it.”
And so he underwent the most difficult test of his sobriety: Showing up to Nashville, in a room full of professional peers after having been out of the limelight for four years, and working through his demons, sober.
“I didn’t even own a tenor sax, and during rehearsals, I got to feeling so inadequate, because it was bringing up some old shit for me,” he said. “Some of it was real, because I wasn’t really prepared, but I would go back the next day, feeling like shit. But I got through it by going to meetings in Nashville, even though I was convinced they were talking about me behind my back or were going to send me home. Somehow, I made it through that tour, and Steve called me back for all his tours for the next 16 years.”
Once he got past that initial fear, however, he realized how much he enjoyed touring — and how much he remembered of it without getting blasted in a new city every night. In between, he stayed in school, intending on working as a counselor and a therapist, but the muse demanded more and more of his time. He began slowly releasing solo albums when he wasn’t touring with Winwood, signing with New West Records for 2001’s “No More Mr. Lucky,” and with the label at his back, he realized that he had a decision to make.
“Eventually, I needed to either be a side man to Steve for the rest of my life, or do my own thing,” he said. “And that’s what I really wanted to do. Even though playing with Steve was great, and the money was good, there was nothing like the feeling of writing and song, of hearing it become something in the studio, of getting it out and seeing of people like it. So that’s what I decided to do, and that’s what I’m still doing.”
While much of his early work with Sea Level and even two solo records on the Polydor label back in the 1970s was frightfully good, it was also more esoteric. His post-sobriety music resonates with an authenticity that is one of the benefits of self-reflection, self-discovery and self-worth that come out of working and living a recovery program, he said.
“What alcohol and drugs were doing for me was what they do for people who can’t dance: You don’t have any fear of making a fool of yourself, but you’re just messed up,” he said. “When I got sober, I had to do all the self-conscious shit, and even though I’m more free now, I still have to do it, because if you’re not paying attention, you can turn into something where you’re too stiff.
“When that happens, there’s no sense of humor. You’re taking yourself too seriously, or you’re taking the song too seriously, or you’re thinking about it too much. And so the question becomes, how do you get free? How do you become free in sobriety to write?”
Keeping the 'Fire' stoked
For Bramblett, freedom comes through continued service to his sobriety, and to being a part of the world instead of apart from it. That includes being of service to others in the music world who reach out a hand in need and want to get sober.
“I’ve worked with a lot of musicians who are trying to get sober in Athens, and it’s a benefit in so many ways,” he said. “The challenge, I think, of sobriety is learning to be somewhat uninhibited. When we were fucked up, we didn’t give a shit, because it didn’t matter. Once we get sober, we don’t want to be like that, but you don’t want to be so self-conscious, either. You want to be free.”
And in that freedom comes the ability to accept life on life’s terms — even if life, Bramblett added, includes a pandemic. When COVID-19 hit in March, he had dates with fellow singer-songwriter Marc Cohn on the books, dates with his band lined up and plans to finish up “Pine Needle Fire.” He pivoted pretty easily and did some streaming concerts in the beginning, but then grew restless.
“I talked to New West, and I told them that it didn’t make any sense to put out a record and not be able to play behind it, and they pointed out that nobody’s touring, and who knows when tours might happen again?” he said. “So I decided to go ahead and put it out. We had to figure out how to finish it up, but it just needed some background vocals and some horns and guitar stuff. We went over to the studio, one at a time, stood outside while the other was recording and found a safe way to finish it up.”
He and the band played the record in its entirety at a socially distanced video shoot for the record, all of which will be chopped into single releases to roll out over the winter, but as far as live shows go, there’s nothing in the pipeline for Bramblett until next spring. It can be, he said, demoralizing as hell for any musician — much less one in sobriety. Fortunately, he has some tools that help.
“When it first came around, I got into some depression, but it’s all about acceptance,” he said. “This is what’s happening right now, and at first, I was just kind of taking care of business and not dealing with my own loss, but when I did that, it really helped me. I’m going to Zoom meetings right now, and I’m going to keep on writing and playing as much as I can.
“Because really, when I take a step back, I see that all this is totally precious. I’ve got a good life now, and I don’t want to see it go. Not that life is always great, but it’s so much better than it once was, that I don’t want to let it go!”