Singer-songwriter Graham Bramblett finds contentment in ‘The Great Inbetween’

Graham Bramblett

At the worst of it, singer-songwriter Graham Bramblett would sit at the bar, staring at the drink in front of him, unable to pick it up because his hands were shaking so bad, hating what he was about to do but knowing it was what his body required.

The Ties That Bind UsThe Texas native, who now lives in Nashville after an extended sojourn a decade ago to get sober and build a firm foundation in recovery, remembers it well, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently: Not the exact day, because by that point it could have been a Tuesday, but his eyes opened to a hammering hangover and tremors that made anything requiring fine dexterity impossible to accomplish.

“Before, my hands would shake every now and then, but I was really becoming a shaky mess, and I would have pretty hard withdrawals in the morning,” he said. “I woke up one day, and I could not have felt any worse. It was one of those days where you put on your cleanest dirty shirt, and then I went to brush my teeth, and just putting the toothbrush in my mouth made me want to gag. I felt like hell, I looked like hell, but I knew the only way I was going to function is if I got a drink in me.”

He lived on Music Row at the time, close enough to stagger to one of his more frequented watering holes, and ordered a screwdriver at the bar. He knew better than to pick it up, and he remembers clearly hovering over it, wrapping his lips around the straw, bracing himself for that first swallow.

“The first reaction was that my body wants to reject it, and I remember the rest of the bar was having lunch,” he said. “These are people going on with their regular lives, and I was just sweating through this drink, trying not to lose my shit. So I get that first drink down, and then I get another.

“I get a good pour from a friend who’s a bartender who knows me, and halfway through that second one, things start to even out again. And then by the third one, I feel back to normal, where I can do the day.”

He pauses, reflecting on the other end of this phone interview, remembering just how bad it was. It’s a painful memory, but thanks to recovery, it’s also a necessary one: remembering where he came from as an incentive not to return there. And really, why would he want to? Life these days is good, and with a new EP — “The Great Inbetween” — to his name, he’s back to doing the thing that brings him his greatest joy: Making music, and doing so with a clear mind and a sober heart.

Graham Bramblett: Straight outta Texas

Graham BramblettIt’s ironic, in a sense: The dirt-road twang of “The Great Inbetween” — the real thing; none of that prefabricated record label focus group formula — can be traced back to Bramblett’s Lone Star State roots, but it wasn’t until after he left Texas, he said, that he came to appreciate country music. Oh, it was around — “growing up in Texas, you couldn’t help but know and love George Strait and Willie Nelson, especially Willie — he was like everybody’s crazy, fun uncle that we all grew up around” — but his father’s tastes leaned toward more classic sounds.

“I remember that my dad introduced me to a lot of music early on, and some of my favorite artists I just loved and still love are Chuck Berry and Roy Orbison,” he said. “He was big into that, and from there I started progressing through all kinds of music and taking in whatever I could.”

Jerry Jeff Walker entered the picture when he was in high school, but the biggest influence on the sounds he makes today came from visits to his grandmother’s house in Southwest Arkansas. She had an old two-keyboard organ, and whenever the family car pulled up to her house, it didn’t take long for Bramblett to post up in front of it.

“I wasn’t playing it like an instrument, and I didn’t know what I was doing, but I remember finding the right combinations of chords where the harmonies sounded right, and it was pleasing,” he said. “My family was musical anyway — we had a piano in the house, and I was the kid who asked my mom to take piano lessons, because I loved tinkering with music and taking all of that in. But that little pink house in Southwest Arkansas, and going in and playing around on that little organ, that was a pretty strong signal for me.”

By all accounts, Bramblett said, his childhood was an idyllic one, meaning there were no straight lines between his later-in-life alcoholism and any sort of trauma or abuse he suffered as a kid. As he got older, he said, he came to see that alcohol was a familiar friend to some extended family members, but even then, there were no outbursts that made an impression on a young kid.

“When you’re a kid, everything just seems normal,” he said. “We had alcohol in the house, and around the holidays, there might have been somebody in the family who always seemed to be acting funny or quirky, but the only one I did know was my grandfather, my dad’s dad, who passed away the year I was born. I think that was a big influence on my dad, and having grown up around somebody that was actively drinking, my dad didn’t talk a whole lot about it.”

It wasn’t until high school that booze first set its hooks in Bramblett, and even then, the low-level warning light was difficult to differentiate from typical teenage oat-sowing. It was a New Year’s Eve, he remembers, that he and some buddies got fake IDs and went bar-hopping. By the end of the night, bouncers were onto them and tossed them out, but not before Bramblett threw up in a trash can at the bar.

“I got home, the room spun, and I threw up again, but the funny thing for me is that when I woke up the next day, I didn’t physically feel great, but I also didn’t have that reaction of, ‘I’m never doing that again,’” he said. “It felt good when I was in the bar. It felt like I was an adult, like I was OK, and I was like, ‘The hangover is just the cost of living.’”

Graham Bramblett finds his lane

By that point, rock ‘n’ roll was the biggest thing in his teenage life, and his heroes all overindulged anyway, he pointed out. And it wasn’t like he jumped headfirst into a deep end filled with vodka. Music proved a far more engaging activity in those days, and while those piano lessons gave Bramblett a good foundation, he used it as a springboard to other endeavors. In the eighth grade band, he played the snare drum, which led to a drum kit; in high school, he started playing in bands, and that’s when he became interested in songwriting.

“We didn’t know what we were doing or anything, but I was really interested in the process, in lyrical composition and poetry and that sort of thing, so I really took it upon myself to see if I could figure something out,” he said. “That’s when songs started coming together. And even though I played drums in college, a guitar was a lot easier to lug around. A friend of mine had one and taught me a few chords, and I ended up starting to teach myself. That’s when I started writing songs front to back with instrumentation.”

At the time, he added, Led Zeppelin was one of his biggest influences. He used to practice guitar to the band’s records, recreating the acoustic songs and expanding his repertoire to other guitar-heavy rock acts like Pearl Jam. At the same time, he embraced the jangling simplicity of the musicians his father had introduced him to as a kid. Throw in a little Neil Young on the cusp of his “Harvest Moon” era, and Bramblett had a strong list of covers that earned him bar gigs as a burgeoning solo artist.

Those bars, he added, became second homes to a guy whose drinking began to increase once he was away from home.

“It was definitely my identity, and I was always up for it — if you were looking to go to the bar and drink, I was your guy,” he said. “No question — any time of day, for any reason, I was in, and I liked that. That felt like a good uniform for me.”

A lot of college students drink, of course, but not a lot of them have the sort of health scare related to drinking that Bramblett did: He woke up one day with sharp abdominal pains, and when it didn’t subside, he went to the local emergency room.

“I got into the examination room, the doctor was kind of looking me over, and my hands were shaking,” he said. “She said, ‘Do your hands do this often?,’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ because I didn’t realize it was a sign of withdrawal. At the time, it was just part of the deal. And I remember the doctor looking me in the eye with a very serious face and said, ‘I think you have an alcohol problem.’

“It turns out I had a GI tract infection, and she was like, ‘I can’t tell you what you should or shouldn’t do, but you should go talk to the school resource officer about quitting drinking,’ and that terrified me. That was my identity, so if she takes away my drinking, who was I? I didn’t know. So the next day, I’m terrified, because I don’t want the physical pain again, but I don’t want to not drink.

“So I consulted my most trusted medical professionals — the guys in the fraternity house — and they said, ‘Take some Pepcid AC; it’ll help,’” he added with a chuckle. “So I bought some Pepcid AC and a case of beer a couple of days later, and off I went.”

Paying those Music City dues

Graham BramblettBramblett can laugh about it now, and when he tells his story as the speaker at recovery meetings, it’s always good for one, particularly among similarly afflicted peers who put consumption above personal safety. It’s always easier to shake your head and grin on this side of sobriety, he pointed out, but in the moment, those things become alarm klaxons that slowly increase in volume.

“I remember another thing that happened in college — after a heavy night of partying, I went to get cash to go get some food, and I ended up scraping up the whole left side of my vehicle on one of those retaining columns around the ATM,” he said. “The next day somebody came up to me and said, ‘What happened to your car?’ And I had no idea what they were talking about.

“Then again, the strange thing about college is that everybody is doing things like that anyway, and nobody really calls you out.”

After graduation, he moved to Nashville, which allowed him to pursue both music and drinking. The latter was part of the culture of the city, particularly the music industry.

“Obviously, I loved playing and writing music and all that sort of thing, but I also fell in love with this idea that I could continue drinking like I wanted to drink while doing music and make money at it,” he said. “I came down here, and in the beginning, I was trying to focus and feel my way around and see how things operated, but as the story goes, alcohol started becoming a major part of my life all over again.”

He eventually struck up a friendship with budding country artist Rodney Redman, who got a record deal and hit the road for a radio tour of the country. Bramblett signed on as his guitar player, and he found that while he had to show up on time for sound checks and rehearsals and load ins, the touring lifestyle lent itself to drinking, too. After a year and a half, however, Redman’s record didn’t light any fires on country music radio, the band split up and Bramblett worked to get a songwriting deal while working in the Nashville bar business.

“Over time, the bar business just kind of became everything,” he said. “I wrote with some good people, and I had some good connections, and I got a couple of cuts, but that was basically it. There were a lot of good meetings, but nothing ever came to fruition. And a couple of meetings I showed up to, I found out later that the person I was meeting with could smell yesterday on me.”

Graham Bramblett and the gift of desperation

In sobriety, he’s come to understand that alcohol was the panacea to cover up a whole lot of fear: fear of success, fear of failure, fear of mediocrity. Friends along the way waved red flags and pulled him aside on occasion, suggesting he get help, and at one point, a DUI arrest meant he was court-ordered to attend some 12 Step meetings.

At the time, he hated them, he said.

“I didn’t want any part of that, and by that time, I had known some people who had gotten sober — in my family, even — so it didn’t seem so foreign, but I didn’t want any part of that, either,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine myself not drinking. It was like, who am I without alcohol? It was still so much of my identity.”

By the end, he was posted up with the lunch crowd, trying to drink himself back to normal, but when he thought about the future, a way forward wasn’t to be found.

“It got to a point where my world had gotten really small, and I took a look around one night when I was drunk and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore,’” he said. “I feel like I got lucky to get to a point where I didn’t know about getting sober, and I didn’t know about treatment, but bad things kept happening, and I was worried something really bad was going to happen.”

He reached out to his family; as it turns out, he had made plans to travel to Minnesota the next weekend to spend Easter with loved ones, and a treatment center nearby had an open bed. He flew up on Good Friday, 2010, detoxed at his sister’s house as best he could, and on Sunday evening, after the rest of the family had left for home, his sister dropped him off to “start something brand new,” he said.

“One of the happiest times of my recovery was awakening back to the world and figuring out who it is you really are,” he added. “For me, with my bottom, I didn’t have a job, and I didn’t have anything (in Nashville) to come back to, so I stayed up in Minnesota. (The counselors) were like, ‘Why don’t you do sober living for a while and figure it out? There’s no rush.’ And I couldn’t argue with them. I had nobody begging me to come back to Nashville, so there was no reason I couldn’t stay up there and take care of things.”

The gift of desperation, he added, was the realization that if he didn’t “take care of things,” if he put it, he would be back in another treatment bed in another year or two or three or all of the above … if he lived long enough to make it back. Alcoholism treatment, he added, was “the greatest experience I never want to do again,” but he found the reset button on his life, and in sobriety began to rebuild himself into the man alcohol had slowly drowned over the years.

Experiencing the fulfillment of Promises

Graham BramblettFinding that reset button involved the one internal component that can’t be bottled and sold in treatment centers or 12 Step programs: willingness. Willingness to give the recovery process a chance, Bramblett said, opened the doors for all of the rest.

“When you think about being a part of a community and doing service and working all of the components of it — working with a sponsor, being of service if somebody asks and seeking out opportunities to be of service, working on your spiritual condition, working the Steps — you fit in all of the other stuff,” he said. “Checking boxes is one thing, but I wanted to do that stuff because I wanted to be part of the solution. And the other thing was listening to people who came before me and did well at it and were examples of who I wanted to be.”

The peer community — in sober living and in the 12 Step program that’s still a solid part of his recovery — continues to be an invaluable tool of self-reflection and introspection, he added. In a sense, those people serve as a “board of directors” that allows him to get another perspective on problems and issues that vex him, so that he can come to a solution that’s both practical and spiritual.

What he found, as he engaged in the program and began to change, was that music came back to him with a purity that was missing in his early days. At first, it was just picking up the guitar whenever the mood struck; eventually, he started writing songs again, then began attending a writer’s night to play those songs and meet other musicians. That led to shows, which led to his first solo album, 2016’s “Under the Lights.”

“I had a good batch of songs, and so I picked out 10 and asked, ‘Is that going to make sense for a record?’ And it did,” he said. “I released that, and it got some good airplay from the local radio stations. Two years later, I released ‘Standard Harmony,’ and it was the same kind of thing. It got some good airplay at The Current (KCMP-FM, the Minneapolis/St. Paul public radio station) and on the country radio station in town, and it was really cool how that was coming together.”

At the same time, his professional career began to take off as well. His first sober job was at a Super Target, putting produce out on shelves, until he eventually began moving up the retail ladder and into management. He eventually landed a job at corporate headquarters in Minneapolis, where he worked for a couple of years before changing jobs and going to work for a guy who’s a huge music lover. He became a fan of Bramblett’s work, and in 2017, he left Minneapolis to take a job at Tractor Supply Company in Nashville.

“By that time, every year or so, I would make a trip down to see some folks and check in with some people, and I kept in touch with him,” Bramblett said. “We went and had lunch, and a year later, at a time when I was really unsure of what I wanted to do and where my career was going with work and music, out of the blue, he texted me and said, ‘Hey, do you know anybody who’s looking for a job in Nashville?’”

Graham Bramblett: Back to Nashville

By that point, Bramblett’s sound had come back to his roots — a sort of country-soul fusion that’s reminiscent of The Derailers or Memphis singer-songwriter John Paul Keith. There’s a definite bounce to songs on “The Great Inbetween,” particularly the Elvis undercurrent of lead-off track “Tom T. Hall T-Shirt,” but on “The One That I Want,” from which the title track is taken, is a killer combo that straddles the line between Texas swing, horns included, and Nashville honky-tonk. That new direction, he said, seemed to fit better in a Music City setting, and so he started the process of leaving Minneapolis and moving back to Nashville.

In more ways than one, it was a serendipitous turn of events.

“My sponsor, he and his wife lived in St. Paul, but they hated St. Paul because of the winters, so they moved to Nashville in 2016 or so,” he said. “At this point, my sponsor lived down in Nashville, and my boss that was a fan of the music I created was like, ‘I figured you might be interested in coming back and doing the same music stuff down here.’”

Coming back dredged up old memories, but Bramblett found that the guy who came back to Music City was a far different individual than the broken one who had left it in 2010.

“Especially as it relates to music,” he said. “I think it’s really easy to get caught up in trying to do things to please other people, to try and write the kind of songs I think other people want me to write, or other people want me to hear. One thing I was pretty careful about when I started writing songs up in Minnesota was, ‘Hey, you really need to write the stuff that inspires you.’

“Ultimately, you’re writing for an audience of one, and you need to write for yourself and write what you love and what it represents. If it attracts other people, it’s great; if it doesn’t, then at least it’s something that speaks to you. There’s too much in Nashville that has to do with luck and chance, but to me the standard was, ‘Is this something I love? Then if I love it, it’s OK.”

That’s not to say that he doesn’t occasionally put his work under a microscope, or compare it to what’s climbing the charts. But that’s the other thing sobriety does — it keeps him grounded, he added.

“That’s where being an active member of a program allows you to keep all that energy in check!” he said.