Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Randall Bramblett remains for far too many an under the radar artist, even after making, with Pine Needle Fire (New West), his twelfth studio album. In addition to his stellar solo work, over his four decades career he has performed and composed alongside Traffic, Steve Winwood, The Allman Brothers, The Band’s Levon Helm, Bonnie Raitt, Widespread Panic, and was the linchpin of Marc Cohn’s 2019 tour with The Blind Boys of Alabama. Bramblett is a child of the protest movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, hoping for change and viewing a quiet desperation on the part of way too many.
Appropriately, Bramblett begins with the tune “Some Poor Soul,” laying down a gently bubbling bass-and-percussion groove suggesting the dawn of a new day as he sings “Some poor soul had to get up at 4…I hear the shower running in the room next door.” This ode to working class experience is one that touring musicians can relate to, give the crummy hotels many stay in, these words speak to a shared experience. More character studies follow, first with “Rocket to Nowhere” which addresses the abuses of alcohol and drugs, one that he can sadly relate to as well in his past life. Instead he takes the song from the codependent side. He injects some humor into “Lazy (And I Know It”). He keeps both moving with his signature southern funk/blues groove with owes to both NOLA and Muscle Shoals.
Bramblett’s collaborators are his usual crew of Davis Causey on additional guitar on four tracks, Gerry Hansen on percussion and weirdness, Nick Johnson on electric guitar and Seth Hendershot (a bit newer) on drums and backing vocals. Bramblett has all lead vocals as well as keys, acoustic guitar, and tenor sax. Tommy Talton plays Duane Allman’s Gibson SG on “Faith in You” for the slide solo. Kishi Bashi with strings on the title track, Betsy Franck on backing vocals, Michael Steele on bass, Tom Ryan and bari sax, and Kevin Hyde on trombone round out the cast.
The atmospheric haze in the title track is gorgeously stunning, a break from the funky sound that characterizes the first three cuts. This is Bramblett reminiscing about his childhood in Jesup, GA where the big industry is the paper mill and the cash crop is pine trees. “…when you’re young all you wanted to do was climb the fire towers and then fall in love. That all fit together into this image of smoke and pine needles and love burning and hurting and being a thing of beauty and wonder, all at the same time.’’ “Even the Sunlight” continues in a psychedelic vein as Bramblett is obviously troubled and maybe a bit disoriented. But he pulls us out of that melancholy with the acoustically strummed- slide guitar imbued “I’ve Got Faith in You,” letting us know he has empathy too. Former Cowboy and Gregg Allman Band bandmate Tommy Talton plays Duane Allman’s Gibson SG for the keening slide part.
”Another Shining Morning” refers sarcastically to the bleak news cycle, another on the theme of dashed hopes and a society that used to be a better place (“don’t have to be some kind of genius/to see the wolf is at the door”). Syncopated clavinet-driven funk returns on “Manningtown,” about the tale of a poor girl that consistently lifts the protagonist’s spirits. “Built to Last” is a powerful rocking love song, powered in part from Causey and Johnson’s twin guitars. Some will sense Winwood’s influence in the pulsating groove of “Don’t Get Me Started,” wherein Bramblett offers some angry retorts in a breakup. The vibe morphs to joy on the blissful “Never Be Another Day,” nodding to his granddaughter, advising her that every moment in a blessing. Here, as in the other moments previously mentioned, Bramblett’s despairing moments are short-lived, rescued by a wonderful uplifting, bouncy tune. Fortunately, he closes in similar fashion, a man reflecting with a wee hint of mortality on being grateful for life’s moments – “empty box that waits for me/oh that’s just no way to be/I don’t mind what i can’t see/maybe it’s just my lucky day.”
Randall Bramblett has a singular soulful sound, and thankfully, a wealth of creative energy looking forward. He has a catalog of consistently strong albums and Pine Needle Fire is the latest to join this esteemed list.