A blues traveler arrives
Given Doyle Bramhall's rocky path, the real 'News' is that he and his music are alive.
The artist's Grammy nominated album, "Is It News," is only Bramhall's third under his own banner, is more than a static scrapbook of memories. It reflects his range of influences: funk and blues and rock 'n' roll, unspooling the way he'd hear it in the grocery store where his mother worked: the country music in the meat market, the soul or blues in the storage rooms. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
The fourth cut, "Tortured Soul," sets itself apart from the rest, with its loping, almost slurring beat and Bramhall's worn, mystified voice, "What made me stronger was my tortured soul," sliding over the swamp of it all. It's a beat, tottering but persistent; like the unsteady footfall of someone punch-drunk, almost down for the count, but not yet.
Sunk down deep behind Bramhall's thudding kick drum is something else -- something heavy, solid. "A real heartbeat," says Bramhall. And as the instruments and voice trail away, that pulse continues, gains force -- steady, sure.
Like so much else in his life, Bramhall long struggled with this song -- 25, 30 years just to get the push/pull of the emotion right. And while you couldn't quite call it autobiography, it's certainly a metaphor; a page from Bramhall's life. A musician who has shared stages with Lightnin' Hopkins and Johnny Winter, but is most famous for his alliance with guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bramhall is grateful that this nomination is for something so hard-won and personal -- the fruits of nearly 40 years of travels.
A native of West Dallas, Bramhall grew up in a neighborhood so bereft of hope that locals dubbed it "the Devil's Back Porch." Eventually he pulled himself out of there -- with music, of course. He knocked around in bands, and joined the Chessmen in 1964, where he met guitarist Jimmie Vaughan. The two later went on to form a band, with Jimmie's younger brother, Stevie, called Texas Storm where they forged a deep connection -- one so close that Stevie cribbed Bramhall's vocal style. That band would become a fixture on the Austin club circuit, serving as one the keystones of the city's music scene in the '70s.
Through it all, Bramhall played and partied hard. "I say that I was in a coma in the '70s, I drank and drugged as much as I could. Every day, all day," says Bramhall. Even after he decided to call it quits, it didn't stop right away, "I was up and down like an airplane hitting the runway hard: bump, bump, bump . . ." well into the '80s.
Somewhere at the end of all of that -- clean and sober, on a new path -- he lost Stevie, his best friend and key collaborator, to a helicopter crash in 1990. "It knocked the air out of me."
Bramhall had co-written several of Stevie's signature hits -- "Change It," "Wall of Denial," "Tightrope" -- songs that helped blur the lines between what was considered rock and what was considered blues.
"We always knew when we got together that something good was going to happen," he says. "So it was devastating. I didn't feel like writing. I didn't feel like playing. It slowed me down a lot," says Bramhall. "But it also made me kind of sit back and go, OK what do I want to do?"
This album, only Bramhall's third under his own banner, is more than a static scrapbook of memories. It reflects his range of influences: funk and blues and rock 'n' roll, unspooling the way he'd hear it in the grocery store where his mother worked: the country music in the meat market, the soul or blues in the storage rooms.
"I wanted to do an all-original record that was big and intimate at the same time. And simple," says Bramhall over a plate of huevos rancheros.
For all he's been through, Bramhall looks hearty, alert. Like a man with a third chance. He's just touched down in the Southland for a few days with a full itinerary: Sunday's Grammy ceremony, a set tonight at the Mint. But for now, his hope is, as soon as his decks are clear, to spend some time with his son, Doyle II, who has taken the Bramhall name international, playing guitar with Eric Clapton. "I hope to see the grandkids a little later," he says.
A family affair
Bramhall, 58, is thrilled to be here -- not just L.A. or the Grammys, but right here, right now. In the present. He knows that several times he's been very close to losing it all. "Is It News" reflects the bounty, Bramhall's longing for connection, his sense of family -- immediate and extended. Time and again, Stevie's spirit floats through.
The Grammy nod for "Is It News," which Bramhall co-produced with Louisiana-based musician Charles "CC" Adcock, is that much more sweet since it is Bramhall's first endeavor with all original songs after many derailments and obstacles.
"There's a lot of fear when you've had such legendary work and status," says Adcock. "But I knew he was fearless in the way that he would always push, try new things."
Bramhall had been trying to make an album of original material for more than 15 years and had been stockpiling songs, or pieces of them, waiting or the right moment and the right person. That was Adcock. "Doyle's writing transcends the genre. They are not blues tunes, but there are moments or phrases that remind you of Jimmy Reed or Fats [Domino], but turned into something hip. There's a melody or groove to it that sticks in your mind."
The album is a collection of stickers on a suitcase -- evidence of travels -- stretching back 30 years or more. What Bramhall and Adcock have created is a collage of moments -- friendship, loss, love, the feel of an old stamping ground.
To get there, Bramhall looked for textures and atmosphere. Along with that heartbeat, he filled in space with just about whatever he could find -- a whisk broom here, a box there, even the flush of a toilet. "I like to start on 10 and jump over the cliff. Because when you go over the edge that's where it happens."
Slow and steady
Most times it takes Bramhall a while to ease into things -- an idea, a feeling, a new direction in life. "Doyle is kind of a slow Texan. Nothing happens fast," Adcock says. Writing, he discovered, meant hanging out. "Watching B.B. King videos. Going out to get chicken or tacos. And then you take a nap [or] a walk by the creek. And little bit by little bit something starts to form."
It's a recipe that seems to work -- it got Bramhall this far. And that's higher than he ever thought: "If not for drugs and alcohol, I would have killed myself," Bramhall reflects, "That's what kept me going."
Back in his worst days, he'd wake up in the morning and feel nothing.
"So, I think for me it's being able after 40 years to still be doing something that I feel that passionate about and still love as much as I do music. And this time to actually feel it. That to me is success."