When contemplating a sound for his newest album, Randall Bramblett decided to follow the well-used dictum that less is more. But in doing so, he wanted to make sure the “more” would mean a lot more.
“I had heard a Wood Brothers song, ‘When I Was Young,’ with a three-piece arrangement that was really powerful and cool,” said Brambett, who performs Saturday at Willie’s Locally Known. “I had been playing with a four-piece group for years now and really wanted to feature them on the new record. The songs we had were pretty funky, so I didn’t want to overdo the production on it. I just wanted to see if we could simplify things some and let people recognize more that this is what we do live. It’s not a jam-band thing, but I wanted to let the guys in the band open up more and not overthink this record too much. I wanted to have fun with this one.”
So began work on “Juke Joint at the Edge of the World,” the 11th album by the veteran Southern songwriter. As both a composer and a multi-instrumentalist, the Georgia-born Bramblett took inspirations fromthe early-1970s heyday of Capricorn Records and applied them to a series of albums on the New West label rich with characters, stories and imagery that perhaps better befit a novel than a pop song. Then the music kicks in: traditional Southern soul and funk with a hint of jazz that remains open enough to employt modern loops and grooves. Bramblett might have come from the land of Southern rock, but his music over the past 15 years is perhaps better viewed as funk and soul that starts from the South but reaches pretty much around the globe.
“I guess what I was thinking about mostly were these big distorted guitars like we used on ‘John the Baptist’ (a tune from his 2013 album “The Bright Spots” that sounded like a Stax Records version of Traffic, a band Bramblett just happened to play in when it re-formed for a 1994 tour). We ended up producing this really big rock sound on that. I wanted to make this album funkier, smaller and, really, more powerful. If you keep the music thinned out, sometimes you get intimacy and power.”
Perhaps the most distinctive example of the less-is-way-more approach comes in “Mali Katra.” The tune’s heavily percussive groove accents a title that came to Bramblett in a dream. But the imagery established in the first line (“40 buzzards on a cell tower”) is a mixture of almost folkish doom and modern technology.
“It was a weird juxtaposition. I was thinking about getting older, so I felt there’s got to be a song when you have all these buzzards on a cell tower. It was like, ‘Don’t pick up the phone. They’re calling.’ I wanted to mix a bunch of these crazy images that don’t normally wind up together.”
The release of “Juke Joint” coincides with two events — one professional, one personal — that quite unintentionally underscore the sense of mortality at the heart of “Mali Katra.” The first is Bramblett’s involvement on “Almost Home,” the new album by the Blind Boys of Alabama. He composed the title song from interviews detailing the childhood hardships of group founders Jimmy Carter and Clarence Fountain, both now in their mid-80s.
“I took some of what they were saying about being sent off to the school for the blind, how tough that was for them there as little kids and what a mean-ass guy was running this place. But being able to sing and learn music saved them, really, and got them traveling. That opened up a whole new world.”
“Juke Joint” was released a mere six weeks after the death of Gregg Allman, whose early solo albums and tours helped introduce Bramblett to audiences outside the South.
“Gregg’s solo tours were the first time I really got out on a national stage and played these big venues like Carnegie Hall. He really helped me get started. It was through him that I met Chuck (Leavell, then the pianist for the Allman Brothers Band and the spinoff group Sea Level, which would enlist Bramblett as a member). There was a big connection for us through Gregg’s music.
“Right before he died, I texted Gregg because he wasn’t able to talk and told him how much I appreciated all that. He helped me so much.”