The name is familiar, bearing a vague similarity to that of blue-eyed soul great Bonnie Bramlett, a former Stax artist with whom he worked in the 1970s. Keen-eyed music followers may even recognize the face from his stints playing with Traffic or Widespread Panic.
But despite a 30-year career that has seen him hang with some of the finest, most respected players in the business, Randall Bramblett remains a relative unknown. This fact was underlined recently as he and his band, playing support for Grammy-winning slide guitarist and vocalist Bonnie Raitt, worked their way around the Western half of the country, far from their usual Georgia stomping grounds.
"Most of the places we've been playing out West, people don't know us," Bramblett said from Austin, Texas, where the Raitt tour stopped Wednesday before heading to Memphis for a show Friday at the Memphis Botanic Garden as part of the "Live At the Garden" concert series. "They've never heard our material, but they're still really responsive, so that shows we've got something good. … By the time we got to Houston, people were stopping us and saying they loved it and 'What's the name of the band?' "
If Bramblett's name is not yet on the tip of music fans' tongues, it has been well known to his fellow artists for a long time. In the early 1970s, the Georgia native, recently graduated from the University of North Carolina, turned down an acceptance to a seminary school to pursue a music career.
"I was interested in how psychology and religion and how those two disciplines meet, and spirituality, I guess you'd call it," he said. "That comes through the music still. I'm still interested in that kind of thing."
Bramblett at first was best known as a saxophone player, blowing for Bramlett, Elvin Bishop and Gregg Allman before adding keyboards to his skill set on gigs with John Hammond Jr. and B.J. Thomas. In the late '70s, he began his longtime association with musician/producer Chuck Leavell (Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones), a fellow Georgian with whom he played in the short-lived but influential fusion group Sea Level.
But after recording two solo albums in the 1970s, the '80s were a fallow time for Bramblett. He stepped back from music, got clean and sober, and earned a degree in social work.
"I did some therapy for a while," Bramblett said. "I've always been interested in how people heal and change and connect with whatever spiritual life they have."
It was an out-of-the-blue call from Steve Winwood in 1990 that brought Bramblett back to music. He began a 16-year association with the Grammy winner, playing on solo albums and tours as well as in a new version of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band Traffic. He also reunited with Leavell and joined Widespread Panic for a pair of albums during this period.
Gradually, he built the confidence to resume his own solo career.
"I started writing again because I started getting encouragement about my abilities in music," said Bramblett, whose new songs found a champion in Raitt. She featured his "God Was In the Water" on her 2005 album Souls Alike and opens most current concert dates with her rendition of his "Used To Rule the World" off her new record, Slipstream.
"I also started missing writing. So I had to kind of learn how to write again. This time it would be without any chemical assistance."
Bramblett made his solo comeback in 1998 with the Capricorn Records release See Through Me, and since then has released five more solo albums, including four on the New West label. His latest is The Meantime on his own Blue Ceiling label. The record is a departure from his usual soulful rock sound in favor of a quieter, more contemplative mood dominated simply by Bramblett's voice and grand piano.
"I just wanted to use some of the songs that were more quiet, romantic and beautiful," said the songwriter, who pulled from 30 years' worth of material for the set. "They didn't really fit with any band records I was doing. I just did that one. I probably won't do any more like that again. But it was fun to do, and I needed to do it. But my latest that we're almost done with is going to be rocking again, crazy and rocking."
Bramblett hopes to release The Bright Spots next month if he can find a label to put it out.
"It's too hard to do it yourself — you can't get it heard," he said, stressing his renewed dedication getting his music out. "I'm focusing on my solo career. I'm not a sideman anymore for anybody. This is what I love."
Bonnie Raitt and Randall Bramblett
8:30 p.m. Friday at Memphis Botanic Garden in Audubon Park. Tickets: $40, $69, $88 plus service fees. Tickets available by phone at 901-636-4107 and through Ticketmaster. For more information, visit liveatthegarden.com.