Josh Bramhall is sick. His fingers trickle down the bridge of his nose and squeeze between the cartilage and bone to loosen the liquid funk.
“It’s headed down south,” he says, tapping on his chest.
The 29-year-old Bramhall, who bears more than a slight resemblance to Gram Parsons, is a gifted guitarist and a modern-day carpetbagger. He came to Detroit via Texas and Arkansas to write roots-rock and blues songs. His debut album, Dawn of Remembrance, is about to see the light of day.
For blues junkies, the Bramhall name is legendary. His uncle and cousin (Doyle Bramhall and Doyle Bramhall Jr., respectively) rose from the Austin blues joints more than a decade ago during the reign of Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The elder Doyle, a drummer, penned songs for Stevie Ray. Doyle Jr. played guitar and sang in the lamented Arc Angels (a searing, bluesy, early ’90s rock ’n’ roll band that also included Stevie Ray’s rhythm section and guitarist Charlie Sexton). Junior has traded licks with Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Pink Floyd leader Roger Waters.
Tonight, Josh Bramhall is rehearsing for his upcoming CD release show. His live band is a veritable Who’s Who of seasoned Detroit cats.
Rehearsals are at the Roseville home of soon-to-be-legend Bobby East, guitarist of slop-rock’s Hemigod. East’s basement rehearsal space is cluttered. Amid the band gear and PA, there’s a Sponge-Bob Square Pants fort, a kiddy pool table and clothes hanging from the pipes.
East, noodling on his sticker-riddled Gibson SG, fixes on Bramhall’s fingers. Brothers Groove singer-keyboardist Chris Codish stands between East and Bramhall. Hemigod skinsman Todd Glass sits behind the drumkit. Squeezed between Glass and Bramhall is the Reefermen’s bassist, Greasy Carlisi. Ken Robinson is seated on an old couch, blaring his trumpet. (Robinson is a noted session man who tours with the Temptations and has logged hours of studio time with Eminem and Kid Rock.) The Reeferman’s James Waylan clutches a tambourine.
Most of these men are rising from the Fifth Avenue circuit, mining a motherlode of blues, rock, and funk. And there’s just enough room here to nail down Bramhall’s songs.
Bramhall began to focus on music early in life by playing drums. He bailed from school in the ninth grade to pursue the devil’s racket, thus following an educational tradition set by his uncle, cousin and Jimmie Vaughan.
Bramhall’s father, Dale, an accomplished songwriter and pianist in his own right, recalls Josh as “not academic material.”
“I could see he was so bored,” Dale says, via phone from his home in Eureka Springs, Ark. “He began playing drums for me in Austin and with other people like Uncle John Turner and Johnny Winter.”
At one point, Bramhall picked up the guitar, and he and his bassist brother Zach began cutting their teeth performing blues standards and classic rock covers in Austin and Dallas clubs in the early ’90s. They sniffed out gigs, but had trouble landing good ones.
After Stevie Ray died in 1990, a void was left in the Texas clubs. Many of the older players in the area began protecting their territory. The club doors were shut.
“There was this fear of nepotism,” Bramhall remembers. “Charles ‘Sugar Boy’ Myers, Freddie King’s drummer, told us, to get a gig we should watch the obituaries and then maybe there’d be a chance. And that’s how it is. Austin isn’t what people think it is.
“You go to a show and all there is is all these older guys lined up waiting to play at the show and that’s all,” he continues.
Papa Dale watched his son’s struggles in disbelief.
“It was a closed system in the ’90s,” he says. “The musicians were protecting their turf.”
One night in Dallas, a young music biz entrepreneur from Michigan named Rob Redding heard Bramhall play. The guitarist was ripping through Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun” and Redding was blown away. A friendship between the two developed, and Redding brought Bramhall to Detroit.
“I saw him play and had to meet him,” remembers Redding. “We weren’t in close contact but somehow fate or something kept us finding each other. I was walking around in Dallas, on a visit, and I looked over and saw a girl in this old pink Cadillac and saw that Josh was driving.”
Redding became Bramhall’s manager and began overseeing his career and helping him out financially. At the time of their meeting, Bramhall was playing limited gigs and was caught in a musician’s go-nowhere netherworld. The gigs, says Bramhall, added up to little more than “old Cadillacs and Thunderbird liquor.”
Redding helped put together a stellar cast of local musicians to back Bramhall. He lured in former Black Crowes keyboardist Eddie Harsch. Harsch then began assembling local players to record Bramhall’s debut at White Room Studios, including Johnny Evans of the Howlin’ Diablos, Ken Tudrick of the Detroit Cobras, Jeff Fowlkes of Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, plus live band members Robinson and Codish.
“I really liked his stuff and recognized that his talent was head-and-shoulders above,” says Codish. “We connected and he encouraged me to do what I felt.”
Trumpeter Robinson spent time on Bramhall’s songs and gave him a place to crash at his flat in Berkley. Robinson, a guy who’s seen musicians come and go, believes Bramhall has got what it takes. “I think this kid’s gonna go all the way,” says Robinson. “I’ve been around enough musicians to know.”
After years of playing cover songs and mastering the basic fundamentals of guitar playing, Bramhall began writing for himself. Songwriting then became a form of self-medication.
Like any songwriter, Bramhall wants his songs to have staying power and depth, to “have legs.”
“I’ve tried to capture the melody and soul of black artists,” he says. “I’m a harmony freak and like the cleanness of Lennon and McCartney too because of their interpretation of our great black artists.”
Two of the tracks on Bramhall’s forthcoming debut, Dawn of Remembrance, “I am Remembering” and “I Wanna Hear the Music,” were co-written with his pop. The tunes are rife with horns, keys and contemporary blues changes.
Dad understands that his son is “less experienced” at singing, but says he’s a lot more prolific as a songwriter than any of the other Bramhalls.
“He spent about a year in Austin doing the pre-production alone with a 16-track recorder, playing the drums, bass and guitars,” Dale says. “He brought me the demos and some sketch lyrics. I helped him come up with some concrete thoughts. ...”
Other tracks, such as “Summer Swelter” and “Sun Came Up,” are gentler acoustic grooves bolstered by personal lyrical reflections.
The album’s mix, done by Amjed Abdallah at Studio 8, is a bit suspect and doesn’t seem to capture the diverse qualities of Bramhall and the other musicians. As a singer, Bramhall is still finding his voice. But it’s his guitar playing, melodies and horn arrangements that carry the album, which mixes Texas blues, Southern soul and ’70s radio pop. Think Little Feat, J.J. Cale and, perhaps, the Band of Gypsies.
All told, the process of making the self-released debut — from writing to assembling the band to recording to releasing — took well over two years. And Bramhall is, of course, hoping the record takes his career to the next level. All the players involved believe that Bramhall has the potential to continue the legacy of his last name.
When the band rehearsal ends, Bramhall is off to Robinson’s flat for a night of rest. Robinson knows of a “musician’s doctor” who’ll treat his cold. The songwriter hopes to be healthy in time for his record release show, able to squeeze the strings and loosen up some of that family-honored blue-eyed soul.