Concord Records will release singer-songwriter-guitarist Doyle Bramhall II’s latest album Rich Man on September 30, 2016. The album, long awaited by fans who have followed Bramhall’s collaborations with artists as far-ranging as Tedeschi Trucks Band to Roger Waters, is his first in over a decade. The album reflects both his extensive experience in the interim with such artists as Eric Clapton, whom he’s worked closely with for more than a decade (and who hails him as one of the most gifted guitarists he’s ever heard) and Sheryl Crow, for whom he composed songs for and produced the 2011 album 100 Miles from Memphis, as well as an intensive spiritual and musical journey that took him to India and Africa in search of new sounds and an inner peace sought following the death of his legendary father Doyle Bramhall.
“I’d been writing pretty consistently for other artists and projects since Welcome and had stored a lot of songs, sort of documenting my life story,” says Bramhall, whose long list of collaboration credits further includes the likes of Roger Waters, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, B.B. King, T-Bone Burnett, Elton John, Gary Clark, Jr., Gregg Allman, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Billy Preston, Erykah Badu, Questlove and Meshell Ndegeocello.
Most recently Bramhall has teamed with ace guitarist Derek Trucks—both proclaimed as “The New Guitar Gods” by Guitar World when they served in Clapton’s band in the late 2000s—in the Tedeschi Trucks Band, also starring Trucks’ wife Susan Tedeschi. Bramhall’s collaborations with Tedeschi Trucks have included standout tracks on each of their three acclaimed albums.
“I’d been so busy touring and producing for other artists. But producing actually gave me chops I didn’t have—and a focus on what I wanted to sound like. So all the stars finally aligned to allow me to be completely myself as an artist for the first time—singer, guitar player, producer—and take things that were happening in my life and put them into song.”
But Bramhall correctly notes that his desired sound is “not one thing stylistically, but a lot of sounds that come out of my life experiences and travels—and what I’m affected and inspired by.” To be sure, there’s blues on Rich Man, but there’s also influences of R&B, Indian music and Arabic music, as well as Bramhall’s distinctive guitar work.
“There’s a lot to each song, and at the end, when I was sequencing them, I realized they tell a story,” continues Bramhall. “It’s hard to summarize 70 minutes of music in a couple sentences, because all the songs have dual meanings and themes that apply to a collective experience that parallels my personal experience. But basically, all the songs are steps on a personal journey back to my truth, and that comes around full circle from beginning to end. So it’s a really interesting record for me.”
Rich Man opens with the pointed “Mama Can’t Help You,” a “call for a reckoning,” says Bramhall, about “entitlement, accountability and taking responsibility for yourself, your circumstances, actions and resulting consequences.” It begins with the voicing of R&B drumming great James Gadson (Bill Withers), and Bramhall, in fact, wrote the tune expressly “for his groove—because no one has that groove!”
The second track “November,” being “a love song to my late father,” has the essence of their favorite R&B records the two listened two as Bramhall grew up. The contemporary groove easily recalls the horn arrangements they loved—but with a decidedly personal statement.
“His words and who he was resonates with me now, and through his passing I was inspired to take a journey to find my voice and my truth and begin fully living.”
Doyle Bramhall, who composed for and played drums with Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, died in November 2011.
“I loved him dearly, but there were things in our relationship that we hadn’t voiced or reconciled,” says Bramhall. “But before he passed, I experienced an awakening where all that stuff got lifted from me and I went through a spiritual metamorphosis. I just didn’t get the chance to tell him, because he died unexpectedly.”
“The Veil” comes out of “the breakthrough” of discovering “a person’s dark, ugly, true nature, hidden by a veil of contrived charm,” Bramhall continues. “It’s a warning to look beyond the veil—a call to do better and try to live my life as a spiritual being.”
“My People” is distinguished by instrumentation including baritone 12-string guitars, harmonium, and sarangi—the North Indian classical bowed string instrument performed here by one of its top players, Ustad Surjeet Singh.
“It’s a statement about human connectivity between cultures and the hope of continuing to evolve with mutual respect and understanding,” says Bramhall. “Mystics say that the sarangi is the greatest of all instruments because it comes closest to the human voice. I practice meditation daily, and meditate to it. The music portrays the meaning of the lyric and merges elements of traditional blues with Indian classic music, drawn from my travels and experiences in India and Northern Africa over the last four years.
He adds, “People focus on our differences, but we’re really all the same.” “New Faith” likewise expresses his hope that “we can start looking at things differently. We fixate on what divides us as human beings and it isn’t working. We need new inspiration and different thinking to find a peaceful way forward.”
“New Faith” features Norah Jones: “We were cutting the song in Brooklyn, and I’d been playing live with her on a concert series we do every six months or so. I felt like the song needed somebody to duet, and she was perfect for it—and she came over and we cut it live in two hours.”
“Hands Up,” is titled with the phrase associated with last year’s racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo, and elsewhere: “It has a connection with ‘New Faith’ and ‘My People’ and is a reaction to Ferguson and at the same time a personal resignation: We need a more empathetic way to overcome adversity—a spiritual awakening.”
“Rich Man,” the album’s title track, says Bramhall, “is about living for the day, recognizing it’s all we have and finding strength and personal spirituality—and about gratitude for it.” It also plays on the word “lowly”: “It has a dual meaning in that it expresses the difficulty in achieving spiritual peace and gratitude, and getting close to the earth and who you are as a human being—and recognizing in that state that you have everything you need.”
“Harmony,” like the preceding “Rich Man” and other album tracks, is marked by a string arrangement from multi-instrumentalist Adam Minkoff, a Bramhall band member.
“He came up with an interlude intro that set the tone for the song and completely blew me away. Lyrically, it’s a love song about the things I can’t talk about, directed at someone whom I couldn’t really tell how I felt because of circumstances.”
“Cries of Ages” is “inspired by great leaders in our history and the hope that the goodness fostered by their teaching will help us overcome this moment of crisis,” says Bramhall, again citing Ferguson “and the racism in this country.” “Saharan Crossing” then jumps the Atlantic to North Africa, employing the melon-shaped Arabic oud (lute) played by his own oud teacher Yuval Ron, the renowned Israeli composer/player/arranger.
“I’ve been traveling to India and spending a lot of time in Morocco and have been influenced by a lot of different styles of music that comes from there—traditional Berber music, Andalusian, Moroccan flute music and Sufi trance music of Jajouka introduced to the West by the Rolling Stones. I first became acquainted with Gnawa music and went there to spend time with musicians and masters who heavily influenced me. I then connected all the dots from the Delta and Texas blues that I grew up playing to the Sufi chants and African rhythms from Mali and Morocco and saw that all music everywhere was connected.”
The melody for “Saharan Crossing,” adds Bramhall, “has elements of an Arabic melody, and felt like the Sahara—which is in the middle of all these regions and music styles. I remembered it the last day or two of mixing, and wanted to do one last ‘interlude’ connecting me to those countries. In 2008, I went to Mali for a month and Morocco for three weeks and it changed my life and was the beginning of my spiritual breakthrough as a man.”
“Saharan Crossing” naturally segues into “The Samanas,” which addresses Bramhall’s “journey into the world to find who I was.”
“It comes out of Hermann Hesse’s main character in Siddhartha, who becomes a Samana, or seeker. But it’s a musical odyssey of three movements representing a personal journey through different musical influences and a spiritual journey back to the truth. Through that, it’s about finding peace.”
Rich Man concludes with an evocative reading of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hear My Train a Comin’.”
“When I played the album in sequence I realized that it ties everything together and brings the journey full circle: I start and end with American blues influences—which are the fundamentals to the foundation of my music—and have all the other rhythms and melodies I’m attracted to, that I’ve sought out and listened to. I don’t feel like I made a world music or fusion album, but it has blues and the influences of Eastern music and Arabic music and other types of music that make sense to me, like it did with the Beatles, for example.”
Rich Man, then, manifests Bramhall’s “life journey to find my voice and grow as a creative person and as a man to get to this place, which is now the beginning for me.”
“I read a quote from Charles Mingus,” he concludes. “He felt like he was not playing his music as much as creating the sound of his life and experiences through the medium of his music. I looked at his life and related to that, and tried to capture the same thing on this album.”