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music: Called to Play 

Every time Randall Bramblett thinks he's going to quit playing, his phone starts ringing.

"Things seem to come up. … I feel blessed," the 54-year-old journeyman musician says, explaining his work as a singer and sax, keyboard and guitar player in bands through the years. "I get calls from people who need a lot of different things. … What I'd really like to be doing is working on my solo stuff, but you got to get real sometimes and go out with [other] people."

Bramblett's solo career has been touch-and-go since the early '70s when he returned to his native Georgia after graduating from the University of North Carolina. Settling in Athens, Ga., he fell into the scene, writing and playing with the songwriters there and with the Southern boogie/Allman Brothers crowd in Macon. Bramblett cut two solo projects, but before he could establish his own career Gregg Allman hired him for a road gig.

In 1977, Chuck Leavell asked him to join some Allman band expatriates in Sea Level. Bramblett played and sang in that band for five years. Sea Level met commercial success, but personal and professional problems intervened. Tired of the music game, Bramblett moved to New Orleans with few plans.

In the mid-'80s he hopped aboard Levon Helm's bus for one tour, but when the ride ended, Bramblett put music behind. Married and with personal demons exorcised, Bramblett moved back to Athens in 1988 and entered school set on earning a degree in social work. The music business, however, was not through with him.

"I figured, 'Damn, I guess my music career is over. I got to get a new career,'" Bramblett recalls. "[But] halfway through school I got a call from [Steve] Winwood's people. It surprised the hell out of me, but I thought, 'OK — a gift has landed.' It was very frightening. I was geared up to be a counselor. I didn't even own a tenor sax. It was just one of those things. It got me totally back into the music business."

Bramblett went on to do "four or five" tours with Winwood. Now, with his fourth solo recording, "Mr. Lucky," Bramblett makes his own case. Amid a range of funk, rock and R&B rhythms, he and co-writers and band mates Jason Slatton and David Causey lyrically explore a human condition that falls prey to a host of unanswered questions. Titles such as "Lost Enough" and "Hard to Be Human" give good clues to what's in store. But despite grim implications, the ever-changing instrumental groove and vocal tone give the project a surprisingly hopeful outlook.

In closing, Bramblett explains it simply: "It's part of the American soul. We've got this deep yearning. … We're lost and possibly found. At least there's a chance." S



Randall Bramblett plays at Jumpin' in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Sculpture Garden on Thursday, Aug.1, at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.

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