Originally published October 4, 2007.
Doyle Bramhall has just released the album of his lifetime - a record that has been percolating inside the man for decades, a record his Austin blues friends knew he was destined to create if only this shy man could transcend his own artistic self-doubt. The album is called "Is It News." It is buoyant, honest, good-time Texas music at its very best.
"For years, people have been saying to me, 'You're supposed to be a songwriter. How come you've never released an album of all original material?'" Bramhall says with a self-deprecating chuckle. "Well, here it is."
Are you familiar with Doyle Bramhall? He's a husky-voiced soul singer, an aficionado of the blues, an accomplished drummer, a respected producer and - yes - a gifted songwriter. Bramhall was one of the Dallas-area expatriates who launched the Austin blues scene in the 1970s. Bramhall was also a close friend of Stevie Ray Vaughan's - arguably the guitarist's most intimate collaborator in the final years of his life.
Bramhall's signature as a writer and musician is his affirmative essence. Just look at any of the dozen songs he wrote for - or with - SRV: "The House is Rockin,'" "Change It," "Looking Out the Window," "Hard to Be" and "Life by the Drop." Bramhall's songs are as uncomplicated and honest as granite - and they speak to elemental truths.
In the years since SRV's death in 1990, Bramhall released two solo albums - "Bird Nest on the Ground" and "Fitchburg Street" - recordings that, for the most part, featured Bramhall covering the music of his soul and blues heroes. Yet Bramhall was hesitant to showcase his own writing, worrying, perhaps, that the songs might not meet the standard he set with Vaughan.
With "Is It News," Bramhall shatters that pane of glass. The album is an affirming, upbeat mixture of musical styles and tones - soul, blues, rock, pop, R&B - propelled by Bramhall's backbeat and a rich gumbo of guitar sounds provided by Denny Freeman, Mike Keller, Jimmie Vaughan and Bramhall's son, Doyle Bramhall II. The sensation of listening to "Is It News" is like finding a cool song on the radio, then switching stations to another beautiful song played in a different style, then spinning the dial again.
"That's the perfect way to put it, because that's exactly the kind of record I tried to make," says Bramhall, 58, who lives with his wife, Barbara Logan, in Alpine. "It's a simple record, I think, but with lots of subtleties."
C.C. Adcock, the Louisiana swamp-rock guitarist and close friend of Bramhall's, is the unsung hero of "Is It News" - the man who helped Bramhall live the dream of creating a record with no boundaries and lots of room for play. As co-producer and sometimes co-writer, Adcock helped Bramhall take songs written in straight blues frameworks and cross-pollinate them into catchy, melodic hybrids.
" Doyle writes popular music," Adcock says. "In that sense, he does what Jimmy Reed did: He has a great sense of melody, a great sense of rhythm, and with those gifts he creates great songs that defy categorization. Look at (the new song) 'Lost in the Congo.' That song is what Bo Diddley would record for Excello in 2007. 'Tortured Soul' is Louis Armstrong leading a funeral march through the streets, with a brass band. It's very 1930s - but very, very modern, too."
In so many ways, "Is It News" feels a lot like the Vaughan brothers' "Family Style" - a happy, no boundaries record, conceptualized by blues players who colored outside the lines of their genre. Bramhall wrote three songs on that album, and played drums on the playful farewell track, "Brothers." His work here is every bit as joyful.