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Takin' the Lead

Quintessential backup man (and Stevie Ray mentor) Doyle Bramhall steps out in front

It's a matter of public record that the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan plundered Albert King's guitar style in developing his own muscular Stratocaster sound, but the source from which Vaughan copped his white-soul vocal stylings is a little less well-known. His name is Doyle Bramhall, and he lives in Austin. The name might be familiar to the general public, since Bramhall's son and namesake, Doyle Bramhall II, served as an unpredictable one-fourth of the radio-friendly and lately defunct Arc Angels. The name will certainly be familiar to Stevie Ray buffs, since Bramhall co-wrote several of his close friend's hits, including "Change It," from 1985's Soul to Soul. But most don't yet know Doyle Bramhall as he probably deserves to be known: as Texas's pre-eminent soul man. Maybe that's because he's spent so much of the last 20 years sitting behind other musicians.

Bramhall has been in the background of Texas blues -- drumming, writing and singing -- since the Austin scene that catapulted Vaughan to international fame was still teenaged and huddled in a Dallas bedroom listening to Howlin' Wolf 78s. And if this week's Antone's Records release of Bird Nest on the Ground seems to have been one hell of a long time coming, Bramhall is more than ready to agree.

"It wasn't a conscious effort on my part to take 13 years. I actually started recording back in '80. It's something that I've always wanted to do -- have my own band and an album to tour behind -- but it just took that long to do it."

If Bramhall never managed to release an album under his own name in two decades in the business, that's not to say he hasn't been busy. He has, in the course of his career, opened for Jimi Hendrix, backed Lightnin' Hopkins and shared a bill with Muddy Waters. He has played with bands in Dallas and Austin too numerable to list entirely, but they include four with Jimmie Vaughan, the Nightcrawlers with Stevie Ray, Marcia Ball's band and Lou Ann Barton's.

The music-world migrations have taken their toll on Bramhall's personal life, too. He seems to have won his much-publicized battles with drink and drugs, but only after years of legendarily self-destructive carousing. Coming clean prompted some of Bramhall's most memorable songwriting with Vaughan, including "Life by the Drop," from Vaughan's posthumous "The Sky is Crying"; Bramhall is often given credit for playing a role in Stevie Ray's eventual sobering.

If Bramhall took 13 of that kind of year to get an album on the shelf, you might expect to hear some true grit on the disk itself.

It's there, but Bird Nest makes the case that even if Bramhall is ready to step out front on a stage, he's still a little hesitant to step out front as a songwriter.

"Most of the album is cover tunes, songs that I've liked for a long time, and I've always wanted to record them. It came to a point where I thought, well, do I want to keep these songs, or do I want to go ahead and record newer stuff and more originals. For me it was good material that I would have hated to see just laying on the shelf."

Some of the covers are instantly recognizable, if unexpected, like the uptempo slowburn of "I Can See Clearly Now." Some are more obscure. "Bird Nest on the Ground," a song Bramhall first played with a band called Storm in the early '70s, is pulled from the Muddy Waters singles catalog, circa 1967. Some originals, like "Change It," will likely be heard as covers, even though they're not, since everyone in the free world has already heard Vaughan's version of the song Bramhall wrote and taught Stevie Ray to sing.

But even if the album doesn't showcase Bramhall's songwriting to full effect, it puts his voice on the line. It's a deeply soulful instrument, relaxed into the sort of powerful nonchalance that comes with 20 years of life in the blues trenches. It'll sound like Vaughan's voice to most people on first listen, but if you can get past the similarity, you notice the authority that he brings to the title cut, or the way he pulls off the heavy, Delta-ish "I'm in the Mood" without trampling all over its roots. Bramhall's voice deserves to be compared not to Vaughan's singing, but to his guitar playing.

A generation of Texas blues legends already knows that, and some even pop up on Bird Nest backing Bramhall, the perpetual backup man. The guitar-playing Vaughan family is represented by Jimmie and Stevie Ray, son Doyle II contributes guitar tracks, and the Memphis Horns make an appearance. Robin Syler, with whom Bramhall has played off and on for the past 15 years, carries most guitar duties, along with ex-John Campbell guitarist Zonder Kennedy. Bassist Jim Milan was recently recruited into the road band.

Bird Nest has the unstrained focus of something that wasn't too difficult to record, even if the hardships of getting this far into a life drip off every drawn syllable of Bramhall's vocals. There's more soothe than sawtooth in Bramhall's delivery, and it grows more comfortable -- and grows on you -- as you follow its lead. Live, it'll pull you closer to the center of the dance floor, or further into your mug, depending on your prior inclination.

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