Ride This Rocket
Well, I was hoping that this could be the first article written about me that didn't mention Johnny Cash," says Damon Bramblett, a mere 99 seconds into the interview. Oops. Oh well, might as well get it out of the way early. Yes, Damon Bramblett's voice does bear a certain resemblance to the Man in Black. But it's his own fault, really. That's what he gets for listening to something other than "Wal-Mart country" and daring to be out of step with the other kids in Bangs, Texas - population 1,869, about nine miles west of Brownwood.
"But Johnny Cash was what got me into it," Bramblett continues. "My parents took me to see him when I was three years old. It was the very first concert I ever went to. I been drawn to his music ever since I could speak."
That'll identify you as a real hip dude at the Continental Club or Stubb's, but in Bangs, it just made Bramblett an oddball. In fairness to the Brownwood Wal-Mart (Bangs isn't big enough for one of its own), they might carry a Cash tape or two, but not much else along those lines.
"I never was exposed to anything other than Johnny Cash," reiterates Bramblett. "I could never find anything I liked in Bangs other than Johnny Cash until I reached high school - until I was about a senior. I discovered Bruce Springsteen in high school, and that was through Cash doing a Springsteen cover on a couple of his records. And the same thing with Bob Dylan, too. I was way into the Springsteen thing - he was at the height of his popularity - and I was like, `Wow, I finally discovered something else that I can listen to.'
"I also started getting into the Rolling Stones when I was in high school, and that was just... none of my friends listened to that. They were listening to rap and George Strait. I took plenty of ribbing for my musical tastes. Johnny Cash wasn't considered country by anybody, he was just considered old."
From there, Bramblett found his way to Willie, Waits, and Westerberg - a seemingly diverse collection of influences, except perhaps in Austin. It shouldn't be at all surprising, then, that Bramblett found his way here. After all, this is where every kid who's too odd to live in Texas, but too Texan to live anywhere else, ends up. So, in 1989, Bramblett hit town and found fellow oddballs at the Continental Club, the Black Cat Lounge, and Hole in the Wall.
And once here, he did... not a whole lot, actually. Some people hit town and their careers take off like a rocket - think Derailers or Dale Watson (well, a rocket by Austin standards, anyway). Despite putting out a somewhat rocket-themed tape, Shoot the Moon, including the song "Nobody Goes to the Moon Anymore," Bramblett just played around town a little bit and worked at Waterloo Records.
Things first got rolling about two years ago when Bramblett picked up some spots on Kris McKay's "Too Many Guitars" songwriters showcases. In fact, he got so much exposure from the McKay shows that she should probably charge a fee if he ever gets rich and famous. It was an appearance there that brought Bramblett to the attention of songwriter Walter Salas-Humara, former leader of the Silos, a late-Eighties critics' darling.
"I played one of those and he was there, and after we were done, he said, `Man, you need to come out to L.A. and let me produce and cut some tracks,'" remembers Bramblett. "And I had always worshipped his music. I was a huge fan of those Silos records. Cuba, when I first moved to town, that was one of my discoveries. That was something I would never have run across in Bangs. I was in awe that someone like this liked me."
Then came numerous gigs opening up for Kelly Willis and the Robison brothers, an opportunity sure to entrench you with Austin's country crowd.
"That was another one of those ["Too Many Guitars"] songwriter things. I met Bruce [and Kelly] and they really liked my stuff. They were always really encouraging me and still are. I've been cutting demos over at his house all week for free. Charlie's recorded one of my songs and Kelly's recorded one of my songs, although I don't know if they'll end up on one of their records yet."
If it does, it won't be the first song Bramblett has landed with a semi-high-profile Austin artist. Sara Hickman has already recorded "Nobody Goes to the Moon Anymore," which landed on her Misfits album.
"Same thing. She saw me at one of those Kris McKay shows. I think she's seen me play one time, and she heard me play three songs, and asked me for a tape of two of them. And then, two years later, she called me and said, `I've recorded your song, I hope you don't mind. It's coming out.'"
Record labels noticed, too. In addition to his songs, attendees of Bramblett's 1997 South by Southwest showcase couldn't help being taken by his commanding stage presence, big, booming voice, and tight trio, which includes bassist Brian Walsh and drummer Conrad Choucroun ("the best band I've ever played with. I can pull it off solo, but the band just makes everything better").
The first nibbles came from Bloodshot Records, the Chicago indie that's practically a major label in the world of alternative country. Ironically, he was initially told that he was "too traditional" for them, the same accursed words that one might expect from Nashville country labels, but Bloodshot still knew a good thing when they heard it, and entered into contract negotiations with Bramblett.
Austin's Watermelon Records also made a push, and is currently wooing Bramblett with a contract offer of their own (which puts Bramblett, still a Waterloo employee, in the strange position of negotiating with his boss, John Kunz, who is co-owner of both Watermelon and Waterloo). That means Bramblett could hit the ground running, since Watermelon has worked out a distribution deal with major label Sire, offering other Watermelon acts like the Derailers visibility of which they could previously only dream.
Regardless of who he signs with, however, the level of attention Bramblett is getting now positions him as the clear frontrunner to be the "next big thing" to gush up from Austin's ever-flowing well of alternative country talent. This leaves him with mixed feelings. As he said, he isn't trying to be Johnny Cash, just Damon Bramblett. And to him, that isn't really country; he sees Damon Bramblett as more of that indefinable type of music that simply shares a kinship with country, kind of like one of the musician's heroes, Townes Van Zandt.
"I've played traditional country places like Broken Spoke, Gruene Hall, and the Sons of Herman Hall [in Dallas]. Those are always great, but I only have a couple of songs that I think of as country. It's strange to see people dancing to `Nobody Goes to the Moon.' But I want as many people to hear it as possible, and I certainly don't have any prejudice against country fans.
"But if I stick a cowboy hat on, people think it's country. I don't know. I'm just as country as Bob Dylan, and I guess just as rocking as Johnny Cash."
Damon Bramblett's SXSW showcase is Friday, March 20 @ the Continental Club, midnight.