Life by the Drop

Doyle Bramhall returns to Fitchburg Street

Life by the Drop
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

The coffin-shaped door of the dive at Eighth and Red River opens outward on a warm spring night. Inside, a purple haze of smoke hangs suspended at eye level, almost, but not quite, obscuring the ceiling. Dangling from, nailed to, or sticking out of the rough-hewn wood beams are objects of every imaginable shape and purpose. A stuffed animal, a bucket, a lamp, a bicycle wheel, rusted tools -- items so mundane as to take on the sheen of importance when presented in such motley ambience.

The victory cheer by a beefy, bearded Bikers 101 crew accompanies the crack of a cue ball to the left. At the jukebox is a showy blonde named Janet Quist, divinely blessed with physical bounties that will soon land her in Playboy. It's three songs for a quarter, and she chooses Freddie King's "Hide Away," Angela & Lewis' "My Back Scratcher," and Storm's "The Do-It" to fill the air while the band sets up.

The club is L-shaped. At the far end is a tiny stage and a dozen rickety tables. The bathrooms, those gloriously iniquitous dens, are tiny affairs with entrances close enough to the stage for the parade of female pulchritude to entertain the entertainers. Hot pants, blue-jean cutoffs, hip-huggers, tube tops, halter tops, wooden platform shoes, sun-kissed hair, legs and backs tanned from a day of sunbathing naked at Hippie Hollow, the women glide out from the pink, graffiti-covered stalls, and sidle down along the bar, denim-encased derrières disappearing into the crowd. Welcome, my friends, to the One Knite. It's 1974.

On the small square stage stands Keith Ferguson, sporting a rock & roll shag, bronze jacquard tunic, and a long, purple silk scarf. His hands and wrists are weighed down with silver jewelry. A bottle of Mateus Rosé sticks out of his pocket as he tunes his Fender bass, flipped over and played Hendrix-style to the left. Vocalist/harp player Drew Pennington stretches his long legs at a front row table and chats with girlfriend Leola Perez, a sultry, doe-eyed brunette with a black lace shawl draped over her copper shoulders. The guitarist leaning on the wall by the drippy air conditioner, hunched over a well-worn Strat, is a kid that drummer Doyle Bramhall calls "Skeeter" because he's so skinny, "like a mosquito."

Doyle Bramhall is a rock of man -- everything about him is strong. He's got handsomely molded features and a Greek god's head of curls. His build is thick, and his legs, arms, and hands are solid, allowing for a muscled kick to the bass drum and a powerful snap to the snare. When the band members wander into place, Bramhall leans to the microphone and growls Little Junior Parker in his tough, tender voice:

If I don't love you, then

Grits ain't groceries

Eggs ain't poultry

And Mona Lisa was a man

Bramhall is in outrageously good form, all smoky soul vocals and young man blues. He sounds good, but life ain't so great right now. It's got its moments, such as recently completing "Dirty Pool" with Skeeter. "Dirty Pool" makes Bramhall feel like he can write songs, which is good, because the Nightcrawlers are on shaky ground. To make matters worse, his wife just left him, taking the kids with her.

That was a morning Bramhall woke from a drugged, drunken sleep to the thumping sounds of boxes and furniture being moved. Stumbling to the window, he opened a bleary eye and saw son Doyle, 4, and daughter Georgia, 2, sitting in a car by a U-Haul, looking back at the house for daddy. It was one hell of a present for his 25th birthday.

Trouble Knockin' On My Door

"There are times I don't know how I made it out alive. It's hard for me to talk. When I open that door, all these things start coming out."

Doyle Bramhall rubs his eyes and squeezes them closed as he covers his face momentarily. He's sitting on the floor, back to the rough, black, soundproofed walls of his rehearsal room at Music Lab where he's rehearsing songs from his new album, Fitchburg Street, with keyboardist Riley Osbourne, guitarists Dru Webber and Mike Keller, and bassist Jim Milan. He runs his fingers through his wavy locks then drops his flat, strong hands to the floor, his right pinky adorned with the faded tattoo outline of a sparrow. Talking about what's gone before is hard and sometimes uncomfortable work, but it's all part of the life journey.

"All these things" in Doyle Bramhall's world is a staggering lot. It's not just the now-familiar story of harrowing drug and alcohol abuse; it includes a Hollywood-worthy textbook case of boyhood friends pursuing their dreams and coming out on top in the face of tragedy.

As a drummer, Bramhall's got the unfailing respect of his peers. As a singer, he's as influential as he is influenced, as proud of his recent duet with Jennifer Warnes on The Well as he is of his own releases. As a producer, he took home a 2002 WC Handy Blues Award for Marcia Ball's Presumed Innocent and produced Circle by Native American rockers Indigenous, a Jazz/Blues winner in the Native American Music Awards. And as a songwriter, he's written with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmie Vaughan as well as with his son, Doyle. With a new album of beloved covers, including his own "Life by the Drop," Bramhall finds that people's individual paths are often circular and that getting back to square one is sometimes the right move.

"I was kinda in a coma in the Seventies," says Bramhall candidly. "Music was the only thing that kept me alive -- a lifeline, a peacemaker. I grabbed hold of it and squeezed, 'cuz if I let go of music, I'd fall apart."

Bramhall got hold of what was killing him a long time ago. Having his first family walk out on him in 1974 was a jolt, but not enough to make him hit bottom. That didn't come until 1978, when the threat of losing a second family resulted in a trip to AA. Bramhall's been sober ever since, but the memory of the drug-saturated years that blurred his late teens and twenties is never far away.

"In the beginning, doing drugs was recreational," explains Bramhall. "'What'll this do to me?' Then it got to where drugs were consuming me. If I was around people who were shooting it, I was shooting it. If they were snorting, I was snorting. Coke, drinking, heroin, every pill I could get hold of."

The Chessmen, Dallas, circa 1969. Jimmie Vaughan is far left, Doyle Bramhall far right.(photo courtesy of David Baldry)
The Chessmen, Dallas, circa 1969. Jimmie Vaughan is far left, Doyle Bramhall far right.(photo courtesy of David Baldry)

His rock & roll lifestyle began in the Chessmen, the blues-rock outfit that brought Bramhall and Jimmie Vaughan together. The Chessmen were kings of Dallas in the Sixties, virtual royalty as a band and good enough to land opening gigs with the superstars of the day.

"Breakfast with Jimi Hendrix, lunch with Keith Moon, and dinner with Janis Joplin," nods Bramhall.

Bramhall and Vaughan migrated to Austin together in the early Seventies, their families sharing the same U-Haul. It was a musical exodus that saw other Dallas players like Denny Freeman, Paul Ray, and Jimmie's little brother, Stevie, follow. Jimmie was playing in Storm, which held the One Knite's Monday slot for four years. Bramhall's Nightcrawlers took the Tuesday slot, and Paul Ray and the Cobras landed Wednesdays. The Nightcrawlers were a blues-rock outfit respectable enough to record for A&M in L.A. but too drugged out to respond to George Harrison, in the next studio, when he wanted to meet them.

"I didn't really start doing heroin until the Nightcrawlers," admits Bramhall. "There were several of us. Me, Keith, and some others. Not Stevie. We watched out for him when he'd say, 'Hey, what's that? I wanna try some.' I was always protective of Stevie, even when I was loaded. I was drinking at least a case of beer a day. In order to even function, I had to drink.

"I was in a Downtown hotel room in Houston once with Frank Beard and Dusty Hill of ZZ Top. They were like, 'Whatever you want is in the bathroom,' and in there was a big bag of junk. Me, I was like, 'Wow!' So I did the heroin. Shot it up.

"The next thing I knew, I was laying on the bed with Dusty and Frank hitting my chest so hard that it brought me back. Apparently, I was dead. I woke up with the hell scared outta me. I didn't stop doing heroin, but I just went nuts that night, there was so much of it. And I had died."

Change It

By the early Eighties, Doyle Bramhall had put aside drinking and drugging and was rewarded by winning back his second wife. Barbara Logan was a vivacious redhead who caught Bramhall's eye at Fort Worth's Bluebird nightclub and called bullshit on him when he went overboard. She was also his biggest fan, committed to supporting his musicianship. Logan shares credit with her husband for writing "Life by the Drop."

Bramhall pursued music sporadically in the early Eighties, but enjoyed his home life more; sometimes adding his two children, Doyle II and Georgia, to Barbara's three. He played with Marcia Ball, the Millionaires, Anson Funderburgh, the Juke Jumpers, Mason Ruffner, and Johnny Reno & the Sax Maniacs.

The Eighties also brought a most unexpected windfall when Skeeter, the skinny guitarist from the Nightcrawlers, caught the public eye with his major label debut. Skeeter was, of course, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and he chose to record his and Bramhall's 1973 composition "Dirty Pool" on Texas Flood.

The recording of "Dirty Pool" reunited Bramhall and Vaughan as songwriters. For 1985's Soul to Soul, Vaughan used two of Bramhall's solo compositions, "Change It" and "Lookin' Out the Window." In Step used four joint compositions by Vaughan and Bramhall: "Wall of Denial," "Tightrope," "Scratch-N-Sniff," and "The House Is Rockin'." When it came time to record the Vaughan Brothers' Family Style, Doyle again wrote with Stevie for "Hard to Be," "Long Way From Home," and "Telephone Song." The guitarist also recorded the song Bramhall wrote with Logan, "Life by the Drop," but did not live to release it.

"I'm a late sleeper," states Bramhall. "That morning I kept hearing the answering machine go off. Click, click, click. Shit, I thought, and got up. Just as I started to play the messages, there was a knock on the door, and it was Barbara. Tears are streaming down her face. I thought she was going to tell me Doyle died. The messages start saying, 'Man, I'm sorry ...' and at the same time she says, 'Stevie. There's been a helicopter crash, and they're not sure, but it looks like Stevie and Eric [Clapton] were killed.'

"Those were the first stories coming out.

"I was really calm. Stunned, really, in disbelief. I went to the bedroom and sat on the bed. I picked up the guitar and started writing a song. After about 30 minutes, I broke down.

"You go through the why of it all. He sobered up and was feeling so good, loved life so much, and had a beautiful fiancée, and everything was going great. ... Why? Why? But we don't get to ask, we don't get to know.

"One thing Stevie used to say: 'You gotta get your own band!' It kept ringing in my head, 'Keep doing what you're doing.' I could feel him pushing me, 'Do it, do it.' So after he died, I got serious about putting a band together."

Lookin' Out My Window

Seriously putting a band together meant recording an album, and in 1994 Bird Nest on the Ground, Doyle Bramhall's first solo album, was released with much praise heaped on it. In addition to being a stellar mix of originals and favorites, it gathered nearly three dozen choice musicians and longtime compadres.

"Playing with Doyle was the best gig I ever had," declares Mike Judge. Those are words well worth considering given Judge's day job as creator of Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill. At heart, however, Judge is a Willie Dixon-loving bass player who's recorded and performed with Bramhall for well over a decade.

"The thing I love about Doyle is his singing," says Judge. "It's so soulful, but there's nothing artificial about it, no fake drama, no affectation. He's also the most solid drummer to play with. From the first time I played with him, it was just a great groove."

Bird Nest marked a new era for Bramhall. His songs were his own, and he took great pride in playing them. Bramhall also had the pleasure of seeing his stepsons begin playing music and his son and namesake sober up and make his own mark. The younger Bramhall went from wearing a purple mohawk during an audition for Charlie Musselwhite to emerging as one of today's best and most in-demand guitarists, playing for the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Roger Waters, the Arc Angels, Sheryl Crow, and releasing three critically praised albums of his own.

When the Arc Angels recorded "Shape I'm In," daddy Doyle was really proud; he'd co-authored the song with ex-Nightcrawler Marc Benno and young Doyle. It became, and remains through the group's occasional reunions, one of the Angels' signature tunes.

Soul to Soul: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall singing Change It in the studio
Soul to Soul: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall singing "Change It" in the studio (Photo By Dan Forte)

Life wasn't being squeezed by the drop any longer; it was flowing fast and furious. But swirling in Bramhall's periphery was a nasty surprise from the past. In 1997, he finished a Houston gig feeling woozy.

"I remember getting offstage and thinking, 'Why is everything so bright?' The trees were greener than green; the dirt was browner than brown. I thought somebody slipped me some LSD."

Bramhall's liver enzymes were elevated and he was diagnosed with hepatitis C. He underwent the Interferon regimen first, and a year later, another round with Infergen. Bramhall rallied, but will soon begin a third phase with a new cocktail treatment called Pegasus. His battles with hep C have given Bramhall renewed commitment to his music.

"I didn't want my life to be over and have put out only one record. I was given a gift. I enjoy playing. I wanted to record again."

The Devil's Back Porch

Doyle Bramhall's musical past is neatly summed up on Fitchburg Street. Named for the street on which he grew up in Dallas, the album gathers 10 time-tested covers steeped in Bramhall's honey-rich voice. Bramhall is adamant that it was important for him to record these songs, a collection that directly links him to his musical roots.

"There are certain songs I've been doing most of my career that I've always loved," explains Bramhall. "They're from artists that influenced me, music that had a big impact on me. And it all came together on Fitchburg Street."

Fitchburg Street is in an area of West Dallas called the Devil's Back Porch. It isn't much to look at these days, but way back when, it was a neighborhood notorious for being frequented by Bonnie and Clyde.

"The Mullinses lived on one side of the street and the Bramhalls on the other," remembers Bramhall of the large Irish clans. They were a close-knit bunch, so close that no one was surprised when Lonnie Bramhall married Frances Mullins, the same little girl he used to haul around in a wagon when they were kids.

Growing up on Fitchburg Street, Doyle had an older brother and sister, Ronnie and Shirley, and a fraternal twin brother named Dale. While the family was always musically oriented (an uncle played harmonica with Dallas big bands), it was Shirley and Ronnie who brought home the popular music of the day. The Bramhall boys all took up instruments, and it wasn't long before they heeded the call of the day and began playing in bands.

The R&B, soul, and blues-rock Doyle played back then -- local, regional, national -- are reflected more than 30 years later on Fitchburg Street. Visceral, smokin' renditions of John Lee Hooker's "Dimples," Buddy Miles' "Changes," O.V. Wright's "Blind, Crippled, and Crazy," and Howlin' Wolf's "Forty Four" are the order.

This, Bramhall explains, is the music he had to get out, to acknowledge, before he could think about recording an album of originals. Which is exactly what Bramhall plans to do after touring for Fitchburg Street. (Tour dates include SXSW at the Continental Club and a personal favorite event, the annual Pet Parade down Congress in April.) He's most excited about writing with Charles "C.C." Adcock from Lafayette, La., another guitarist with strong regional roots.

Clifford Antone knows Bramhall's roots well. In a 1998 interview, the renowned blues booster put it all into perspective:

"No one's supposed to do two things that well, but Doyle can sing Bobby Bland, which is almost impossible, and play drums at the same time, which is very difficult," explained Antone. "As much as Stevie's guitar style came from Albert King, his voice came from Doyle.

"But just imagine Doyle singing with a band like the Boogie Kings or the Ray Charles Orchestra. Or being the drummer for Hound Dog Taylor or J.B. Hutto. There are a lot of people playing music, but only a few blessed with talent like his."

The Fine Print

Fitchburg Street contains numerous credits and names, but few are more revealing than the publishing credit following track four, "Life by the Drop." Dreamworks.

"I never thought about selling my publishing," reveals Bramhall, "but it got to the point where so much of my week turned into getting faxes, letters, and phone calls about Stevie's music. 'Can we use it in a movie or commercial or whatever?' I'd sign off on it, and a week later I'd hear that the estate or the record company said no, so all that effort for nothing. I felt like it was consuming most of my life. And I wanted to control my own finances."

Songs written with Stevie Ray Vaughan earned Bramhall a comfortable living beginning in the mid-Eighties as well as providing a growing collection of gold and platinum records. By the time of Vaughan's death, the income was substantial, and in the subsequent years, afforded Bramhall the pursuance of music full-time with a sum he does not elaborate on.

"I wanted a good home for the catalogue. I had my talk with Stevie, so I was comfortable with my decision. And it felt right, so I sold my publishing to Dreamworks."

For a lucrative amount, of course; Bramhall still maintains the mechanical rights for radio, television, and airplay reproduction. Better yet, the current batch of originals he's writing are owned by his publishing company and he can deal with them personally without the demands of the Stevie-era songs. Bramhall's frankness about license maintenance gives one an inkling of the burden Jimmie Vaughan carries as executor of his brother's estate.

More importantly, the income is payback. Richly deserved payback for all the years of playing dives like the One Knite, better known today as Stubb's. Payback for countless drives to underpaid gigs crammed in a car. Payback for falling down to the bottom and getting back up with a determination to be a better person. Payback for perpetuating with dignity the uniquely American art of rhythm and blues. Payback for carrying on a passionate affair with blues and soul for more than 50 years.

Doyle Bramhall regards the big picture. "I look back on it and think, 'I've seen some damn good times.'"

Not bad for a guy from Fitchburg Street. end story

Doyle Bramhall is a member of the Round Rock hep C support group. Call Nicky at 512/341-0900 for information.

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