Twice now, I’ve been to 57 Depot St. in this town snuggled up to Georgia’s largest lake. Both times, the music venue was jumping. The first visit was in the 1990s when the Bluegrass Express pulled in pickers and singers. And that night, the banjos, mandolins, guitars and fiddles were in high gear. The place was packed and pulsating.
Near the end of the show, the band cranked up a lively number. Above the song, I heard and felt a
rumble. My wooden seat shook. The rafters looked as if they were shaking, too. The planks in the center aisle were bouncing. I wondered: “Could it be an earthquake in Hartwell?”
Heads spun backwards. Applause shook more dust from the exposed roof structure. The upbeat music had lifted a 300-pound woman out of her backrow seat, and she was heading toward the stage—buck dancing. Both hands were full of cotton dress to give her knees plenty of room to work.
The crowd went wild, and the clogging didn’t stop until she got all the way to the front to take a bow. That was proof the music was doing what it was supposed to do—help people have a good time.
These days, bluegrass has morphed into expanded music genres on Depot Street. Under new ownership and a new name, High Cotton was jumping again on Friday night. I wasn’t about to miss Randall Bramblett’s release party for his new CD, Devil Music. The sold-out house was well behaved but raucous in their approval of Randall and his band.
With the release of his latest CD, Devil Music,
Randall Bramblett played to a sold-out house
at Hartwell’s High Cotton Music Hall
on October 9th.
Randall and I go back—way back to 1951. We were 3-year-old classmates in his mother and aunt’s Jack and Jill Kindergarten in Jesup. On our knees, we bulldozed tons of sand and hauled it in Tonka dump trucks. We’ve been friends forever. But by junior high, I knew Randall had something special—an incredible musical gift.
He could compose, sing and play any musical instrument he touched. My generation—stretching across the South—danced through our youth to music Randall helped to make. He was a stalwart in a rhythm and blues band, King David and the Slaves. They were a bunch of white Wayne County guys getting big-time notice singing songs made famous by black artists such as the Temptations, Otis Redding, Maurice Williams and James Brown. I wore out the leather soles of my Bass Weejuns dancing to King David’s tunes that we called “beach music,” as in Myrtle Beach, Mecca of the shag.
A half-century later, Randall admits those musical roots still influence who he is and what he does. Chuck Leavell, keyboardist for the Rolling Stones, says, “Randall is in my opinion the most gifted and talented Southern singer-songwriter musician of the past several decades.” That’s why Gregg Allman, Steve Winwood and Widespread Panic have Randall’s number on speed dial. Randall has been a part of Winwood’s global tour for about two decades.
But last weekend, Randall was just 45 miles from his Athens home, bringing big-time music to an intimate setting in downtown Hartwell. During intermission, attorney Tash Van Dora beamed, “This is world-class!” The only person smiling more was another lawyer, Walter Gordon, aka Smokestack Willie when he’s playing his blues harmonica. Randall’s stellar performance and the crowd’s response validated the risk taken by Walter and Pam Gordon, along with Steve and Stephanie Crump, to underwrite the music hall.
By nature, Randall is easy-going. Some of his music is slow and soulful. And at times, Randall plays his keyboard, as well as his soprano and tenor sax, as if he’s dueling a thunderstorm. Friday night, I glanced at the ceiling. I was sure the beams were shaking. But that’s when I remembered: This place has been shaken—really shaken—before and survived. That’s a good omen for music lovers who like their tunes in “high cotton.”