Influenced by the sounds of Willie Nelson and George Strait while growing up in Texas, Graham Bramblett landed behind a rock ’n’ roll band drum kit in high school.
He wrote his “first bad songs” as a teen but it wasn’t until he attended college in Missouri that he picked up a friend’s guitar, learned a few chords, and set his lyrics to original music. Post-graduation, Bramblett set off for Nashville determined to make a career as a songwriter. After 10 years of “really great adventures,” he relocated to Minnesota, where he’s become a steward of the Twin Cities country music scene.
On his new album, Standard Harmony (the follow-up to his 2016 debut Under the Lights), Bramblett blends swaying instrumentals with nostalgic storytelling. The St. Paul musician leads listeners to an imaginary sonic landscape that conjures first kisses, small-town gossip, and the delicate balance of saying just enough and not too much to your crush.
We spoke to Bramblett ahead of his album release show at Icehouse on Sunday.
City Pages: What prompted you to leave Nashville?
Graham Bramblett: It was a couple things. I hadn’t really found the success that I thought that I might. To be totally frank, I was drinking too much. I was drinking more than I was writing songs. It got to a point where I realized that I needed to change something because it wasn’t working anymore. It had become a problem and it cast a really big shadow over any progress that I was hoping to make as a writer. That recognition led me to come up here to the Twin Cities in 2010. It’s been almost eight years that I’ve been here as an adopted Minnesotan.
CP: Did you seek treatment for the drinking?
GB: I did. I ended up going to a place in Wayzata. And I ended up staying.
CP: Was the transition from the South—where you’d lived your entire life—to Minnesota a difficult one?
GB: Not particularly. I have some family here, so it wasn’t completely abrupt. It was not a difficult move. That was just what was in front of me. That was the next thing I needed to do. I kind of followed that path as it unfurled in front of me.
CP: Love seems to be a major theme on your new album. Where do you draw those songs from?
GB: The title, Standard Harmony, is indicative of the theme of the record: relationships between people, between circumstances. When I started collecting songs for what this record was going to be, that’s where it landed: the relationship between here and there. It’s drawn from years of experience. It’s nothing specific as a collective whole, but it’s songs that are reflective of a collective experience over many years.
CP: It seems like country songs are especially storytelling-focused. Has that been your experience?
GB: Yeah. The power in story, to me, is even if the circumstances, the names, the faces, the places, even if all those are different, if the essence of the story is there, that’s where I make a connection with other people’s music. When I hear part of my story in somebody else’s song, that’s what makes it compelling to me, even if I haven’t had that specific experience in my life. I think that’s where the greatest power in music lies, when I connect to a piece of music or a song on that level. That’s what makes me want to download or go see a show or buy a CD.
CP: What are some of the common misconceptions about country music? It seems like there are a lot of stereotypes about the genre.
GB: Yeah, and it’s funny because it’s always been that way. I remember being in Nashville and there was a song that George Strait and Alan Jackson cut called “Murder on Music Row” and it was a number-one single. That was the era of more rock ’n’ roll guitars and big drums and big production that were coming into country music that you wouldn’t have dreamed of putting on a record 10 years ago. If you go way back, you know that when Hank Williams played the Opry, they wouldn’t let his drummer on the stage.
There’s always been this push and pull between what is country and what isn’t country. For me, it really comes down to the song and telling a story. People talk about “bro country” and that sort of thing. For some people, it’s not their style. It doesn’t fall into what their guidelines of what country is or isn’t. I tend to take the approach of: It’s not always about what I think is or isn’t country music. There’s room at the table for a lot of different things. Just because something doesn’t connect with me doesn’t mean I have to hate it. I just turn the channel or press fast-forward.
CP: Is there much of a country music scene locally?
GB: There is. There’s an organization called the Midwest Country Music Association that’s newer in the Twin Cities. We started about a year ago. The idea was: There’s a lot going on in country music in the region but we don’t really have a unified voice. It’s set up as a nonprofit and the idea is to promote country music in the upper Midwest, to build up a network whereby folks can promote themselves as artists or as bands and connect with other bands. It’s starting to grow and we’re trying to build a strong contingent here in the Twin Cities. The idea is, once we get that base, to start branching out to more regional stuff and try and get folks from Wisconsin and Nebraska and the Dakotas more involved. You don’t think about country music as much in the Twin Cities, but in the suburbs, in the periphery, there’s a lot that’s going on and a lot of people that are excited about it.
With: Lakewood Cemetery and Peter Lochner
When: 5 p.m. Sunday, March 25
Tickets: $6-$8; more info here