David Bromberg Takes Control After Burning Out

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In 1980, David Bromberg was one of the preeminent guitarists around, an ace sideman who played with Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker and had backed Dylan in the early 1970s. Yet Bromberg was so burned out by the demands of touring and recording that he dropped out of the music business altogether and opened a violin repair shop in Wilmington, Del.

“My career was doing well,” he recalls, “but I was burned out. I had been on the road for two years without being home for two weeks.”

The break lasted 10 years, and he released his first album of new material in 1990. But it would be 17 long years before he followed it up with Try Me One More Time in 2007. Since then, the man some have called the Godfather of Americana hasn’t exactly been burning up the rails, but he has stayed busy in the studio, first with a 2011 collaborative project and now with Only Slightly Mad, which toggles fluidly between blues, rock, folk, jazz, R&B and Celtic influences.

CMT Edge: This is your third album in six years and also your most diverse. Were you looking to make an album, or were these songs you just had to get down?

Bromberg: I pretty much had the songs that I needed to set down. … You have to understand, I’ve been around since before dirt and I’ve played with an awful lot of musicians. For the album before this one, Use Me, I called up a bunch of people and asked them to each pick a song for me to perform and then produce me. That’s not the same as just having a bunch of your friends play on your album. That’s asking a lot.

I had tracks with Los Lobos, John Hiatt, Dr. John, Keb’ Mo’ and Linda Ronstadt. One of the people I had asked was my old friend Levon Helm, but at the time he and I had set aside to record, it turned out he was recovering from surgery on his vocal cords. So he couldn’t talk, let alone sing or produce. But the guy who produced his albums and led his band is Larry Campbell, who ended up producing a kind of Chicago blues thing called “Tongue.” It was the first song on the record. I asked him if he could produce a whole album like that.

You open the album with a cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” which you also covered on 1977’s Reckless Abandon.

Thirty years ago when we first recorded it, it was during the disco scare. We actually recorded it with a disco beat. This recording is much more raw and straight-ahead. It feels better.

Here’s the thing. I probably spent more time in churches than any Jewish boy you’ve ever spoken to. I used to be kind of like a seeing eye dog for Rev. Gary Davis, who was blind and one of the greatest guitar players ever to walk on this planet. In return for guitar lessons, I used to take him to churches and wherever else he needed to go. I heard this song where it’s sung for what it says. I heard this song sung with full consciousness of its meaning. I’ve heard it sung with conviction, and I tried to sing it with conviction.

What does your touring schedule look like for this album?

Since my experience in the late ‘70s, I make it a point not to stay on the road for very long. I will be touring in my own way in support of the CD, which means between three and five days at a time. But right now, it’s already been 10 days out, which is pretty much the max unless I’m going to the West Coast or overseas. That works for me. Control is key. I didn’t realize back in the day that I could take control. But now I realize it, and I’ve taken control.

Lately, you’ve earned the nickname “the Godfather of Americana.” How do you feel about that designation?

Back in the ‘70s, when I was doing the same kind of album that this one is, the term “Americana” didn’t exist. It was very difficult for record stores to know which bin to file my records in. Had there been an Americana bin, that’s probably where I would have been, but I might have been alone in there. Nobody else was doing what I was doing. But it’s all American music — just different kinds of American music. So there’s really nothing else to call it except Americana.

You’re featured extensively on Bob Dylan’s reissue, Another Self-Portrait, which gathers outtakes from Self-Portrait and New Morning. What was it like to revisit the music from those sessions?

It was all a surprise to me. I was just a guitar player on the sessions. I wasn’t consulted about any of it, nor should I have been. Although, after it was all put together, they did play me stuff so I could try to figure out who was playing guitar where, and I was able to tell them when it was me and when it wasn’t. But it’s been a happy coincidence.

The liner notes suggest you played a significant part teasing out some of those songs with Dylan before they were recorded. What was your role?

A lot of it was just me and Bob in the studio. He would sing the song, and I would accompany him. That’s what I did. I was an accompanist — and proud of it. Bob doesn’t belabor things. If he doesn’t get what he hopes to get in a one or two takes, he does another tune. That’s the reason why so much material came out of just a few days. We would do one tune and then another tune and then another tune and then another tune. That’s the way it went. I had fun, and I think he must have, as well, or he wouldn’t have called me back the next day.

The rumor is that Self-Portrait was an act of professional self-sabotage, that Dylan had set out to make a purposefully bad album. Do you have any insight into that charge?

I don’t. It sounds unlikely. But really I just don’t know. That’s above my pay grade.

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