This July will begin the Jasper musician’s third year in a Birmingham-based soul band with a distinctive name: St. Paul & the Broken Bones. And to say that the group’s hard work is beginning to pay off in media attention would be an understatement.
The band is featured in the newest issue of the prestigious American Songwriter Magazine — an article headlined “Soul Shakedown Party!” that praises their new album “Half the City” as “a delicate balancing act, combining warmth with high fidelity, sprinkling classic gospel-inflected soul playing with complex jazz progressions.” Not to mention a recent observation on Twitter from singer/songwriter Roseanne Cash: “I have seen the future of music, and the name of the band is St. Paul & the Broken Bones.”
One popular Americana blog boils it all down:
“This Birmingham band is about to explode.” Being caught in that explosion is proving to be, like so much of life, a mixed blessing for Branstetter, who started playing trumpet in sixth grade at Maddox School for band director Cynthia Garner and moved on to Walker High’s band and director Reggie Tolbert before majoring in music at Samford University.
“Spending a lot of time on the road is very new to me,” Branstetter says, “and at first I didn’t know how to pass the hours.” The pressure in that cooker is turned up significantly when packed into a van with seven band members and a tour manager. “But as you get used to it, you figure out ways to make the ride easier. Lately I’ve been reading autobiographies of people in the music industry. Such as Wayne Jackson, a trumpet player for the Memphis Horns who played on so many of the great Stax recordings and went on to tour with the Doobie Brothers.”
His current road book is “Respect Yourself,” a history of Stax Records, and coming up next is an unlikely pairing: autobiographies of Levon Helm and Alice Cooper. “I was raised to learn as much as I can about whatever I’m involved in,” he explains, “so I figured, where better to learn about being a touring musician than from the people who did it best?”
But sometimes the grueling schedule wears him down despite a good book. “One day last week in Austin, I just kind of hit the wall,” he recalls, while playing a triumphant series of shows at high-profile industry showcase South by Southwest. “I was getting mad and upset about little things, but the other members of the band worked me through it. They made me laugh a whole bunch, and then everything was better. In my opinion, that last show was the best we had done there.”
One of the unexpected pleasures of playing on the current tour, Branstetter says, is being able to objectively listen to the songs on “Half a City” that they poured their hearts into during an intense recording process. Upping the pressure: while the Bones seem to be following the trajectory of recent Alabama bands such as the Civil Wars and the Alabama Shakes, two members of those groups — John Paul White and Ben Tanner of their new Single Lock Records label — worked with them on producing the new CD.
Collaborative process crucial
”When we’d try to re-cut bits of some of the songs, we found it just wasn’t working,” Branstetter says, “so we basically did the album live. You can probably count on two hands the number of overdubs in it.” That format made the collaborative nature of the process even more important than before. Allen says he has a special attachment to the plaintive song “At Midnight,” for which he wrote the trumpet melody. And one of the band’s earliest songs, “Broken Bones and Pocket Change,” which also provided its name, remains a favorite with audiences. “Young love...has made me old...” vocalist and songwriter Paul Janeway belts out in the opening lyric. “Broken bones and pocket change...are all that she’s left me...”
After a recent show in Louisville, Ky., a middle-aged man came up to the group and said, “I don’t know if you guys are aware of it, but you’ve written the Divorced Man’s Anthem.” Branstetter is savoring a few days off after the grueling South by Southwest schedule, which was topped off by a St. Patrick’s Day block party in Mobile.
Thankfully, the next item on his schedule today is of the low-pressure variety: a home-cooked lunch courtesy of his mom.
As to what the immediate future holds for his life with The Bones, an online publication predicts this: “NPR will talk about them for the next six months, discussing Alabama’s music history. The band will play a ton of festivals this summer. Then they will play at the 2015 Grammys and come home with one or more.”
Their whirlwind performance schedule is a major detour from what the band’s life looked like, just a few months ago. Band-leader Janeway, who had a secure job at a bank, asked about a leave of absence for the spring tour and was told it wasn’t in the cards. He decided to bet double or nothing and quit his job, going full-time with the band. And Allen Branstetter had just finished taking his LSAT exam, in preparation for starting law school. That’s now on hold as well. Two days after lunch at home, he was back on the group’s van for another tour.
“Whatever the future holds,” he says, “I’m glad to be along for the ride.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is email@example.com