When he was 14, Doyle Bramhall II spent almost every free moment honing his guitar skills in his family’s Santa Rosa home or rifling through stacks of vinyl at The Last Record Store.
When he was 15, he was sharing the stage with one of the world’s greatest guitarists, Stevie Ray Vaughan, at the Concord Pavilion.
Doyle Bramhall II isn’t quite a household name yet — he’s not nearly as well known as his girlfriend of several years, the actor Renee Zellweger.
But the talented guitarist — who recently released his first album in 15 years and plays Saturday, Aug. 19, at the Sonoma County Blues & Arts Festival — may be much better known soon.
“I felt the first time I heard Doyle — he was 16 — that there was something special going on. That feeling still stays with me every time I hear him play,” said KRSH radio personality Bill Bowker. “There is so much depth to his playing.”
“Many respected guitar players cite him as one of the best: He showed Eric Clapton how to play a Robert Johnson lick a while back,” Bowker said.
Growing up, Bramhall moved frequently between California and Texas. The son of Austin-based drummer Doyle Bramhall, the younger Bramhall grew up around rock and blues royalty, most notably Stevie Ray Vaughan and his older brother, Jimmie Vaughan.
When asked why he hadn’t released an album in so long, Bramhall simply said he got some gigs with other artists. Those other artists happened to be Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, guitar god Eric Clapton and blues monarch B.B. King.
Bramhall’s latest album, “Rich Man,” came out last fall and blends down-home blues, funk and retro soul with a dash of international flavor.
In a phone interview in late July, Bramhall spoke about growing up in Santa Rosa and coming home to play at the Sonoma County Blues & Arts Festival at SOMO Village in Rohnert Park, starring harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite.
Q. When did you come to Santa Rosa?
A. My mom and stepfather moved me and my sister to Santa Rosa from Dallas, Texas. I was six when we moved in 1974 and lived in Santa Rosa on and off until 1994.
This is where I got my start in music through my friend Bill Bowker who sort of took me under his wing and got me to play with the Sonoma County Blues Society. He was always promoting me.
Q. Was it hard to move back and forth between California and Texas?
A. It was almost like growing up in a military family: I went to a lot of different schools. When I finally got on the road and started touring internationally (at age 18 with the Fabulous Thunderbirds), it was like home.
Q. Did you get that gig through Jimmie Vaughan, who was in the Fabulous Thunderbirds?
A. I was told the reason that I got the Thunderbirds gig originally was through Stevie, because I’d been sitting in with him.
He was a huge champion of mine and called Jimmie because they were looking for a second guitarist. But Jimmie said I got the gig because he liked the way I dressed.
Q. What was it like to be onstage with Stevie Ray Vaughan when you were just 15?
A. I grew up with Stevie and Jimmie. Jimmie was at the hospital when I was born. They were like family, … so I never felt intimidated by him (Stevie).
But I was intimidated the first time I got up with him because it was in front of 15,000 people (at the Concord Pavilion).
Q. I’m sure you’ve worked hard on your craft, but your playing seems so effortless; did music come easily for you?
A. Music has always been a very natural thing to me. I didn’t spend too much time, after the bedroom years, just sitting in my room practicing.
Basically all of my 14th year was when I practiced. Then when I was 15, I started getting gigs in Northern California and touring with different bands, mostly blues bands.
I stopped doing very well in school because I was more interested in music. I felt like school started getting in the way of me playing and touring more, and I seemed to be making a really good living in music at 15.
I was turning down gigs on the weekdays so I ended up jumping ship (dropping out of Santa Rosa High) and just playing music full-time. I could earn a living. I wouldn’t suggest that for most people, but for me it just sort of worked out.
Q. What was it like to work with Clapton and B.B. King on the album “Riding with the King”?
A. When I was 14, I’d go downtown to The Last Record Store and buy blues records. The records that I got most of my chops as a lead guitarist were from Cream (Clapton’s band in the late 1960s), B.B. King’s “Live at the Regal” and Jimmy Reed.
(About 16 years later) I walked into the studio where Eric and B.B. were recording one of the songs that I’d written, probably influenced by them. It was all just totally surreal.
Q. You released albums in the late 1990s and early 2000s, then waited 15 years to release your latest collection, “Rich Man” – why?
A. I decided to be more of an accompanist: In 1999 I got a gig with Roger Waters and did that for a couple of years. At the end of that I got a call from Eric Clapton to start making records with him.
Eric was really prolific so we were constantly working on albums as well as touring. Around that time (2004) I had my second daughter. It was a great life to be able to tour with Eric for six months, then have six months off with my daughters.
Around five or six years ago I had a shift in my life: I started connecting to my own music a lot more than I had before. It just felt like everything was coming together for me to really be able to pull together all my resources and different facets of my craft.
I was just able to be myself for the first time as an artist and a performer. Being a producer for Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow and working with Roger Waters and all the bands before that, I was just working on my craft until I could pull it all together for myself.
Q. Five or six years ago was when your dad died – did that have anything to do with your decision to pursue your own path?
A. Yeah it probably happened all around the same time for me. … I feel like I’m just starting my life as a performer and an artist.
Q. Your new album has a retro soul vibe, some rock, a healthy helping of blues and your guitar pyrotechnics. It defies easy labeling – does that make it harder to sell?
A. In general people want to have music categorized – they want to label it because it makes it easier for them to understand. But the music that I was influenced by and grew up listening to was all-encompassing: jazz, blues, rock ’n roll, soul music, R&B.
I don’t know what comes out of me or why, but I follow the music of my heart. My influence and roots are in blues, but I feel like my roots are as much in soul music too and rock ’n roll.
Q. You’ve traveled to remote places the past few years – has this changed your worldview?
A. The changes in me were huge. I realized that the way the rest of the world works is a lot different than the way the Western world works.
When I started traveling to India and the Eastern Bloc, and northern Africa and Mali, that completely changed my whole outlook on life. I felt I was less of a citizen of a country and more a human being of the Earth.
During my travels, I take in music like a sponge. There’s no way that you can take in all of that music and not have it come out somehow, somewhere, in your own music.
Music is such a deep experience because it’s what all existence is made of in some form: vibrations, rhythms.
You can be in New York City and if you listen you can hear the rhythms of the trains going by. The crickets are a symphony. There is music everywhere.
Q. Why did you call the new album “Rich Man”?
A. For the longest time I bought into the idea that the more successful you are, the more powerful you are, the more you have, the richer you are. But then I realized that the lower to the earth that you get the more that you can know.
Getting into this place of meditation where I could reach my core self, my true self, I am tapping into something that is much more wise than I am, and I can tap into that all the time.
And if I have that, I really don’t need anything else. I don’t need money. I mean, money is nice because I like to travel, but other than that I don’t really care.
Q. Are you looking forward to returning to Sonoma County?
A. It will be a sweet homecoming with Charlie Musselwhite and Bill Bowker, and all the folks I grew up with. It will be really nice.
Michael Shapiro is author of “A Sense of Place.” He writes about travel and entertainment for national magazines and The Press Democrat. Contact him at: www.michaelshapiro.net