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Published: 2013/08/30
by Jerry Grillo

The Colonel: Bruce Hampton Is Still Out There…Way Out There

Col. Bruce Hampton painted his coat sleeves yellow to stand out in a crowd, or from the crowd, “to be crazy,” he says, as if nailing hook shots from 60 feet away wasn’t crazy enough already.

“I couldn’t play defense, couldn’t hit a free throw, but I could make a hook shot from the free throw line on the opposite end of the court,” says Hampton, “which is insanity.”

And that’s pretty much how Hampton describes, or defines, his 50-year career in music. Insanity. You know, like why’d you dress like a Confederate officer on stage? “Insanity.” Or, why did you write a song called “Leaning Near a Town, She Stood the Storm”?

You get the idea.

So, it was 1963. Hampton was 16. One day, a guy he knew a little bit, a damn fine guitarist named Harold Kelling, happened to walk by, and he saw the arcing yellow sleeve, the ridiculous hook shot. This is how Hampton remembers the beginning of his musical career:

“Harold said, ‘Man, you’re the weirdest cat I’ve ever met. How are you doing that?’ I said, ‘Man, that’s all I know how to do.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you come to our gig tonight and sing?’

“Sing? Gig? These were totally foreign concepts to me. It sounded like going to Bulgaria and operating on cows. That night was the first time I ever sang in my life. I sang “Boney Maronie” – you know, ‘I got a girl named Boney Maronie …’ and I smoked it.

“Then I did ‘Night Train,’ by James Brown, and I thought, ‘God, I can do this shit, this is so much fun, this is easy.’ Then I spent the next 50 years trying to find the tonal center.”

Some of the Hampton creation story makes its way into Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Colonel Bruce Hampton, the long-gestating film documentary that debuted at the 2012 Atlanta Film Festival, and has since been released on DVD. Hampton is also finished with an album’s worth of material that he expects will be available in some form or fashion this year.

At 66, he is the grand chameleon of Southern jam music, one of the most influential artists to come out of Atlanta’s rock and alternative music scene, a guy who has impressed and/or scared some of the best musicians you’ve heard of, artists who crave playing with him, and he remains one of the busiest bards in the South.

“How many touring bands out of Atlanta work 40 weeks a year? Just one,” he says. It’s Hampton’s band, of course, in whatever name or lineup he’s using at the moment. Yes, he still changes band names and lineups frequently. Sometimes it’s Pharaoh’s Kitchen, sometimes Realms of Ventilation. For the inaugural Lock’n Festival, he’s being billed as ‘Col. Bruce Hampton & Friends,’ with Allman Brothers and former Aquarium Rescue Unit bassist Oteil Burbridge the leading friend.

Hampton isn’t the prideful sort by any stretch, but he is proud of his touring durability, after struggling to keep going five or six years ago, when he was still recovering from heart trouble that became serious in 2006. Back then, as today, it helped that there was a gun at his back for a convincer.

“I’m supposed to be a shy insurance agent. I want to be a normal human being with the white picket fence and two and a half children, I’d love about three days of it, but I don’t have free will. There’s a gun in my back, there always has been,” Hampton says. “If I’m 80 and the gun is still there, I’ll still be doing this. I can’t retire. I’m supposed to at my age, but there’s no way. I’ll probably just lose my mind first.”

He’s saying all this while in the capable hands of Flournoy Holmes, the artist who designed The Allman Brothers’ iconic Eat a Peach album cover. Holmes is giving Hampton an upper back massage backstage at the Chastain Park Amphitheater in Atlanta, where a collection of stars from Capricorn Records’ heyday is making music for an enthusiastic (if modest) crowd.

Hampton just sat in with Wet Willie. Tommy Talton and Cowboy are here. And so is the heart and soul of Sea Level – Randall Bramblett and, on a break from The Rolling Stones, former Allman Brothers’ keyboardist Chuck Leavell, who first saw the Colonel and the Hampton Grease Band 40 years ago.

“It was in Atlanta, and I think it was Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom. I’m hearing them play for the first time,” Leavell says, “and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, who is this band, and who is this guy, and what are they doing?’ It was such an avant-garde trip, very exciting and interesting, maybe a little Zappa-like in its shape, and very adventurous.”

Leavell is part of the star-studded cast in Basically Frightened, along with Bill Kreutzmann, Dave Matthews, John Popper, most of Widespread Panic, Mike Gordon, Hubert Sumlin. Pretty much everyone. They just keep coming in the 90-minute film, sewn together from at least 100 hours of footage.

It took 25 years and three filmmakers to do the job, which makes me wonder if I’ll finish the book that I’m writing about Hampton before his 100th anniversary in the music business. The book idea lit my brain several years ago, with accidental thanks to John Bell of Widespread Panic.

Every year Bell, the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Widespread Panic, organizes a holiday food drive in the northeast Georgia community of Sautee Nacoochee. That day, we were installing overhead lights from the rafters of the 1930s school gym, part of the local community center. For about eight weeks every year, an illuminated spiral pattern on the old hardwood floor creates a “food labyrinth,” a shining path to be lined with donated food.

Hampton, who was going to meet us for lunch, showed up early. All of a sudden, he was just there, quietly sitting on the old wooden bleachers.

“Sometimes, he shows up out of thin air, like magic. I’ve seen it happen before,” says Bell, who lives in the area.

Hampton, who lives about 90 miles away in an Atlanta suburb, starts in with the sports trivia.

“Who is the last switch hitter to win the American League MVP Award?”

As the former sports writer in this group, and a dues paying member of the Society for American Baseball Research, I am clearly the expert here, so I say, confidently, “Eddie Murray, Orioles.”

“No,” Hampton says with resonant glee. “Give up?”

“Give me a second,” I say. “Mantle?”

“No. You’ll never get it. No one does,” he says, and then adds quickly, without waiting for another answer (which is fine, because he’s right, I’ll never get it), “It was Vida Blue.”

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