When Brandon Santini’s name was announced at the 2019 Blues Blast Music Awards as the winner for contemporary album of the year, the most stunned person probably was Brandon himself.
It’s not surprising when you consider that his CD, The Longshot, was up against stiff competition, including Shemekia Copeland and her America’s Child, which had captured album of the year honors at the Blues Music Awards a few months before.
The honor was a long time coming for Santini, a vocalist with a powerful, rough-hewn delivery and a harmonica player with big tone and his own personal, tradition-based style.
Brandon chuckles when he notes that, because of past experiences in the awards process, it was an inside joke among his own bandmates that they lovingly referred to him as the “Susan Lucci of the blues” – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the star of TV’s All My Children who finally won an Emmy after 18 nominations.
The nickname was well deserved when you consider Santini’s history. In the past, he’d been nominated twice for Blues Blast’s Sean Costello Rising Star – edged out by Doug Deming and Lisa Mann in consecutive years — and once each for live album and male artist trophies. And he’d come up short four more times at the BMAs.
“It’s nice to actually win one,” Brandon says. “Being nominated with legends and to be considered a contemporary of someone like Shemekia or Charlie Musselwhite or Kim Wilson (in prior awards seasons), it’s pretty fascinating to me.
“It’s hard to compete with those guys, and you can’t go into it expecting to win. To win this award was actually very exciting.”
Even though Brandon started fooling around with harp in high school, he admits, a career in music was never his dream.
Now based out of Springfield, Ill., his home for the past few years, Santini was born in Chapel Hill, N.C., and raised in Burlington a short drive to the west in the rolling hills of the Piedmont. Like most kids in the mid-‘90s, he was listening to whatever was playing on pop radio: the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Allman Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival and others.
Today, some writers compare his playing style to Paul Butterfield and James Cotton, but Santini’s interest in the instrument came from another direction entirely.
He was just 15 years old in 1997 when he became fascinated with the sounds of John Popper, the New Jersey-born front man of Blues Traveler, the jam band whose platinum album, Straight on Till Morning, was dominating the airwaves propelled by the tunes “Carolina Blues” and “Most Precarious.”
“I wish I could say that I was four years old and listenin’ to the blues and got into it,” Brandon says. “But I was raised around rock-‘n’-roll, classic rock, pop rock, country music. There was very little blues, if any, in my house growin’ up.”
But the way Popper played immediately captivated his attention.
Popper’s never been considered to be a blues artist, although he does demonstrate blues chops on occasion. A multi-instrumentalist who took lessons on piano, cello and guitar before picking up trumpet, he gravitated to the harp in high school and developed his skills after convincing his jazz band instructor to allow him to play it instead of horn. He made a name for himself by producing lightning fast runs on the instrument in a manner that separated him from the crowd.
“It really stood out to me,” Brandon recalls. “It was bein’ used in a way that Bob Dylan and Neil Young – (both of whom played harp in a rack while accompanying themselves on guitar) — weren’t doin’. It was fascinating.
“There was a lot of melodic stuff in his playin’. Being rapid-fire, a lot of it gets lost in the flurry of his notes, but that’s what brought me to it.”
Santini picked up the album, figured out what type of harp Popper was using and then enlisted his mother for a trip to the local music store to buy one for himself. Totally self-taught, a whole new world opened up for him when he discovered the blues and the huge tones produced by Butterfield, Cotton, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and others.
The sounds they produced were totally different.
Unlike Popper, who was primarily a “lip” player, gliding rapidly across the comb with pursed lips and producing what can only be described as a thinner tone, the bluesmen were a conglomerate of tongue blockers. Their notes were fatter because of the way they played – with the instrument positioned far back in their mouths and producing larger tone by obstructing multiple reed holes with their tongue and channeling wind into their unobstructed target, enabling them far more dynamics.
It took Brandon about three years to master the technique as he mastered an instrument that’s different from any other – an extension of the human body, the only one invented that works in lockstep with the lungs to produce notes no matter whether the musician is breathing in or out. And it’s capable of mimicking laughter, moans and other vocal inflections and train sounds, too.
“When I discovered tongue blocking,” he says, “…holy crap! You can get some huge sounds out of it. My playing today predominantly revolves around a lot of tongue blocks. It opens the scales to you.
“I tell people who are learning: ‘Learn to tongue block because you’re basically gonna open up a whole new world and a whole new dimension of your playing.’”
Santini’s love for the blues took off after he discovered Butterfield for the first time while viewing the movie Blues Brothers 2000.
“I watched because Blues Traveler were in it,” he says. “I hadn’t even seen the original Blues Brothers at the time. I remember (Butterfield’s) ‘Born in Chicago’ comin’ on. I was like: ‘Holy cow!’
“That song was so good – his tone and his playing. What a beast he was!”
From that starting point, Brandon did his homework.
“I started learning who the harp heavyweights were,” he recalls. “I was really turned on by amplified harmonica. So that whole Chicago sound really got me goin’. I was into Cotton at first, then Little Walter. It was a while before I learned about Big Walter and Junior Wells.
“But I went down the road with those heavily amplified guys, then got more into Sonny Boy and Sonny Terry, those guys who played more acoustic. It was quite a different world that I wasn’t quite ready for when I got to playin’.”
Santini started playing with others while still in high school, hooking up on the sly with a guitarist and drummer in the band room. “I was a library assistant durin’ second period,” he remembers. “I picked it up because it was an easy gig. You basically do nothing. So I would do homework and write lyrics, thinkin’ about harmonica and Blues Traveler.
“Every day, pretty much, I’d get a bathroom pass and kinda sneak over to the band room, where these guys were always there by themselves for some reason. We’d play ‘Johnny B. Goode’ or somethin’ every day. Then the band teacher heard me and invited me to sit in on one of their gigs in the town square. That was my first time on stage – that and the school talent show.”
Brandon’s professional career began inauspiciously with a paying gig at age 19 with a Southern rock band, playing the Gov’t Mule version of Elmore James’ “Look on Yonder Wall” as well as a host of Allman Brothers covers.
By then, he already realized his life’s path was through music.
“I wasn’t designed to work a 9-to-5 job or work 40 hours a week at a day job,” he says. “I like the challenge that being a musician presents, seeing a new city every day when I’m on the road. It’s much more of what I’m cut out for.”
He was in his early 20s when he and guitarist friend Justin Sulek formed what would become the band Delta Highway, playing as a duo in Burlington, Elon and Greensboro, N.C., and producing a sound that melded Santini’s progressive harmonica approach to with Sulek’s six-string stylings that hinted of R.L. Burnside and Muddy Waters.
They relocated to Memphis in 2003. “It was Justin’s idea to move,” Brandon says. “This was when the Blues Music Awards were just called the Handy Awards. He said: ‘Man, let’s move to Memphis. We’re gonna win a Handy Award.
“’Let’s just do this thing!’
“I didn’t have much goin’ on back home – nothin’ but trouble to get into – so I said: ‘Hell, yeah. Let’s do it, man!’ Then I said: ‘But who’s gonna sing all the time though?’ (laughs)
“He said: ‘You are!’”
“Oh, boy! Here we go,” Santini said at the time, noting today that he’d sung previously, but “just a little bit. I considered myself an instrumentalist more than a singer – and still do. I just emulate all those blues guys. That’s where I get my influence from.”
It was a pure baptism by fire with no training or lessons involved.
Shortly after they arrived on Beale Street, Delta Highway became a full band with the addition of a rhythm section composed of a pair of blues veterans: former Jason Ricci band bassist Tom “Slim” Louis and drummer Keven Eddy, who’d served time previously with harp players Mojo Buford and Blind Mississippi Morris.
Working regular gigs at Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall, the last true juke joint on Beale Street, where they frequently worked three weeks straight, and touring, too, they represented the Memphis Blues Society in the 2006 International Blues Challenge.
And they almost fulfilled Sulek’s prophecy with their album Devil Got a Woman. A 2009 finalist in the best new artist category in the rebranded Blues Music Awards, it lost out to Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm’s 2 Man Wrecking Crew.
Memphis has changed quite a bit since those days, says Santini. “In 2003, when we got there, there was a vibrant blues scene, although, from what people told me, nothing like it was before.
“Billy Gibson opened my eyes to a whole new world of playing. He took me under his wing a little bit. Victor Wainwright eventually moved there a couple of years later, and we all know where he’s at now.
“The scene was great, very collaborative rather than competitive. Robert Belfour from North Mississippi was still alive, and James Govan, who was a great soul singer, was still around. But it was also a fresh scene that was just developing. You could feel somethin’ happening.
“We were all makin’ okay money, and people were comin’ to see us. But in 2008, when that recession hit, the game changed drastically. The money would start goin’ down in the clubs. Tourism went down, and a lot of the great musicians moved on. But it was such an exciting time to be there, and I’m so-o-o thankful for that – that I was placed there at that exact time.”
Today, the street’s become far more commercial. It’s a gleaming international tourist mecca ablaze with neon and barkers on the street to lure folks into the bars. And, Santini points out, it’s become more difficult for the musicians, many of whom are relying on tips to survive and raise families because they aren’t being paid as much as they were in the past.
Complicating matters, Brandon says, is the fact that some establishments feature karaoke, deejays, old-school R&B and house music despite the fact that their audiences have traveled from the four corners of the earth to immerse themselves in the blues. But, in the real world, he adds, he understands the clubs are businesses that have to do whatever they can to survive, too.
Delta Highway came to a fork in the road after their BMA nomination. Santini started his own band and recorded the album Songs of Love Money and Misery shortly thereafter, and Sulek went off in another direction.
“It was lo-fi and low budget,” he says of the album. “I was just tryin’ to keep the machine goin’. There was no option of quitting for me.”
His band’s dynamic changed dramatically in 2011 with the addition of Jeff Jensen. Now a major star in his own right, the California native had been fronting his own band in Portland, Ore., after rising to prominence in the ‘90s with the Atlanta-based Southern power pop band, Uncle Green.
A gifted guitarist, vocalist and producer, Jensen was fed up with the music business at the time ready to walk away from everything. That all changed when he met Brandon by chance during a stopover in Memphis and accepted his invitation to join him as his guitarist and band leader.
“He was kinda hittin’ the reset button on his life,” Santini recalls, “and it just worked out great. I needed a full-time guy, and a mutual friend of ours introduced us the first night he was there. I invited him out to sit in, and he sounded amazing…had great stage presence.
“Pretty immediately, I went: ‘Hey, man, you want a job?’
“He sure as heck did, man. It was a perfect fit. We both had the understanding that this was a temporary thing — that he was, at some point, goin’ back out and gettin’ the Jeff Jensen Band goin’ again. But we did it for two years.”
Los Angeles-based bassist Bill Ruffino joined the band in 2012, and they recorded Santini’s This Time Another Year CD at the legendary Ardent Studios a short while later. Backed by Ruffino, drummer James Cunningham and organist Chris Stephenson and produced in partnership with Jensen, the album was a BMA nominee for contemporary album of the year, and Brandon was a finalist for harmonica player of the year award, too.
The same lineup was onboard when Jensen relaunched his solo career with the album Road Worn and Ragged. Brandon and Jeff parted company upon its release, and the duo each achieved acclaim in 2015, Jensen with the CD Morose Elephant and Santini with Live and Extended! and Timo Arthur taking over for Jeff on six-string.
The lineups for both of men’s bands has been somewhat interchangeable ever since. Ruffino has anchored the bottom for Jeff since his relaunch along with percussionist David “Alabanimal” Green, who’s worked with both bandleaders, whose bond grew even stronger after their separation.
In 2017, Brandon and Jeff reunited as The Santini-Jensen Project with a lineup that included Arthur, Green and Ruffino for a few select festival dates. As exciting and rewarding as those concerts were, however, Jeff’s own band was crisscrossing the country to promote his new release, Wisdom & Pain, while Brandon was putting the final touches on the material for The Longshot, an album that proved to be far more introspective and more focused on his songwriting skills than anything he’d done before.
“Growin’ up listenin’ to rock and pop and bein’ a Blues Traveler fan, I’m outside of the blues box,” Santini says. “Even though I love traditional blues music and have made a career and name with that, I think that, as an artist, you always have to look at your full canvas. And there’s always a different part of that canvas that you want to start painting.
“There are guys out there in the traditional blues market that are so much better than me. In order to survive in this industry, you have to adapt to the way the business is changing. The Longshot was an effort to do that – along with my own personal satisfaction. Fortunately, my label, American Showplace, was on board with allowing their artists to take chances.
“When you put somethin’ out that’s a little apprehensive. You’re scared. You wonder: Is this gonna flop, or is it gonna be successful?
“But winning the Blues Blast award and getting the great reviews that I did is a great validation for me. The album has really opened doors to clubs I didn’t play before. And to be on the Billboard charts was really a treat when it first came out.”
Despite Santini’s recent success, however, the brotherhood he’d established with Jensen – and the frequent requests from fans that they reunite — was simply too strong to ignore.
“We said: ‘We have to do this – not only for the fans but because we want to do this,” Brandon says. “We started to look at our schedules and how it would fit into our five-year plans. We were able to pinpoint some time where we could get together, start writing and record.”
Reborn as Tennessee Redemption, a name chosen to symbolize the revitalization that they underwent in Memphis, their new band is identical to The Santini-Jensen Project. Their well-received self-titled debut album was released a couple of months ago, and they’d just come off the road from a tour in support of it when this interview took place.
Like American Showplace, Endless Blues Productions provided a home that was very artist-friendly and open to something different, Brandon says.
The disc – a blend of contemporary blues and roots rock — includes eight originals and reinterpretations of Tom Waits’ “Come on Up to the House” and Little Walter’s “Watch Yourself.” And the opener, “Glad to Be,” reflects on their Beale Street experiences.
Response has been so positive that Tennessee Redemption is already booking festival appearances for next year and planning another album, Brandon says. “We all feel that the band is a creative sum that’s greater than me individually or Jeff individually. It makes for a really exciting show, and we’re really excited about it.”
Unlike Southern Hospitality – which brings together Victor Wainwright, J.P. Soars and Damon Fowler – or Royal Southern Brotherhood – a conglomeration of Cyril Neville, Mike Zito and Devon Allman, Tennessee Redemption prefers not to be considered a supergroup, Santini insists.
“I don’t like to use the word,” he says. “But I think the whole collaborative idea is somethin’ really good – that people want to see that. Not only is it enjoyable, but it’s helped me grow as an artist, especially as a songwriter.
“We don’t consider it a ‘project.’ It’s a band – and we’re gonna put a lot of time and effort into it to see where it takes us ‘cause we’re serious about it, man!
“It’s almost like a salt-and-pepper dynamic between Jeff and I,” Brandon adds. “He’s always go-go-go, movin’ around the stage, and I’m kinda a laid-back guy. It’s the perfect fit for this band on and off the stage.”