They call Jimmie Bratcher “The Electric Rev.”
Not only because his lightning-strike performances crackle with high-
voltage guitar playing and emotionally charged vocals. Or because Bratcher
makes the hairs rise on the arms of the crowds he entertains in the map of clubs, festivals, bike rallies, churches and prisons that he calls “the road.”
But because the ascending blues star is literally a preacher, as
comfortable testifying in the pulpit about the power of Jesus as he is in smoky bars celebrating the vigor of the blues.
Bratcher’s shows — regardless of location — are worry-free zones, where
the healing, good-time mojo of rockin’ blues sets hearts and minds, and maybe
even souls, free. His latest album Secretly Famous is fueled by the same
attitude. The disc’s dozen tracks are packed with humor, romance, joy and the
thrill of finding the same at every turn, plus some real-life reflection. And they’re all buoyed by Bratcher’s gravel dappled tenor voice and his gritty, muscular and deeply rooted guitar playing, supported by a versatile rhythm section of drummer Lester Estelle Jr. and bassist Craig Kew.
Throughout Secretly Famous Bratcher’s songs shine a spotlight on his
unique perspective. The slinky, groove-driven “57,” for example, is a first — a tribute to the Shure SM-57 microphone, a staple of the stage and the studio
known for its ability to capture the sound of the electric guitar.
“I can’t think of a more important piece of gear during the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll and blues,”
the six-string apostle opines. Upon Secretly Famous’ release “57” rapidly became a staple itself, aired on hundreds of stations around the globe including Sirius/XM Satellite Radio’s million-subscriber “B.B. King’s Bluesville.”
“Check Your Blues at the Door” echoes Bratcher’s feel-good policy over a
chugging beat tailored for dancing that’s propelled by his barking rhythm guitar. And “Starting All Over Again” is downright autobiographical — part of the story of the Electric Rev. and the love of his life, his wife Sherri. Their first marriage ended in a fight that resulted in Bratcher needing facial reconstruction surgery. And yet they were able to find and rekindle the sparks of their romance into a decades-long second marriage that includes their sharing their story at many appearances.
On a more sobering note, “Nowhere To Go But Down” is a lean rocker that
recalls Bratcher’s early-adulthood struggles with drugs and depression, before he found salvation in faith and discovered his twined path spreading the gospel of Jesus and of the blues. The song’s storyline winds around his slashing chords, building in intensity until chiming single-notes give way to a solo that captures the bruising pressure of alienation in its howling licks.
For Bratcher, the tones of the guitars he plays in the studio — a 1964 Gibson SG Junior, a 1960 Fender Stratocaster, a 1970 Gibson Les Paul Custom and others including the custom three-P- 90 pickup equipped Stratocaster he’s dubbed “the Monster” — are literally voices that help relate the narrative of his songs. So he carefully sculpts the sound of his instruments to fit each number.
“That’s really important, because the music has to speak the right language to get the story across,” he says. “I’m very particular about crafting tones by blending different guitars and amplifiers and effects to make a statement.”
That’s a conviction Bratcher shares with Secretly Famous producer Jim Gaines, a multiple Grammy winner who earned a reputation as a guitar guru working with Carlos Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Lee Hooker, Luther Allison and other fretboard greats. “Jim’s brilliant at critiquing songs and arrangements, and getting all the details of a song right,” Bratcher remarks. “But with Jim the fun really begins when it’s time to record guitars.”
Bratcher’s passion for raw-but- exacting electric guitar sounds began in the ’60s, when he fell under the spell of Eric Clapton, his first six-string hero. But there was a circuitous journey he needed to undertake to become a bluesman himself.
As a kid Bratcher developed eclectic taste, culled from his large musical family — who would have sprawling jam sessions at frequent get-togethers in his native Kansas City, Missouri — and the sounds on the era’s progressive FM radio. “I was the guy who owned both Axis Bold As Love and Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison,” he attests. The first truly pivotal event in Bratcher’s musical life occurred at age 12 when his father recognized his creative yearning and determined to get him an electric guitar.
“We didn’t have any money, but we did have a 1958 DeSoto in the driveway,” Bratcher recounts. “My father placed an ad in the Kansas City Star that read,
‘Will trade 1958 DeSoto for an electric guitar and amplifier.’
That instrument was the 1964 Gibson SG Junior that Bratcher played on Secretly Famous. He also still owns the amp, too — a Gibson Falcon.
Bratcher caught on to Albert King, B.B. King and more blues greats, and developed as a player in a series of bands that never quite took off “due to a lack of professionalism and commitment, and substance abuse,” he explains. As Bratcher began gaining a toehold as a musician in his early 20s, drugs and alcohol also had their grips on him. They drove the destruction of his and Sherri’s first marriage. Nonetheless, he and Sherri reunited and when they decided to remarry she took him to a small church where the preacher declared he would only perform the ceremony if Bratcher promised to put his faith in Jesus.
“I got down on my knees and asked Christ to forgive me, and I got up a completely different person,” he relates. “From that day on I no longer had the desire for drugs and alcohol.”
Bratcher’s calling to the ministry came on the heels of that experience, but that job required that Bratcher put his electric guitar aside for 20 years. “During that period I was a jacket-and- tie wearing reverend,” he says. “I would only use my acoustic guitar to play traditional gospel songs.” The rougher sounds of Bratcher’s earlier days were considered part of the devil’s music by his church. But slowly things changed and Providence made a few more crucial interventions.
In 1997 Bratcher’s son Jason got him a Fender Telecaster as a gift. “He wanted to see what I could really do with music,” Bratcher says. Quickly, Bratcher wrote an inspirational blues shuffle called “Can’t Got Over It” that’s still part of his set list. Bratcher began practicing again, but eschewed learning others’ licks in favor of developing his own brand of bare-knuckled virtuosity that embraces a picking style employing both a plectrum and fingers, and developing guitar sounds that blend growling tones and clearly articulated notes. Three years later, as his collection of original tunes grew, he transitioned out of the pastoral ministry and began his current traveling ministry. And he took his electric guitar on the road.
In 2001 Bratcher made his debut album Honey In the Rock, which pairs the musical language of the blues with spiritual messages. “To this day I write in parables,” Bratcher observes. “I tell stories, but behind the stories there are messages that I want people to connect with, and the sound of the blues is so true and comfortable for people that it helps make that connection.”
The transcendent qualities of the style was made clear to Bratcher in 2003, when a friend invited him to perform a concert of his electric blues-based sanctified music at a church. “I thought my friend was crazy and that people would be upset, but they loved it,” Bratcher recalls. At about the same time, Bratcher began taking his rocking new sound to prisons. “In 2001 while performing at the infamous Louisiana state penitentiary at Angola, I met a man on Death Row and I was not able to communicate to him the realities of the gospel in a way he could understand,” Bratcher explains, “and that made me begin to seek a better way to communicate with all kinds of people. Ultimately, I found it through playing electric music again.” Today both prison and church performances are regularly part of the Electric Rev.’s performing schedule.
Another turning point came in 2003, when Bratcher and some friends were on a motorcycle trip to the Mississippi Delta. “We rode into Clarksdale and were standing at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49, where they’ve got a commemorative marker celebrating the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil,” Bratcher recounts. “This guy drives ups — a redneck, rebel-flag pickup looking guy — and says, ‘You boys come to get a look at my town?’ ”
Within a couple hours he’d bought Bratcher’s crew barbecue for lunch and taken them a few blocks away to Ground Zero, the club partly owned by actor Morgan Freeman that’s dedicated to celebrating Mississippi’s blues tradition. There, Bratcher got a chance to play some of his music and was invited back to play the now-defunct Crossroads Bikes and Blues Festival.
“I was performing only Christian themed blues at the time, so I didn’t know if they’d like it,” Bratcher recounts. But he and his band were a hit with the small festival’s audience. Since then, bikers have been an important part of Bratcher’s fan base, and in 2013 he was an audience favorite at the world famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
Thus the Electric Rev. was born again as a full-fledged artist. Inspired by the knowledge that his music could speak to all kinds of audiences, Bratcher made up for lost time as a musician. He recorded six more albums and two live DVDs, including 2005’s RED, also produced by Gaines, before Secretly Famous, touring a mix of churches, clubs and prisons — alternately preaching and performing, which both require interchangeable audience-grabbing abilities.
“The difference between playing in church and playing in a club is that in a club I talk less and rock more,” Bratcher says, chuckling. Secretly Famous, however, is Bratcher’s first collection of overtly secular tunes. “Although I kept to my parable format, I didn’t use any religious terms at all in the album’s lyrics and instead decided to tell stories from things I’ve seen in everyday life, including my own,” he relates. “I feel like I’ve come to a place where I’m speaking through my songs in a way that everyone can understand. And while it’s not my job to figure out if they do understand every strand in my music, it is my job to be passionate about every note I sing and play, and that sure helps connect the dots.”