On a Scandinavian tour in 2002, the Gourds' friend and guide kept playing a recording by an old blues singer named Ramsay Midwood. So when a man with a scruffy beard and twinkling blue eyes came up to Kevin Russell after a gig in Austin in early 2002 and introduced himself, the Gourds singer had to laugh. "You ain't Ramsay Midwood," Russell said, figuring the singer-songwriter whose cassette the band fell in love with was black and probably dead 30 years.
First impressions are powerful, man. Like how you hear a cover song first and it becomes the original, at least in your mind. I met Ramsay Midwood 11 years ago on the 11th hole of a golf course by the Austin airport and my first thought was that he was a prisoner given some leisure time for good behavior. He was playing by himself, but his cart was being driven by a uniformed female guard packing heat. The exercise yard of the Del Valle jail ran alongside the second hole, so you can understand how I made the mistake. I spent the first couple holes thinking that Midwood might suddenly start swinging his club and knocking heads during an impetuous escape.
Turned out the guard was just a friend, looking for a couple hours out in the air, but Ramsay still carries the scent of danger to me, which makes his records of stunning, surrealistic, mud-caked, boogie folk music all the more appealing.
The first one, the one the Gourds heard, was Shootout At the OK Chinese Restaurant. The latest is Larry Buys a Lighter, which has a little more stomp amid the same troubled circumstances. With music both primitive and close to home, Midwood is the new J.J. Cale, which is one of the reasons he's more popular in Oklahoma than his adopted home state of Texas.
That day on the Bergstrom course, he told me a little about himself. Midwood moved from L.A. to Austin after his house burned down a month after 9/11. He and then-wife Lisa Simmons and their baby boy, Levon, had rented a house that turned out to be next door to Bob Dylan's guitarist Charlie Sexton. How do you like that?
Midwood was signed at the time to a three-record deal with Vanguard, the imprint that signed his idol Mississippi John Hurt in the 1960s, but they ended up releasing only Shootout, which they licensed from the German label that had put out the version the Gourds heard. But they paid him for the next album, 2006's Popular Delusions and the Madness of Cows, but Midwood ended up putting it out himself.
The label soured on him, he says, after a disastrous South by Southwest showcase at an Irish bar on Sixth Street in 2003. "I didn't really know what South by Southwest was and I never really got my bearings," he says. "I was just looking around, going, 'What's happening?'" Vanguard had brought a lot of people to watch Midwood bomb.
Then the label put him on the road with Bob Schneider, also on Vanguard at the time, playing solo acoustic to bored, chattering cougars. "They were flying me out to do a show here, a show there. Renting cars. Hotels. What I realize now is that what I should've done was bought a road-worthy van and got a band together and toured the country as a unit, instead of playing all those solo shows that people didn't get."
Indeed, it was a smokin' cool band that got Midwood, who had played live only sparingly for a decade after the Vanguard deal went south, out of the bunker. With the Gourds on hiatus, Midwood and his pocket groove hustlers fill a void for those in Austin who favor modern, oddball sentiments to go with the Appalachian stomp. Guitarist Bill Mullin, who also plays drums on occasion, takes you back in the alley with his stinging dere-licks, while bassist Jeff Johnston's sturdy, yet slightly slurred bass lines drive this truck. They play roots rock with B.O., which is not a criticism, but a description of what it sounds like to hear ZZ Top from under a car.
On a recent Tuesday at the country retro White Horse in East Austin, the dance floor was filled with swirling couples as Ramsay and the boys pumped out one continuous slow-burning boogie blues song with breaks.
Midwood goes to the White Horse to have a big time and make some coin, but his second home is Sam's Town Point in far South Austin, which Dallasite Homer Henderson calls the closest Austin has to the late, great "five-star toilet" Ted Mack's Whistlestop on Denton Drive. It's the only bar in town whose entrance is emblazoned with one of the famous disturbing little girl images of Los Angeles street artist Becca ("the female Basquiat," according to Salon). But there's nothing "hip" about STP in the derivative sense of the word. And Becca is Ramsay's younger sister. Midwood found the joint, built in 1987 by a family of Chicago natives, when he was driving by one day and saw two signs: "Private Club" and "Open Mike." That stopped him cold and made him and his guitarist friend Joey go inside. "I was confused," Midwood says, chuckling. "I felt welcomed and shunned at the same time."
Not wanting to blow the mystique he's worked long and hard to cultivate, Midwood is cagey in interviews. And he's terrible on dates ("It was either '91 or '96"). Ask him about the meanings of his lyrics like "Planet Nixon spinning 'round/ Shine on, Confucius sun, shine on" and you'll get a mumble about Chinese arrogance in naming planets. But if you sit with him long enough at Sam's Town Point, you'll slowly find out about his life before Austin.
He was born in Woodstock, New York, to novelist father Bart Midwood, who paid the bills writing forEsquire
magazine in the '60s and '70s, and painter mother Susan Kellogg. After his parents split up when he was 5, Ramsey and Becca, three years younger, lived "lovingly unsupervised" in Arlington, Virginia, with their mother. Bart Midwood, who was also a noted composer and playwright, taught Ramsay a few chords on the guitar he handed down.
Further education came at the Folk Life Festival in D.C., where young Ramsay would sit at the feet of Lightnin' Hopkins, Son House and other folk/blues greats. "I only listened to old guys growing up, so I thought that was the way you were supposed to sing," Midwood explains his craggy delivery. It was in the D.C. suburbs that Midwood developed another all-consuming passion.
"I would say that I became addicted to golf, the very first time I tried it," Midwood recalls. He was rummaging through the attic one day in Arlington and found his grandfather's golf clubs, which came with an urge to use them immediately. "We were dirt poor, but there was a country club not far from our house," he recalls. "So I jumped the fence and just started playing. I shot par on my very first hole."
After graduating from Virginia's James Madison University in 1987, Midwood hightailed it to Chicago, where some of his older theater pals from college had gotten roles in the Steppenwolf Theater production of Tom Waits' Frank's Wild Years. Midwood was also hired by Steppenwolf, to play Floyd Knowles in the 1988 production of The Grapes of Wrath. Knowles was the guy who advised the Joad family of bleak work prospects on their California arrival.
To prepare for The Grapes of Wrath, Midwood went to the Chicago Public Library to study up on the Depression. The library had shelves of old records that you could listen to in soundproof cubicles and Midwood discovered folks like Charlie Poole, Jimmy Driftwood and Charley Patton. "That really began my journey into the musical abyss," he states. "I just kept asking, 'Where is this world that used to exist a while ago?'"
Though his acting résumé will say Midwood moved from Chicago to Los Angeles for a high-dollar beer commercial and other television opportunities, he was actually following an actress whom he'd fallen for. He did TV spots in crime shows, mainly. "Whenever my agent called, I'd ask, 'Am I a murderer or rapist this time?' And sometimes he'd say, 'Both,'" Midwood deadpans.
It was music, not acting, that really got Midwood's juices flowing. He started hanging out at Viva Fresh Mexican Restaurant in Burbank, where some of L.A.'s top session players would jam. "They would let me sit in and it was the first time I got to play with guys who were as serious about music as I was. It was honest and authentic."
It was at Viva Fresh that Midwood met Randy Weeks of Lonesome Strangers. "I dig your tunes," said Weeks, who then started a band with Midwood called Waynesboro. The drummer was Mike Stinson, now a bar band rocker of his own cast. Weeks recorded Midwood playing eight originals with a spare backing and sent the tape around. Midwood was in Arkansas, where he drove 20 hours straight to attend the funeral of vintage country singer-songwriter Jimmy Driftwood, when he heard a label in Germany wanted to put it out.
"I used to go down to the Goodwill Career Development Center every day to use their computer," he says. "Finally they asked me what I was doing and I said, 'I'm running my record label, and they said, 'Well, you're supposed to be looking for jobs like a forklift driver.'"
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Midwood, who has a 6-year-old daughter with Cathy Guthrie, Arlo's daughter, was part of the Woody Guthrie musical family for awhile, but the Okie he's more aligned with is J.J. Cale. The Tulsa tumble lives on. So it was one of the greatest honors of his career when he got a call last year from J.J.'s longtime drummer Karl Himmel, who had become a fan of Midwood's records and saw that Ramsay was headed his way for a show. "He put the band up at his house and then came to the gig and sat in on a few songs. It just felt so right," says Ramsay, putting away one Topo Chico after another (his sobriety date is 6/6/'06). "There aren't all that many people out there that get what we're doing, but the ones that do, really get it."
The expedition for this lost America that began 25 years ago ends in Midwood's ghost music, which echoes like a holler from the subconscious. Like the Bergstrom golf course that smelled of jet fuel and was closed not long after 9/11 because it was too close to the airport, we are losing real things for no real reason. When you play Midwood's CDs in the car on the interstate, you'll find yourself getting off and taking the backroads. If anything true in this world still exists, that's where you'll find it.