The Last Laugh
Willis Alan Ramsey is the most reluctant and least likely of Texas singer-songwriters. With the requisite three names (the calling card of most Texas singer-songwriters, from Townes Van Zandt to Robert Earl Keen, and, of course, serial killers), the dashing looks, the heroic narratives, and the memorable songs that became hits for others, he nearly defines the icon--nearly. Ramsey has made only one record, released exactly 28 years ago, and has lingered in the shadows ever since. But he never quite disappeared into the darkness. Those who know have never, ever forgotten.
Note this endorsement from The New York Times only weeks ago--a love letter, delivered nearly three decades after the fact by a writer named John Schulian. He's a Yankee whose heart was melted by a slab of Lone Star vinyl, presented to him by a girl from Texas who wanted to share with him her love for Willis Alan Ramsey, the man and the album. "Trace my fascination with Willis Alan Ramsey to a honky-tonk girl from Austin, Texas, a sweet hellion who coveted her reputation as a provider of favors," Schulian wrote in the Times, apropos of nothing. After all, Ramsey has but a single album to his credit--it was re-released in the summer of 1999 by Koch Records--and no more are forthcoming anytime soon. As Ramsey likes to say, ain't nothing wrong with the first record, so what point is there in making any more?
"What she gave me 28 years ago, however, was no mere kiss or longneck Lone Star," Schulian continued. "It was a freshly pressed album by Mr. Ramsey that marked both his debut and Austin's emerging musical confluence of hippies and rednecks. Only later would I realize that owning the album was also the equivalent of induction into a secret society."
Ramsey has hardly dropped from sight: He played a church coffeehouse in Hurst only last Saturday, and he will return to Dallas on December 29 with a performance at Poor David's Pub; he has also co-written two songs with Lyle Lovett, "North Dakota" and "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)." But hiding in plain sight has made him only more mythical--a cult leader.
Born in 1949 in Birmingham, Alabama, and forced to move to Texas 11 years later--"pretty much against [my] will," he says--Ramsey came to music through his musically gifted mother, a brother who collected rhythm-and-blues records, clear-channel radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry, and the black women who sang all day long and raised him as a boy. "We had maids back then--everybody in the South had maids--and they were singing all the time," he recalls. "So that music was in the air. Segregation didn't mean that people didn't associate with one another. I was raised more by my black maid Letty. I spent more time with her than I did my parents."
That vision of a dispossessed South--romantic, sensual, and inwardly tragic--pervades Ramsey's music. "I might go crazy/I might go blind/But I'm never goin' back to that honeysuckle vine," he sang on his 1972 debut; no matter that the song is a lark about a randy honeybee. For Ramsey, Southern flowers flourish amid the refuse.
Ramsey's family moved to Dallas in the summer of 1960, and he has always loathed the city. "In the South," he says, "if you acted like you were better than someone else, the whole group took you down a peg. In Dallas, you'd find people always acting better than everybody else." Starting in the late 1960s, Ramsey, still in his teens, began making a name in the Dallas, Houston, and Austin clubs, drawing his inspiration from James Taylor and Laura Nyro and getting the performing nerve from Texas country-folk singers such as Ray Wylie Hubbard and Steven Fromholz.
"There was the Sand Mountain in Houston," Ramsey remembers, "the Checkered Flag in Austin; the Rubiayat in Dallas; Café York in Denver; the Out Post in Red River, New Mexico. You had a string of clubs you could play if you were young and enthusiastic and willing to make a spectacle of yourself. At that time, it was a listening thing, before all the progressive-country bullshit. It was in the tradition of the Newport Folk Festival or the better rooms on the East Coast, the Cellar Door or the Bitter End."
Willis Alan Ramsey, his one and only album, at once captures that intimate milieu of folk songs and stories, then leaps well ahead of its time, owing in part to Ramsey's idiosyncratic tastes and a fortuitous encounter with Leon Russell. "I was booked into a motel called the Villa Capri in Texas, and staying at that hotel were The Allman Brothers, Leon Russell, It's a Beautiful Day, and Pacific Gas & Electric. I saw their show and made it a point to knock on their doors. Leon was nice and receptive, and I was kind of cocky at that point. I thought I was writing some tunes that he should hear. Leon told me to break out my guitar. He and his road manager listened and gave me their numbers in California.
"They said I should come see them. Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts were really nice as well. They invited me to come down and see them in Macon. This was right before The Allman Brothers took off. So I went to see all of them. Gregg recorded a demo on me, and then I went out to see Leon, and he made a demo on me. Leon said, 'I'm getting ready to tour. If you like, you can stay in my house and record in my studio at night.' That pretty much sold me. It all happened quickly. I was pretty confident in what I was doing, and suddenly I was over my head. I went from playing college coffeehouses, and then I'm in Leon Russell's home studio, and people like George Harrison are coming over. It was a completely different environment."
But Ramsey never fit into Russell's glamorous and chaotic world; indeed, by his own admission, he was "pretty much traumatized" by it. Like Tom Petty, Phoebe Snow, and other young artists on Shelter Records, he wanted out. "Phoebe Snow said, 'Get the hell off that label.' I said, 'I can't--I've got a big contract.' She told me to get my attorneys to buy my way out. I couldn't, because I wasn't selling records."
Instead, Ramsey let his contract run its course after Shelter threatened to keep him under contract until he delivered a second record. (At one point, Ramsey thought he might be under contract indefinitely.) His debut may have been a masterpiece, but there would be no followup, no comeback. He tried making another record in Austin, but nothing came of the sessions. He struck out before he ever stepped up to the plate.
"My contract ran out just in time for disco and '80s dance music," Ramsey recalls. "Things went from nice listening environments to drunken-cowboy stuff. Then, about the time mechanical bulls showed up in the rooms I was playing, I stopped playing. But in a funny way, it's come full circle, and there are a lot of good listening rooms now, like when I started in the '70s."
Given the circumstances surrounding his only album--recorded over the course of a year in five studios in three states--we're fortunate to have songs such as "Goodbye Old Missoula," "Watermelon Man," "Satin Sheets," and "Boy From Oklahoma" at all. Those songs and others have been covered by Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Waylon Jennings, Shawn Colvin, Jimmy Buffett, and Kate Wolf. "Muskrat Love," one of the prettiest tunes you'll ever hear, was covered by America and then turned into a huge hit by Captain and Tennille.
But aside from its gorgeous melody, that song won't tell you much about Ramsey's art. "Ballad of Spider John," which opens the album, gets closer. Spider John is based on a character Ramsey met while hitchhiking--in his words, a "small-time thief, an incredibly guilty thief, who only robbed himself." He sang:
I was a supermarket fool
I was a motorbank stool pigeon
Robbin' my own time
I thought I'd lost my blues,
Yes, I thought I'd paid my dues
I thought I'd found a life to suit my style
The story of Spider John is as broad, wistful, and full of betrayed possibility as America itself. Spider could be Elvis or Robert Johnson, or Huckleberry Finn, the cocksure kid, born to lose, who finally realizes his deepest wish--and then throws it all away.
The question Ramsey repeats in "Wishbone"--"How you goin' to save your soul?"--is the central question, and answer, of his strange career. He has always cast a cold eye on the commercial aspects of music, not because he believes himself to be above the music business, but because he sees no benefit in the compromises it entails, no reason to make music on anything but his own terms, even if that means never making another record again. He will, he says, but he knows better than to say when.
"I've said as much over the years, and those projects haven't happened," he explains. "I don't want to say something again and have it not happen, as it has so many times before. I always thought I'd have many records out by now. My path has been a unique one, but every artist's path is unique. I'm not somebody who wants to make a vanity record. I don't have any desire to make a modest record; I really want to make something that's important and will last a long time. But there's not a lot of record labels knocking at my door. But I think I might get the last laugh."
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