If you ask Bruce Robison whose idea it was to take legendary country singer-songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey out on the road for four dates for The Next Waltz Live tour, he’ll swear up and down that “he was the one that suggested doing some shows, but I think his idea was just me and him doing some shows.”
Ramsey tells it differently.
“It was Bruce Robison’s idea,” he says. “He just asked me if I was doing anything in preparation for a record that I’ve been working on forever now — a second release.”
Regardless of whose idea it was, Ramsey is going to be playing at The Kessler on Friday, Oct. 4, alongside Robison, John Fullbright and Carrie Rodriguez in a Rolling Thunder Revue type of show that will see each artist playing some of their own songs while also supporting Ramsey’s performance.
Ramsey’s second release is also the stuff of legend, but more in the way that Bigfoot is a legend, something that is alleged to be out there but has yet to surface. Not since the release of his self-titled debut, recorded on Leon Russell’s Shelter label in 1972, has Ramsey released a new album. That’s 47 years without a new release.
Still, Ramsey’s work has taken on a life of its own, with Jimmy Buffett, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, Waylon Jennings, Widespread Panic, and Captain & Tennille doing covers of his songs.
“I’ve been scratching my head about that for years,” Ramsey says, chuckling in amazement at leaving a legacy he couldn't have predicted.
“I was surprised as anybody to have other people recording my songs. I think nine out of the 11 songs have been recorded by other artists, and most of them by multiple artists.”
Looking back on his early years in music, Ramsey credits the city of Dallas for instilling a love of music and songwriting in him, even if it initially came at the cost of his childhood ego.
“I was born and raised in Birmingham for almost 10 years,” Ramsey says. “My dad got a job in Dallas, and I was the only one in the family that wasn’t excited about moving to Texas. It was hard to make friends in fourth grade when I moved, and especially all the girls thought I was this little, ridiculous Southern kid.”
By night, Ramsey would listen to Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash on the John R. Show and the diverse array of music on KLIF, and decided that he wanted to play music.
“I started playing music and then I noticed that I started to get some attention from the girls,” Ramsey remembers with a bit of a grudge. “They would just look at me and turn their head and start laughing.”
When Ramsey penned “Northeast Texas Women,” a single rich in tongue-in-cheek humor, he had his experience as a young man in Dallas in mind.
“By the time I finally got some girlfriends, I still kind of had a chip on my shoulder about when I lived in Dallas,” he says.
It was also Dallas where Ramsey first learned to write a song in eighth grade, under the tutelage of his friend and bandmate Bryce Beaird.
“I could have never, never written a song anything other than a folk song back then,” Ramsey says. “Bryce could actually write his own songs. I knew that other people did it, but I got the chance to see him do it. During one rehearsal he’d have a part written and the next he’d have another part. I’d go, ‘How’d you do that? You’re going to show me.’”
The rest is history.
“I was listening to Willis Alan Ramsey when I was 10 years old, thinking I would never even meet him,” Robison says. “I got to be friends with him a little bit when I started very gently sharing the pieces that we were doing for The Next Waltz,” Robison’s online project that seeks to celebrate and elevate the songs of country music writers like Ramsey, Charley Crockett, Turnpike Troubadours and Jerry Jeff Walker.
Robison had the distinct honor of recording an acoustic version of “Mockingbird Blues,” a song from Ramsey’s fabled second album Gentilly, and released it along with an animated video on YouTube, this past September.
“I wasn’t even going to ask him to put it up on other services because it just doesn’t feel like my place,” Robison says of Ramsey. “I hope that when the record comes out, everything is in its place and everything is good. I want everything that I do to be in service of that.”
Along with the songs that made him a cult figure in the country music world, Ramsey will be playing songs that have yet to make it recording.
“It’ll be about half and half,” Ramsey says excited for the performances with Robison, Fullbright and Rodriguez. “It’s a real honor to play with these guys. I think they’re all incredible. Bruce just works with the best players.”
Not only will Ramsey be playing songs from the new album, but the second album is actually happening.
“It looks like the first of next year right now,” Ramsey confirms. “We have a lot of great players down there and singers.”
Among those singers will be Lovett, who did the overdubs on a song called “Mr. Lemon,” bluegrass singers Tim and Mollie O’Brien, Tommy Malone from the Subdudes and blues singer Marcia Ball.
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As for the players, Ramsey says that Joel Guzman, director of University of Texas at Austin’s Tex-Mex conjunto ensemble, will be playing accordion alongside Eric Clapton’s drummer Jamie Oldaker, Leonard Cohen’s band director Roscoe Beck on bass, Garth Brooks’ steel player Bruce Bouton and Lovett’s guitarist Viktor Krauss.
“I’m really happy with this record,” Ramsey says. “I think it compares favorably to the first record. These new sounds are the same kind of sounds. I try not to waste people’s time. They’re written to have some sort of impact.”
Watch the video for Willis Alan Ramsey's "Mockingbird Blues" below: