Loading... Please wait...


Musician Friends

Viktor Krauss


Sam Bush


Bruce Bouton


Tim O'Brien

“Goodbye Old Missoula”

This is one of the songs on the debut album where Ramsey sounds way older than he was at the time. Backed by the all-star quartet of Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, Carl Radle and Red Rhodes, Ramsey sounds simultaneously stoic and desolate when he concludes, “The show in this town is over—or maybe it never began.”

“I actually wrote that song in Missoula,” Ramsey reveals. “I met this girl who I thought was pretty cute, but I made up the whole thing about us having a relationship. As a matter of fact, she made a point to come backstage and ball me out. She went up one side and down the other complaining about how I made her life miserable because Missoula is a small town and there aren’t many women named Rosie. You know that thing about not telling a story and a name at the same time? Well, I never did that again. She must have thought I was delusional.

“A lot of that track’s lonesomeness and world-weariness is the result of what Red Rhodes’ steel brought out of the song. The narrative in a song doesn’t necessarily come from the words; it can come from the musical performances.”

Nearly as powerful was Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s version of the song on his 2000 buddy Miller-produced album, One Endless Night,with the SteelDrivers’ Tammy Rogers transferring Rhodes’ pedal-steel part to fiddle.

“I’d always loved that song,” Gilmore explains, “because it was so understated. I loved that line, ‘Goodbye, Rosie, you’ll never know.’ It was like a love song about a love that never happened. My voice was so different from his that I knew from the beginning there was no danger of it sounding like an imitation. When I made that album, I went through a bunch of songs I’d always liked, but Buddy really liked that one too.”

“Satin Sheets”

This was the only song on the debut album that Ramsey recorded the way he played live—without accompaniment. Over a relaxed finger-picking pattern, he drawled, “I wish I was a millionaire; play rock music and grow long hair.”

“That was me wishing I could be as great and incredible as Leon and the Allman Brothers,” Ramsey confesses. “I was trying to make light of my deep, hidden, infantile desire to be a rock star.”

The song was recorded by Waylon Jennings for 1977’s Ol’ Waylon album [and later by the Bellamy Brothers and Shawn Colvin]. “Waylon was such a sweet guy when I met him a couple times,” Ramsey says. “He had this nobility in that rich baritone of his, especially when they recorded him on analogue tape early on. I had a problem imagining that Waylon Jennings would even cut one of my songs, especially after hearing the way he cut Billy Joe Shaver’s stuff. Now there’s a real writer for you.”
“That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)”

This song, which appeared on Lyle Lovett’s The Road to Ensenada and Live in Texas albums, was co-written by Lovett, Ramsey and Rogers in the early 90’s.

“I opened a few shows for him at that time,” Ramsey says, “and Lyle used to date a lot of girls just out of high school. He had a girl from Kentucky he’d met in Nashville, and she was on the bus from Nashville to Louisville for one of our shows. She was a very talkative young lady, and she took off on this tangent of, “Why do Texans think they’re so great? They even think the shape of their state is great. Who on earth thinks the shape of their state is so great?”

“Most of the people on the bus were from Texas and they just kept their heads down and didn’t say anything. The next day back in Nashville, Lyle was testing out a new guitar and playing a pattern. Alison started singing, ‘That’s right, you’re not from Texas.’ It went perfectly with the riff; Lyle looked up and said, ‘I don’t believe you just said that.’ Over the course of the next few days, we wrote about 30 verses and Lyle edited them down.

“He broke up with the Kentucky girl not too long after and started dating Julia Roberts. I sang at their wedding. He asked me to sing ‘Angel Eyes,’ and I did.”

“Boy From Oklahoma”

This song from the debut album is an unabashedly sincere tribute to Woody Guthrie. Again backed by Red Rhodes’ pedal steel, Ramsey warbled, “He played the blues and the ballads and all that came between. His heart was in the union, and his soul was reaching out for the servant’s dream.” It was later recorded by the great California folk singer Kate Wolf.

“That was inspired totally by a collection of Woody’s letters and his pen-and-ink drawings, Born To Win,that went out of print,” Ramsey says. “Woody seemed to have an empathy for people, at least expressed through his music and letters, that you didn’t get from any other folk singer from that time. It was like his emotions were coming right from his heart out through his arms to the paper. Sort of like Willie Nelson—who people in Nashville said would never be a singer—Woody’s voice is so dry that it seems very real. I got a note from Marjorie [Guthrie’s widow] that she really liked the song, but I was so intimidated I could never follow up.”
“Mad Dogs & Okies”

When Ramsey signed with Shelter Records, he fell in with a crowd of musicians from Tulsa, Okla., who’d followed their hometown buddy Leon Russell out to Los Angeles. This loose group included Jim Keltner, J.J. Cale, Roger Tillison, Elvin Bishop, Chuck Blackwell, Steve Ripley, Steve Pryor, Carl Radle, Jesse Ed Davis, David Gates, Dick Sims, Jamie Oldaker and a young Vince Gill. Some of them played on Willis Alan Ramsey; some of them played with Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Joe Cocker, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and more; some became artists in their own right. Wherever they went, they brought a funky brand of country-rock that became known as the “Tulsa Sound”.

In 2005, when these musicians held a reunion in the guise of Oldaker’s solo album, Mad Dogs & Okies, Ramsey was invited as an honorary guest. He wrote two of the album’s 16 songs: “Sympathy for a Train,” which featured Ramsey’s lead vocal, and “Positively,” which featured Ramsey’s harmony vocal behind Clapton’s lead. Both songs are slated to appear in new arrangements on Ramsey’s next album. He also added acoustic guitar Taj Mahal’s version of “Stagger Lee.” Oldaker’s overlooked gem of an album also features Cale, Gill, Tony Joe White, Bonnie Bramlett, Taj Mahal and Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson.

“I really like Okies,” Ramsey declares, “from Leon to Jamie to Woody. Okies are a little more free-wheeling; they don’t take themselves quite as seriously. They don’t seem to know as many strangers; in Oklahoma you can walk up to someone you’ve never met and be in the middle of a conversation before you know it. I think that comes through in Woody’s music—it’s real democratic with a small ‘D.’”

Bob Livingston




NEW YORK TIMES | The Arts/Cultural Desk

POP; Southern Manners and Myths, With Sarcasm and Romance


Willis Alan Ramsey, Village Underground

The Texas singer-songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey is in the middle of a little tour, which seems inexplicable. He released one self-titled record in 1972, and has been mostly silent since: no more albums, few performances, few new writing credits. But that one album, released on CD a few years ago, continues its slow-burning life, with its motley instrumentation (including accordion, vibraphone and cello), its folkish, post-honky-tonk Southern mood and its enclosed cosmos of small-time characters (some of them small animals). The record’s list of enthusiasts includes Lyle Lovett and Shawn Colvin.

Back then, Mr. Ramsey’s songs had a bit in common with those of contemporaries like Leon Russell and the young Elton John. He made his voice sound like Ray Charles, connected blues and folk and worked out a sardonic-romantic attitude toward Southern manners and mythology.

But his cozy, orderly, tiny-detail songs expressed a willful turnabout from hippie chaos, a visceral reaction particular to the early 1970’s. They are sweet, emotionally guarded and often musically complex, fitting strains of melody together that seem as if they ought not connect, expertly using rhythmic displacement as the words and chords unspool.

On Sunday night he played alone, with only his guitar. With a deeper, froggier voice that accurately hit falsetto notes and with precise, finger-picking rhythm, anchored by the strict tapping of his shoe on the microphone’s metal base, he performed most of the old album and some new songs that bear similar literary marks.

“Mockingbird Blues” was an allegory about Southern gossip; “Mr. Lemon” was a bar-stool monologue from a man who can’t understand women. “Boys’ Town” fulfilled a tough assignment: distilling the pathos in a picture of young Texas men on a trip to Mexican brothels. (There have long been rumors about the making of a second album; at the moment they seem more substantiated.)

The old songs have aged well: they're stocked with carefully rendered lines and carry no fat on the bone.

“Spider John” describes a petty thief who mostly shakes down himself: “I was a supermarket fool/I was a motorbike stool-pigeon/robbing my home town.”

“Northeast Texas Women” admonishes a friend to waste no time in finding a Texan with “kisses sweeter than cactus.” And the love song “Angel Eyes,” then as now, is a mule kick to the emotions. Perfection is terrifying, and some of these songs felt spooky. BEN RATLIFF


Ballad of Spider Willis


I recently called Lyle Lovett to ask him about the 40th anniversary of Willis Alan Ramsey’s first—and so far only—album. “Forty years?” Lovett responded. “Wow. That’s unbelievable.” He paused as if to recover from being stunned and then added, “It’s still a great album.”

Many have the same reaction when you point out that 40 years have gone by since that dark-green album—the one with the kid in the tilted-back cowboy hat slyly grinning from the small-framed photo on the front—first appeared. It’s unbelievable that anyone could write and record country-blues numbers of such skill and maturity before turning 21 just two months prior to the album’s release. It’s unbelievable that a debut album could contain 11 songs of such consummate craftsmanship that nine of them would be covered by major artists. And it’s unbelievable that four decades have gone by without a second album.

Willis Alan Ramsey opens with a rolling, disarming, finger-picking acoustic-guitar figure, the kind of blues lick that sounds simple until you try to master it. Then comes Ramsey’s raspy tenor, a strange, hybrid drawl that reflects the 10 years he spent in Alabama before moving to Texas and spending the next 10 years there. “Spider John is my name, friends,” he sings. “I’m in between freights and I sure would be obliged if I could share your company.”

The voice coming off the record sounds nothing like the boyish face on the cover. This doesn’t sound like a 20-year-old, middle-class singer-songwriter trying on the hardships of a hobo like a new suit of clothes; this sounds like the hobo himself—40, maybe 50 years old—too battered to harbor romantic notions about a life of robbing grocery stores and sleeping in the woods by himself. It’s a song of regrets about lost love and roads untaken. When Jimmy Buffett recorded “Ballad of Spider John” for his 1974 album, Living & Dying in ¾ Time,he tried to capture that same world-weariness but couldn’t quite grasp it the way Ramsey had.

“I’d been working on the record in Memphis with some friends from Dallas,” Ramsey recalls, “but things weren’t going well, so I bailed for a week and hitchhiked to D.C. to see my brother. I got picked up by this guy who had two other hitchhikers and I thought, ‘This guy must really be desperate for some company.’ He was bald with a beard, like Shel Silverstein; he looked like he was on speed and said he was driving straight to New York without stopping. I said I needed to stop in Nashville, because I had to get out of the truck. That was one inspiration.” 

Another was Woody Guthrie. “I’d been listening to a lot of Woody at that point,” Ramsey says, “and he wrote about a lot of sad things: The Dust Bowl, hobos and union busting. I wanted to see if I could write a ballad like Woody Guthrie but not like Woody Guthrie. Recently one of my friends commented, ‘You wrote that song when you were 20 years old, and now you’ve turned into Spider John.’ I said, ’I don’t think that’s true; I don’t have any regrets.’ I can still write and play music. If I hadn’t, I would have jumped off the hood of my car.”

That’s the question about Ramsey: has he become Spider John? Certainly he’s known disappointment. His relationship with his original label, Shelter Records, eventually soured; his first marriage fell apart. He grew disenchanted with live performance and quit for eight years; he grew disenchanted with his homeland and moved to Europe for several years. His decades-long campaign to finish a second album has been frustrated by meager resources, recalcitrant equipment and exceptionally high standards.

But during several hours of conversation, he shrugs off these setbacks as the ordinary hurdles any adult faces. It’s true that he views the human race with a sardonic skepticism, but that attitude never curdles into bitterness. And this outlook is not different really from the one he expressed so convincingly on his 20-year-old version of “Ballad of Spider John”: in a world where loss and disappointment are as common as rain, the best you can do is turn up your collar and find some companionship around a campfire until the next boxcar comes along. Maybe the question should be, “Was Ramsey Spider John all along?”

Or maybe the question should be, “Is he really a muskrat?” The second song on the debut album was “Muskrat Candlelight,” a joyful, youthful celebration of two rodents getting it on. When he croons over the relaxed melody, “They whirled and they twirled and they tango, singin’ and jingin’ the jango,” he’s exulting in these double entendres with an adolescent innocence—not with hormone-addled anxiety but with satisfied post-coital lassitude.

It was the song that paid his rent for many years to come. The trio America renamed the tune “Muskrat Love” in 1973 and had a No. 67 hit with it. Captain & Tennille (former keyboardist in the Beach Boys’ road band) had a No. 4 hit with it in 1976, thanks in part to a synthesizer simulation of rodent copulation. When the duo performed the song for Queen Elizabeth at a White House dinner that year, one newspaper quoted a dinner guest saying it was “in very poor taste” to sing about muskrat sex before a monarch. Toni Tennille responded, “Only a person with a dirty mind would see something wrong. It’s a gentle, Disneyesque kind of song.”

“I write a lot of songs about little animals,” Ramsey agrees. “I think it comes from my fascination with cartoons as a kid – Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, Dumbo.” Ramsey’s animals are usually falling in love and having sex. In “Geraldine and the Honeybee,” the album’s third song, it’s a flower and insect. In ”Positively,” which Eric Clapton sang on Jamie Oldaker’s 2005 album Mad Dogs & Okies,a dog and catfish stand in for the male and female organs. “Another song is ‘Mockingbird Blues,’” Ramsey adds, “which is a sad animal song, but I’m sure animals get the blues, too.”

To this day, however, Ramsey prefers the original title. “Someone at Warner Bros. said,” he remembers, “we can’t let America put a title like ‘Muskrat Candlelight’ on a record. We need a new name.’ I got talked into it, I guess. But I always thought the ‘Candlelight’ title was more esoteric, more interesting. It conjures up the image of two muskrats sharing a bottle of wine at a table in the swamp.”

Ramsey’s debut album seemed to swing back and forth between the poles of the Spider John’s sadder-but-wiser experience and the muskrat’s boyish exuberance. Spider John could have sung “Satin Sheets”, “Goodbye Old Missoula” and “Boy from Oklahoma.” The muskrat could have sung “Wishbone”, “Watermelon Man” and “Northeast Texas Women.” Even his newer songs divide into the same dichotomy. Spider John could sing “Sympathy for a Train”, “Coyote”, “Desiree” or “Mr. Lemon.” The muskrat could sing “Positively,” “Sleepwalking,” “Mockingbird Blues” or “Bayou Girl.” It’s as if every Ramsey song comes from a 16-year-old innocent or a 40-year-old survivor but never from a callow 20-something artiste.

While attending Highland Park High School in Dallas, Ramsey belonged to several bands that played the usual covers: Beatles, Stones, Young Rascals. But he was also in a folk duo with Brice Beaird who wrote all his own songs. “I said, ‘God, how do you do that?’” Ramsey remembers. “He said ’It’s easy. You think an original thought and write it down.’ I didn’t know you could do that. Every time he said, ‘Here’s another song I wrote,’ it aggravated me so much that I started writing my own songs.”

Ramsey made two stabs at college, in the fall of 1969 in Memphis and in the spring of 1970 at the University of Texas. He lasted one month the first time and two months the second. “I just liked music too much,” he explains. “I had an English lit class with a great teacher who encouraged us to write what we knew. I was too young to know anything, so I decided to drop out and learn some things.”

He started hanging around with fellow singer-songwriters such as Ray Wylie Hubbard, Steven Fromholz and Allen Damron at a coffeehouse called the Chequered Flag Coffeehouse and bar at Lavaca and 15th in Austin. Before long Ramsey was getting out of town to play at the Rubiyat in Dallas, Sand Mountain in Houston and ultimately the national college coffeehouse circuit. He admired Townes Van Zandt and Keith Sykes, but his biggest heroes were Guthrie and Robert Johnson.

Ramsey was back in Austin when Leon Russell, The Allman Brothers and It’s a Beautiful Day were playing a big outdoor festival on the UT campus. Ramsey happened to be staying at the same hotel as the festival performers, and he knocked on the doors till he met Russell, Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts. Allman and Betts were so impressed with his songs that they invited him to Macon, Georgia, to record some demos. Russell invited him to do the same in L.A. Ramsey didn’t think he was ready yet, but a year later he took them up on their offers.

“I went to Macon first,” Ramsey recounts, “and Gregg produced a demo on me. Gregg said, ‘Phil Walden, our manager, has a new label called Capricorn; it might be a pretty good fit for you.’ Then I went to visit Leon, and he had one of the world’s first professional home studios with a reverb booth in the bathroom and instruments everywhere. Guys like George Harrison would stop by. I told Leon about the Allman Brothers, and he said, ‘If you sign with my label, I’ll let you stay at my house and show you how to make a record.’ For a 20-year-old, that was pretty overwhelming. So I signed. I got thrown into the deep end of the pool. Leon was surrounded by all these guys from Oklahoma: Jim Keltner, Jesse Ed Davis, Carl Radle and J.J. Cale. I was just a guy on the folk circuit, and all of a sudden I’m trying to play with these incredible musicians. I said, ‘Boy, I’ve got to get my shit together.”

It took him almost a year to get it together, with sessions in Hollywood, Memphis, Nashville, and Tyler, Texas, with musicians ranging from Russell and Keltner to jazz saxophonist, Ernie Watts and cellist Cathy Pruitt. Finally, Shelter Records released the album in May, 1972, and then, well, nothing much happened. There wasn’t much radio promotion and no tour support. The label kept changing distributors, and Ramsey went back to playing folk clubs around Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado.

“It was a while before someone gave me a copy to listen to,” Jimmie Dale Gilmore says about the album. “That was the surprise to me — that none of us had heard of him before. But I was a huge fan of that record once I got it; all the Flatlanders were. It was such a blend of folk, blues and what you might call pop. Because he was a Texan, he was automatically in the same camp with Townes and Guy, the same influences and the individual creative thing, but this record was really produced. I was used to hearing great songs that were just folky without much production, but a lot more attention was given to the details on this record; it was polished, but that wasn’t a detriment. When a polished production is all there is to a record, it becomes vapid, but when the songs are great, the production really helps.”

“That was my impression, too,” agrees Lyle Lovett, “that the album seemed to come out of nowhere. I learned about the record a couple of years after it was released. I was already a fan of all those guys—Steven Fromholz, Michael Murphey, Guy and Townes, but Willis had an individual voice because of how blues-influenced he was. You can hear blues in every one of his songs. It wasn’t like anything you’d heard before. It was great storytelling. You find yourself listening to the ‘Ballad of Spider John’ wondering what’s going on. Whenever a song draws you in and makes you want to understand every facet of what it might mean, it’s really doing its job.”

Word of mouth about the album kept spreading. Critics who had missed the chance to review the overlooked album jumped at the chance to review Ramsey’s live shows. And artists kept covering the songs. In addition to the Buffett, America and Captain & Tennille covers, the 70’s saw versions of “Satin Sheets” by Waylon Jennings, “Northeast Texas Women” by Jerry Jeff Walker and “Painted Lady” by the Texas outlaw-country pioneer Rusty Wier.

In 1979, Lovett was a music critic for the school paper at Texas A&M, and he interviewed Ramsey in the next-door bicycle shop that served as a dressing room for the college’s Basement Coffeehouse. “One of the questions I asked him,” Lovett recalls, “was, ‘We’d like to hear some more music; when can we expect a new album?” And he said, ‘Probably next year.”

It wasn’t to be. When Ramsey had tried to renegotiate his contract with Shelter for a better royalty rate and promotion budget, he’d reached an impasse. So he never returned to the studio for the label. In the meantime, he wrote the songs and score for a movie, Second Hand Hearts,a lovable losers tale starring Robert Blake and Barbara Harris, shot in 1979 and released in 1981. By the time Ramsey’s eight-year contract with Shelter expired in 1980, his short-lived first marriage was crumbling, and he was burned out on live shows.

“All the venues around then were so noisy,” he points out. “After that John Travolta movie, Urban Cowboy,I started showing up at places that had just installed a mechanical bull. I couldn’t hear myself on stage, and it seemed like it wasn’t about the music anymore. It was just a big mating ritual, where boys and girls were meeting and the music was background. So I just stopped. I wanted to take a break; I didn’t know it was going to take that long.”

It took another eight years. He moved about 30 times by his own count—to Nashville, L.A., Woodstock, Edinburgh, London and more. He was in London in June, 1989, when he had to go back to the States to renew his visa. He agreed to play a show at Scholtz Garten for the Austin Songwriters Group while he was here, and the opening act was an up-and-coming Dallas singer-songwriter named Alison Rogers. Her mother knew Ramsey’s mother, but the two offspring had never met.

“About 500 people showed up,” Rogers remembers, “more than I’d ever played for before. Willis came up to me after the show and said, “Wow, you were really good.’ So we became interested in each other. It took a while to sort out some things, but the relationship developed fairly quickly.”

“I’d planned to return to England and then move to Dublin for a year, “ Ramsey adds, “but that all changed when I met Alison. Meeting her and seeing how much the scene had changed were what got me back to the States and playing again. The crowd at Scholtz’s was totally silent—it was everything I’d wanted it to be in the late 70’s and early ‘80’s. They had better sound systems; people had gotten married, so they were coming out to hear the music rather than look for mates.”

In the fall of 1989, he toured with fiddler-mandolinist Champ Hood. One of the stops was the Birchmere in Virginia, and that’s the first time I ever saw him play. The 38-year-old Ramsey played the 11 songs from his debut disc with all the wit, melancholy and hooks intact. He also unveiled six new songs (“Coyote”, “Boystown”, “Desiree”, “Mockingbird Blues”, “Bayou Girl” and “Sleepwalking”) that were every bit as good as the older ones. Backstage I asked him when might release these new songs on an album, and he told me the same thing he’d told Lovett in 1979: “Probably next year.”

Ramsey and Rogers married, moved to Nashville, moved to Texas, had a daughter (the now 15-year-old Helen, a musician herself), worked on the second album, toured some more, moved to Colorado and showed up at the 2000 Folk Alliance Conference in Cleveland. His wavy hair, thin mustache and wispy beard had all gone gray, and the torso under his black T-shirt had thickened. But he had a couple of terrific new songs—“Positively” and “Sympathy for a Train”—and some new answers for questions about his long recording silence.

“People always ask me why I haven’t put out another record,” he told the Cleveland audience. “I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask. Marketability might be a problem for me, because all my songs are about food, sex and little animals. But I grew up on blues and Disney, and that’s what comes out.”

Backstage he was a bit more serious. “I’ve never found anyone who wanted to invest serious money to make another record,” he says, “and it takes more money for me to make a record I’m happy with than it would most people. The problem is not lack of songs; I have a big pile of songs. But I’m an audio purist, and I don’t like the way most recordings sound.”

For a Threadgill’s gig during SXSW in 2003, backed by Rogers and guitarist Jeff Plankenhorn, he introduced more new songs (“Mr. Lemon” and his own version of “North Dakota”). Ramsey responded to the now-common audience shout of “Where’s the second album?” with the practiced retort of “What’s wrong with the first one?”

Asked the same question this summer, he promises the second album, now entitled Gentilly,after the New Orleans neighborhood, out “later this year.” He claims the tracks are all finished, and all that’s left is the mixing. The guest musicians on those tracks, he says, include mandolinists Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien, fiddlers Gene elders, Darcie Deaville and Warren Hood, singers Tommy Malone and Marcia Ball, accordianist Joel Guzman, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Jamie Oldaker. Ramsey further claims to be close to signing a deal with a subsidiary label of a major record company.

“You know those things called tape machines?” Rogers jokes. “We have a bunch of them synced up and we’re recording all the vocals and acoustic instruments analogue and then trying to mix them with the digital tracks. We’re paying for everything ourselves, so money has been an ongoing challenge. It’s an unusual way to do this—I don’t recommend it—but thanks to publishing royalties we’ve managed to stay afloat. And Willis has improved so much. He’s a machine. He can stand up there and play for three hours like Bruce Springsteen. A lot of people come up to us and say, ‘Wow, Willis sounds better than ever.’”

“I don’t know why the second album has never come out,” says Lovett. “I never thought it was my place to ask him, ‘What’s going on, Willis?’ I know he’s very particular, and he wants things to be the way he wants them to be. That’s something I admire in Willis—that he’s so uncompromising. I know he’s always engaged in the process; he’s always working on songs at home in his studio. When we were both in Nashville in the early ‘90’s, we would get together occasionally and exchange ideas. Willis had this chord progression that seemed so melancholy, and I asked if I could try to put some words to it.”

The result was “North Dakota,” which first appeared on Lovett’s 1992 album, Joshua Judges Ruth.The chord changes capture the way love can seem as mysterious and distant as Minneapolis seems to a Dakota farm boy.

“The music had a strong feeling, ”Lovett adds, “as Willis’ songs always do. They pull you from where you are and take you somewhere else.”

“And sometimes they take you to North Dakota?” I ask.

“That’s right,” Lovett replies. “Sometimes they take you to North Dakota.” 



FORT WORTH WEEKLY  | MUSIC | October 8, 2014

There are several good reasons why Willis Alan Ramsey's sophomore album has taken 40 years to come out.


Forget Willie and Waylon. The most talked-about Outlaw album is Willis Alan Ramsey.

Willis Alan Ramsey was barely out of his teens when he released a remarkable debut album that sounded like a greatest-hits project from a veteran artist. Now, 40 years later, Ramsey is more famous for having never released a second album.

Not that he isn’t trying. He started working on his follow-up, Gentilly, in 2003. “We recorded most of the basic tracks” back then, Ramsey said in a recent phone conversation. “We’d record for a while, and when we were low on mone,y we’d go out and play some dates and then come back and record some more.”

But life kept happening. Family and financial obligations, gigs, excursions, even natural disasters have played parts in delaying the most eagerly awaited album in the history of Texas Music. Ramsey, in typical fashion, is taking whatever time he needs to make sure his second album is as good as the first.

“If you’re going to do something, do it right,” he said. “And if you’ve taken this long on something already, don’t blow it this close to the home stretch.”

Making fans wait for what’s been dubbed the mythical second album carries the risk of setting exceedingly high expectations. “I’m fully prepared to have people coming to me and saying, ‘Forty years for this?’ ” Ramsey said, laughing.

They’re unlikely to be disappointed, however. Ramsey has played songs pegged for the second album for years, and they’re every bit as melodic and intriguing as his early songs. Ramsey is older, wiser, better. He’s spent years traveling to study music, writing, and recording techniques. If anything, Gentilly should exceed the first album. But there we go, adding to the expectations.

The Outlaw Music scene was just starting to roar in the early 1970s with the likes of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings leading the rowdy parade in Austin. But a studious Alabama native who’d been raised in Dallas and was living in Austin would release the most talked-about album of the era. Songs on Willis Alan Ramsey jumped off the vinyl, quirky stories about honeybees, wandering minstrels, watermelons, and painted ladies. The song that got the most radio play locally was “Northeast Texas Women” with its opening lines: “North of Waxahachie / East of ol’ Cowtown / Them Dallas women standing up beat the others lying down.”

Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, America, and Jimmy Buffett recorded versions of Ramsey’s songs. But the curious coupling of a song about frisky muskrats with a pop band known as Captain & Tennille propelled “Muskrat Love” into the No. 4 position on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976.

Outlaw Music was all about toughness and independence. Some fans looked askance at this new songwriter. And when they went to hear Ramsey perform, they found someone who didn’t wear a cowboy hat or boots and didn’t do tequila shots with fans.

“When I started off in the 1970s playing stuff I’d written, a lot of people didn’t get it,” he said, recalling noisy crowds, bad sound systems, and concertgoers more interested in getting drunk and laid than listening to lyrics. “I used to play all kinds of shit-kicker bars.”

But he didn’t hang with Willie, get his picture taken in all the right places, or even market his music. He’d drop out of sight for lengthy periods, resurface for short tours, and disappear again. In recent years he’s been living in Northern Colorado.

Gentilly was almost finished when aflood drenched the Rockies and saturated Ramsey’s private recording studio a year ago. He and wife Alison Rogers have spent the past year cleaning up the mess and replacing equipment. The second album was pushed aside yet again.

“There were a few moments,” he said, “where Alison and I sat down and said, ‘Hey, is somebody trying to tell us something?’ ”

Now that the studio is just about restored, Ramsey is focusing on the album again. First, though, he’s got a few gigs to play, which brings him back to his old stomping grounds, where those Northeast Texas women with their “cotton-candy hair” will get a rare chance to hear the mysterious muskrat cowboy once again. JEFF PRINCE



March 15, 2017; “Wide Open Country”

Willis Alan Ramsey, The Unsung Hero of Texas Music

It’s the early 1970s in Austin, Texas, and the Outlaw Country movement is in full swing. Willie just played the Armadillo World Headquarters. Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band just recorded Viva Terlingua live in Luckenbach. But the most revered record among Austin singer-songwriters is by an unknown 20-something kid named Willis Alan Ramsey.

The self-titled 1972 album, produced by Ramsey and Denny Cordell, released on Cordell’s and Leon Russell’s label Shelter Records, is considered the holy grail of songwriting. Artists such as Lyle Lovett, who has long praised Ramsey, still names the record as one of his greatest inspirations. The album, which featured Ramsey on the cover wearing a tilted-back cowboy hat and a mischievous grin, was passed around pickers circles and college campuses, along with the message “You have to listen to this guy.”

Despite its appeal, Ramsey’s album never spawned a hit. Okay, that’s not entirely true. In 1976, after hearing America’s recording of it, pop group Captain and Tennille spun Ramsey’s tender, quirky “Muskrat Candlelight” into the much maligned synthesized rodent romp, “Muskrat Love.” And even though his mailman surely gets a workout from delivering his royalty checks, Ramsey never really got his big break. There was no large scale tour and little to no radio play of his record. His songs didn’t appeal to a drunk and rowdy bar crowd. Willis Alan Ramsey is music to drink at home to. His stirring story songs about tragic characters like Montana barmaids and small town petty thieves were made to be heard, not shouted over in a honky-tonk.

Most artists who only record one album fade from public memory. But not Willis Alan Ramsey. His songs are too good. After over forty years, fans are still clamoring for a follow up album.

With one perfect record, a cult figure was born.

The Ballad of Spider John

Willis Alan Ramsey was born in Alabama and raised in Dallas. Fresh out of high school, Ramsey began kicking around Austin coffee shops with fellow songwriters Ray Wylie Hubbard and Steven Fromholz. The young songwriter was in the epicenter of the burgeoning cosmic cowboy movement lead by Michael Martin Murphy, Jerry Jeff Walker and B.W. Stevenson. Ramsey’s honest, offbeat lyrics appealed to the long-haired crowd in the capital city and across Texas. One night, a young aspiring songwriter and Texas A&M student named Lyle Lovett was in the crowd at Ramsey’s show. Lovett was enraptured by Ramsey’s voice and lyrics. Lovett began booking Ramsey at the Texas A&M coffee house he booked, getting a crash course in songwriting from his idol.

“I learned every song off his record,” Lovett once said. “I wanted to be Willis Alan Ramsey.”

He wasn’t alone. For many, Willis Alan Ramsey was the soundtrack of Texas youth. The swaggering country-funk song “Northeast Texas Women,” later covered by both Jerry Jeff Walker and American Aquarium, became Ramsey’s first regional hit. The song celebrates the “cast iron curls and aluminum dimples” of Texas women from Dallas to Dimebox.

But it’s Ramsey’s ballads that pack the biggest punch. “Angel Eyes,” an achingly beautiful love song, is especially impressive considering Ramsey was only 20 when it was recorded.

“Lord, she’s as sweet as one of her pecan pies,” Ramsey sings in a wise-beyond-his-years warble. “Listening to her laughter I get hypnotized.”

After the release of the album, Ramsey tried moving to Nashville. In 2000, Ramsey told The New York Times he had felt no one was listening to his quiet story songs in the “Urban Cowboy” crazed Texas of the 1980s. He quickly became disenchanted with Music City and moved to London for a stretch

All the while, Ramsey’s status as the unsung hero of Texas music only grew. His songs were recorded by Waylon Jennings, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Jimmy Buffett and Shawn Colvin. And then there’s Lyle Lovett, perhaps the greatest Ramsey disciple of them all. Lovett recorded Ramsey’s “Sleepwalkin” on 1998’s Step Inside This House and co-wrote “North Dakota,” from 1992’s Joshua Judges Ruth, with his songwriter hero.

Eventually, Ramsey moved back to Texas when he met and married Texas singer-songwriter Alison Rogers. (The couple co-wrote Lovett’s “That’s Right, You’re Not From Texas.”) After a few years out of the spotlight, Ramsey was ready to return to the Lone Star spotlight. He started performing on lyrics-focused programs such as The Texas Connection, hosted by Jerry Jeff Walker.

One of Ramsey’s more durable songs, also recorded by Buffett, is “The Ballad of Spider John,” a confessional about a small time criminal reckoning with his past.

Worth the Wait

When asked “where’s the second album” by fans, Ramsey’s standard response is “what’s wrong with the first one?”
The answer among Ramsey devotees is, of course, “absolutely nothing.” His one and only album is a highly sought after rarity. Named as one of the 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, the cult of the Willis Alan Ramsey record is constantly gaining new members. There’s currently a Willis Alan Ramsey CD listed for $70 on eBay. As for snagging a copy on vinyl, well, good luck. (The album is available for streaming on Spotify.)

But you can’t blame us for wanting even more from the songwriter. And the truth is Ramsey does have plans for a sophomore album. He’s been working on a second record, tentatively titled Gentilly, since about 2003. A string of setbacks, including a flood that seriously damaged his Loveland, Co. studio, as well as Ramsey’s notorious perfectionism, has caused over a decade of delays.

Ramsey still plays the occasional live show, usually in Texas listening rooms. He doesn’t have to worry about anyone talking over his songs these days. They’re hanging on every word and waiting for an indication of how long he’ll keep us waiting on his mythic second album.

For now, we can only guess. In the meantime, we’ll gladly put the needle down on Texas’ greatest one-album wonder for yet another spin.