Willis Alan Ramsey

TrackAlbum
Boy From OklahomaWillis Alan Ramsey
Goodbye Old MissoulaWillis Alan Ramsey
Ballad Of Spider JohnWillis Alan Ramsey
Angel EyesWillis Alan Ramsey
Muskrat CandlelightWillis Alan Ramsey
Painted LadyWillis Alan Ramsey

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Contributor: Kasper Nijsen

He isn’t exactly the most prolific of songwriters. After Willis Alan Ramsey recorded his self-titled debut in 1972, his audience was eagerly waiting for a follow-up release. They are still waiting today. When the Texas songwriter is asked why a second album never materialized, he tends to reply innocuously: ‘Why, wasn’t the first one good enough?’

In fact, the first one is good enough, and it’s a small miracle that he wrote and recorded it at the tender age of twenty. True enough, he was backed by top-class musicians like Jim Keltner, Leland Skar and Leon Russell, who signed Ramsey to his own record label. Yet Ramsey’s songs and singing are powerful and distinctive enough to stand on their own.

The album fits somewhere between Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes van Zandt, Guy Clark and other Texas songwriters of the sixties and seventies. It contains six excellent songs and four or five masterpieces of folk/country songwriting. These include the tender love ballad Angel Eyes, the outlaw tale The Ballad of Spider John, and Goodbye Old Missoula, a tortured lament for lost love.

But my favorite of these eleven songs is Boy From Oklahoma, a tribute to Woody Guthrie that belongs among Dylan’s Song To Woody and Phil Ochs’ Bound For Glory as a third great ode to the legendary folk singer. Finally, Muskrat Candlelight deserves a mention as Ramsey’s most-covered song: a story of romance in ‘Muskrat Land’ and one of the oddest love ballads I’ve ever heard.

Speaking of covers, there’s a few that are worth checking out. Jimmy Buffet did Ballad Of Spider John and Northeast Texas Woman, which was also covered by Jerry Jeff Walker. Muskrat Candlelight was recast as Muskrat Love by America with their trademark harmonies, and also by Captain & Tennille with synthesizers, syrupy vocals and Tennille frantically smiling all the way through. More in tune with the original, Waylon Jennings attacked Satin Sheets in his no-holds-barred approach and Jimmie Dale Gilmore did a great version of Goodbye Old Missoula.

Ramsey himself didn’t disappear entirely from the music scene after his first album. He co-wrote songs with his friend Lyle Lovett, gave the odd performance every once in a while, and appeared in 1990 on the television program Texas Connection. Meanwhile his cult audience has kept steadily growing and he appears to be working on a new album to be called Gentilly, though his official site mostly shows pictures of a recent flooding of the recording studio that has brought matters to halt.

As the story goes, Ramsey was opposed to any advertising when his first and only album was released in 1972. It was a strange decision for a young musician who had just recorded a stellar debut, but there’s a beauty too in Ramsey’s disregard for economy and faith in music lovers. As he later explained in an interview:

“I just don’t like advertisement. I don’t like somebody to feel like they’ve got to shove something down my throat before I’ll find out about it. Because I know that people who listen to records as much as I do will gradually hear one if it’s any good. Let it stand the test of time.”

To my ears, Willis Alan Ramsey has easily stood the test of time. It remains a work of heartfelt beauty and one of the great highlights of the Texan wave of country songwriters.

 

The 6-song playlist is now on Spotify. Here is the full 11-track listing for Willis Alan Ramsey’s only album – with YouTube links for individual tracks where possible – and the whole album can be heard here:

Ballad Of Spider John
Muskrat Candlelight
Geraldine And The Honeybee
Wishbone
Satin Sheets
Painted Lady
Watermelon Man
Boy From Oklahoma
Angel Eyes
Northeast Texas Woman

 

The official website of Willis Alan Ramsey

Willis Alan Ramsey biography (AllMusic)

TopperPost #249

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Apr 10, 2014

    Kasper, thanks for this great list on a fascinating artist. Should add that Lovett covers Ramsey’s song ‘Sleepwalking’ on his tribute album to the great Texan songwriters, Step Inside This House.

  2. David Lewis
    Apr 10, 2014

    Seconded on the great list and the fascinating article.

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