A truly exceptional debut album that neither required nor received a follow-up.
Some artists spend their whole career searching for that definitive moment when everything comes together to produce the classic album that sits alongside those that had initially been their inspiration. For the fortunate ones that do succeed it can be a long journey, learning and honing their craft, whilst waiting and praying for the music gods to smile. However, there are a few, a very few, who whether by luck or judgement get it right first time, deliver the goods perfectly, and then just walk away. Willis Alan Ramsey and his eponymous debut album was one of the few. Ramsey, born in 1951 in Birmingham, Alabama, was raised in Dallas, Texas, and was a prominent baritone in his school choir, playing a leading role in their production of the musical Carousel. Not long after leaving school, and still in his teens, he would walk into the office of the legendary singer/songwriter, and musician extraordinaire, Leon Russell, and announce that he had written some songs that Russell needed to hear. History doesn’t tell us what Russell’s immediate response was but we can only presume it was positive as Ramsey was quickly added to the roster at Shelter, the newly formed record company that Russell had put together with Denny Cordell.
Released in 1972, Ramsey’s eponymous, debut album burst on to music scene complete in every way, bringing together a hearty mix of country, folk, and blues with an engaging style of post-hippie wit and wonder, cowboy poetry, and singer-songwriter introspection. In many ways the album made Ramsey, still only twenty, sound like the archetypical Texas songwriter with a definite hint of Guy Clark to his approach, a strong dose of Townes Van Zandt, and a touch of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, while a way in the distance you can hear the faint echoes of the shape and direction Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett would take this musical format. And yet, at the time of the album’s release Van Zandt was still relatively unknown outside the Lone Star State, Clark had yet to record his first album, and Gilmore was just putting The Flatlanders together. As for Crowell, Earle, and Lovett, it would be some years for their contributions to make their mark. Ramsey was the true trailblazer.
Ramsey’s skill in the songwriting department was equally matched by his uncompromising vision of how the songs should sound, each treated as its own little work of art. This led to him sharing the production duties with Cordell across five different studios despite his limited experience, while Russell was on hand to help assemble a mouth-watering cast of the finest musicians the early seventies could offer. These included Russell himself, Jim Keltner, Russ Kunkel, Kenneth Buttrey, Carl Radle, Tim Drummond, Leland Sklar, Eddie Hinton, and Red Rhodes all fully connecting with Ramsey’s vision.
The album opens with, ‘Ballad Of Spider John’, a tragic trail song that vividly paints a picture of the Texas landscape, as Ramsey’s voice conveys a road-worn maturity that betrays his youthful years. Jimmy Buffett, who would cover this song on his third album, ‘Living And Dying In 3/4 Time’, said of Ramsey’s writing, “His catchy phrases and rhyme schemes were different, a little more literary than most of the Texas stuff”. The following track, ‘Muskrat Candlelight’, has become one of Ramsey’s best known, having become a minor hit for the soft rock outfit America, and a much bigger hit for pop duo, Captain & Tennille, under the title, ‘Muskrat Love’, proving how these songs, so secure in their original setting were still versatile enough to transcend different genres. Track three, ‘Geraldine And The Honeybee’, adds a more bluesy ragtime feel to proceedings while, ‘Satin Sheets’, in open-G tuning, opens with the line, “I Wish I Was A Millionaire, Play Rock Music, And Grow Long Hair”, all sung with a tongue in cheek touch of sarcasm. The song would be covered by Shawn Colvin on her 1994 album, ‘Cover Girl’.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore was another huge admirer of Ramsey’s work and would cover, ‘Goodbye Old Missoula’, on his acclaimed album from 2000, ‘One Endless Night’. Looking back Gilmore glowingly remarked that, “the song was so alive with feeling, it had a universality to it”, and that, “it sounded like it could have been an ancient folk song”. Lyle Lovett was also a convert, recording, ‘Northeast Texas Woman’, claiming that discovering Ramsey was an, “absolute revelation”, while Alejandro Escovedo simply stated, “Willis is a songwriter’s songwriter”.
All these renowned artists, all singing Ramsey’s praises as well as his songs, and they are only the tip of the iceberg. Add to them the names of Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, and The Bellamy Brothers, all recording tracks from an artist that didn’t have a lifelong body of work, just one album. This album.
There may have been an irascible side to Ramsey which resulted in him refusing to tour to support the album, thus inevitably leading to his departure from Shelter without a follow-up, and though there have been countless rumours and airings of new material, fifty years have passed and still we wait. When pressed on the possibility of a second album Ramsey would reply, “What’s wrong with the first one?”. The answer is simple as it is obvious. Absolutely nothing.
Mark Demming of AllMusic once wrote, “If your recording career was to be contained in a single album you’d be very fortunate if it were as good as, ‘Willis Alan Ramsey'”. Escovedo was even more direct saying, “He’s a genius, you gotta know this record, It’s one of the best singer/songwriter albums ever made“. Of those that know this album, few would disagree.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of, ‘Willis Alan Ramsey’, and there can be no better time for this album to be re-released, re-reviewed, and rediscovered than now, and rightfully take its place in the pantheon of the great Americana albums. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this album epitomises a unique part of American culture, and as such is as much required listening as Harper Lee’s, ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’, J.D. Salinger’s, ‘Catcher In the Rye’, and John Steinbeck’s, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, are required reading.
So, let’s join together and lobby all the re-issue labels and see if together we can right this wrong and have this truly exceptional album available to buy once again.