The price of perfection is cheap, if that’s all you spend your money on.
April 9, 20186:01 AM ET
JOE NICK PATOSKI
He walked into the restaurant with the pronounced limp of an old warrior, which he attributed to a bad back, and mentioned a history of self–medication with alcohol. A friend had given him a blister pack of steroids and a prescriptive anti-inflammatory that he examined as he slid into a booth at Threadgill’s in south Austin, Texas. The thick head of hair had turned gray and the sloe-eyes drooped a little more. But that infectious smile remained, same as ever.
It had been a while — 20, 30 years? I had asked him to let me know whenever his second album was coming out, because I wanted to write about it. So I perked up when he reached out last October, saying he was coming to Austin from his home in Colorado for a couple gigs and that he’d be up for talking while he looked at studios and did some business.
The second Willis Alan Ramsey album was coming out. Finally. In March — or May, he hedged shortly after. Shelter Records had released Ramsey’s eponymous first album 46 years ago this coming May. That’s the real anniversary, he said.
Not long after his album’s release, Willis Alan Ramsey was the Big Dog in Austin, bigger than his Dallas folk music pals Michael Murphey or B.W. Stevenson, bigger than that crazy-ass Jerry Jeff Walker or the songwriters Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Steven Fromholz, bigger than the older Austin newcomers Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm.
At the time, his album was everywhere, ginning up airplay on the Top 40 AM station, the underground FM rock station, the straight-up country music station, and KOKE-FM, the only progressive country radio station in the world. He was the University of Texas sorority girls’ heartthrob, and cool enough to be one of the only acts signed to the boutique record label started by one of the biggest acts in rock at the time, Leon Russell, the self-proclaimed “Master of Space and Time.”
Willis Alan Ramsey was a stunner. The songs were precisely crafted, told in a full-bodied, very-Southern storyteller’s voice that suggested a world-wise old man with deep, self-aware rural roots — not the earnest, studied and very determined kid from north Dallas that he was.
On the whole, Willis Alan Ramsey was the antithesis of the loose, wild-ass cowboy kind of country rock that was being dreamed up around Austin. This was an album of songs.
Others noticed. The Bellamy Brothers country duo, Waylon Jennings and Shawn Colvin covered the whimsical “Satin Sheets,” Jerry Jeff Walker and an up-and-coming protégé of Walker’s hanging around Austin named Jimmy Buffett recorded versions of “The Ballad Of Spider John.” Jimmie Dale Gilmore covered “Goodbye to Old Missoula,” guitar virtuoso David Bromberg interpreted “Northeast Texas Women,” and the jam band Widespread Panic did “Geraldine & the Honeybee.”
“Muskrat Candlelight,” that tune about two semi-aquatic rodents in love, was Ramsey’s big payday. The soft-rock band America recorded a cover, and pop singer Lani Hall and her producer-husband Herb Alpert reworked the song into “Sun Down” shortly after Willis Alan Ramsey was released. Then, in 1976, the pop duo The Captain & Tennille covered the song as “Muskrat Love,” taking it to No. 4 on the pop charts, earning Ramsey royalty checks and infamy in the annals of wimp-rock.
As a live performer, he demanded the same respect be given his songs that he had for them. He did not like hearing anyone in the audience talking while he was playing, or smelling any kind of smoke in the room whatsoever, stopping performances and walking out, if necessary.
Ramsey was, to use a cliché, a trailblazer. Folkies singing original songs accompanied by their guitars were a dime a dozen around Texas through the ’50s and ’60s. Ramsey and his folk and country contemporaries — Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Murphey, and B.W. Stevenson — stepped up their respective games by working with bands in performance and in the studio, which rocked-up their sounds considerably. But no Austin act had the benefit of working with the studio heavies that Ramsey did, thanks to his connection to Leon Russell — the aural support and embellishments on the songs made Ramsey’s work like no recording any of his peers had done.
He was the Texas Van Morrison. The Paul Simon of the Lone Star State. Someone like that.
In 1974, when my girlfriend and I moved near Clarksville in West Austin, we were thrilled to be living three blocks from Hound Sound, identified by a hand-painted wooden sign out in front of the small shack-like structure on Baylor Street. This was the one-room studio where Willis Alan Ramsey’s second album was being made, friends told us… only we never saw him there. He was already working on building a bigger studio a few blocks away, at 12th and Lamar, one whose foundation was designed to float, to absorb the vibrations from nearby traffic.
Willis Alan Ramsey, performing at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas somewhere near about winter, 1974.
And now here he was, across the table at Threadgill’s, a little less tread on the tires, perhaps, telling stories and telegraphing that second album was finally going to happen in March. Or May.
Whenever someone in the audience inquired about the second album during a performance, he’d respond: “What’s wrong with the first one?” He had a point. Isn’t one great novel enough for a writer?
But forty-six years? Was Ramsey a perfectionist gone wild? Was he a head case? What was the dang deal?
For over an hour, Ramsey expounded on growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, before going to high school at Highland Park, a wealthy enclave in north Dallas. He got the music bug early, as a folk guitarist and singer honing his craft at the Rubiyat, a folk club that attracted young hopefuls from the area such as Michael Murphey, B.W. Stevenson, Mickey Raphael, Steven Fromholz, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. He worked the college coffeehouse circuit, while crafting smart, incisive songs about “sex and food,” as songwriter Keith Sykes observed.
“And little animals,” Ramsey added.
Ramsey sold himself — twice — on a Saturday in September, 1970 at an outdoor concert at Clark Field, the baseball park at the University of Texas in Austin. The show was headlined by The Allman Brothers Band and Leon Russell and The Shelter People. After the concert, Ramsey tracked down Gregg Allman of The Allman Brothers, and Leon Russell at his hotel, to play his songs for them.
The impromptu auditions were a success. Gregg Allman told Ramsey to come see him in Macon, Georgia, where the Allmans and their label, Capricorn Records, were headquartered.
After hearing what he later described as “these incredible songs” in his motel room, Leon Russell invited Ramsey to his place in Los Angeles.
Ramsey recorded his first professional demo at Phil Walden’s studio in Macon for Gregg Allman in January, 1971. “I think they got me a little early,” he said. “I was pretty green. I’d been playing on the road for a couple years. I could play okay, but my writing ability was pretty much ahead of my performance ability.”
He liked the people in Macon, but didn’t like how he sounded. “I wasn’t happy with what I heard. I’d never heard myself on tape that well, and I could hear myself warts and all. I thought I better do my homework. I wrote some more material. I listened to that tape. Then I went to audition for Leon and Denny Cordell.”
A second demo was recorded at Leon Russell’s home studio in Los Angeles, one of the first state-of- the-art recording facilities built in a residence. A contract was offered.
Willis Alan Ramsey onstage in 1974 at the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic in Bryan, Texas.
“I told them Gregg Allman wanted to produce me,” Ramsey said, wielding his leverage. “I was pretty cocky. I said: ‘What can you do for me?’ ”
“I’m getting ready to go on my first international tour,” Russell told Ramsey. “If you sign with Shelter, I’ll let you live here in my house while I’m gone. Before I leave, I’ll teach you how to run this recording studio. I’ll have the guy who built the console and studio come over and engineer for you. If you want to go to bigger or better studios, you can do that.’ ”
Ramsey signed with Shelter. He was 20 years old.
“Leon threw me in the deep end,” Ramsey said. Russell and producer Denny Cordell surrounded Ramsey with recording pros including Carl Radle, Jimmy Lee Keltner, Jesse Ed Davis, Chris Ethridge and Jim Messina, and rolled the tapes.
“I was just nervous as a cat,” Ramsey admitted. “John Cale came out and he settled me down. He would take me into Sunset Sound and the first thing he’d do was lie down on the sofa by the console and take a nap.” The extremely laid-back style of Cale did the trick. Ramsey grew to enjoy the studio environment. Each one was different, with its own unique sound.
Ramsey spent his 21st birthday at Quad Studios in Nashville, recording the track “Painted Lady” with Alabama wildman Eddie Hinton on guitar and Tim Drummond, the bassist who was about to join Neil Young making Harvest.
“Muskrat Candlelight” got the signature vibe that complements Ramsey’s dim-lit bedroom vocal when Leon Russell popped into Ardent Studios in Memphis, liked what he was hearing, and started improvising on the spot. Ramsey was caught up in the crazy world of Leon Russell at a time when so much money was pouring into the pockets of the piano-pounding kid from Tulsa with the polio limp that he couldn’t spend it fast enough if he’d tried.
The three years following the release of his first and only album were “a blur.” Sales reached a respectable quarter-million units, 9 of 11 songs on the album had been covered by major artists.
But Ramsey had a difficult time appreciating what he’d done.
“I retreated to Austin to figure out what I’d just been through, kind of licking my wounds,” Ramsey said. “It was pretty traumatic. It took a couple years out of me.” Denny Cordell provided funds to buy recording equipment to demo songs for the next record. With it, Ramsey built two studios, looked around at other studios, then moved around, going from Austin to Dallas to Nashville to Woodstock, searching for inspiration and that perfect recording situation. After unsuccessfully trying to renegotiate his contract with Shelter, he left the label in 1979.
Lyle Lovett had learned to play guitar, in part, from the songs on Ramsey’s album, and says he related to him after seeing him play in 1975. “He just played and sang and spoke a little bit,” Lovett said. “I loved his style. It was great performing, great singing, great playing — but he was not an outgoing performer. Willis seemed a little uncomfortable. I identified with that, because I myself always feel a little uncomfortable. I was drawn to Willis.”
When Lovett got to meet and interview Ramsey at Texas A&M, he couldn’t help himself. “I was such a fan and eager to hear more that I said, ‘I’m sure you’ve been asked this, but when is the next album?’ He gave me a one-word answer: ‘Soon.’ ”
“I’d missed my opportunity to make a follow-up record,” Ramsey acknowledged at Threadgill’s. “I kinda waited too long. At that point, I didn’t want to put out a record and have it die — I wanted to make another record, but with company support.” Only there weren’t any deals like that being proffered.
Ramsey, backstage at Austin’s Rome Inn around 1976.
Watt Casey, Jr.
The landscape had changed. The idiosyncratic music coming out of Austin that had created so much excitement in the early ’70s gave way to the all-hat, no-cattle Urban Cowboy phenomenon of pop-country. Playing live was nowhere near as fulfilling as when he had started out, road-testing the material he was writing. “I was being booked into places that had mechanical bulls,” he said. “They weren’t really listening crowds. The audiences were more interested in hooking up. I was sort of part of a mating dance.”
He became so frustrated with performing in front of people who did not appreciate his songs like he did that he quit playing live in 1981. For eight years.
His publisher persuaded him to move to Los Angeles in search of songwriting partners, “but that didn’t really happen,” he said. So it was back to Austin (again), then Nashville (again), then London and Edinburgh, Scotland, off and on, for four years.
“I didn’t want to play,” he said. “I wanted to listen. I was just having fun, living off royalties.”
He resumed performing in 1989 with a spotlight set at the Kerrville Folk Festival and an appearance with an Austin songwriters group, where he shared the bill with a young and ascendant singer-songwriter from Dallas named Alison Rogers. He was instantly smitten, and so was she. Rogers started opening shows for Ramsey. Pretty soon, they were performing together.
Alison Rogers and Willis Alan Ramsey married and settled in Nashville, in a house where Ramsey had built, of course, a recording studio. The couple collaborated with Lyle Lovett on the song “(That’s Right) You’re Not From Texas” that appeared on 1996’s Road to Ensenada.
“I had a friend who complained how people from Texas were always talking about Texas, Texas this, Texas that, Texas everything, what’s the big deal about Texas?” Lovett said. “George Gruhn was letting me try out a 1948 all-acoustic [Gibson] L-5, and I had it in a hotel room at the Vanderbilt Plaza hotel in Nashville, and I was talking about this person complaining about Texas, and playing this chord progression — when Alison said, ‘You’re not from Texas, and we don’t want you, anyway.’ That’s how it started. I said, ‘Let’s not be exclusive, let’s be inclusive,’ so I changed it to ‘That’s right, you’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you, anyway.’ ”
Ramsey and Rogers had a daughter, Helen, in 1997, and the Ramseys returned to Texas, settling in Wimberley, an hour southwest of Austin. The second album was back on. Ramsey convinced drummer Jamie Oldaker, part of Leon Russell’s Tulsa music mob before he joined Eric Clapton’s band, to leave his home in Nashville and come to Texas to co-produce the second album, which now had a name: Gentilly.
In 2000, Ramsey previewed several new songs for his second appearance on the Austin City Limits television program, which aired in 2001.
Wimberley is the same small town where I live, only Willis and I never ran into one another at the Brookshire’s or King Feed. According to mutual friends, he spent most of his time holed up in the studio he’d fashioned out of a day care center, working with musicians, audio technicians, programmers and engineers. I did meet co-producer Jamie Oldaker through a cousin, and when Oldaker told me he was producing Willis’s second album, I reflexively laughed, which pissed Oldaker off.
To his credit, Oldaker had already managed to get one new Willis track, the moody “Sympathy For A Train,” on his Tulsa all-star album Mad Dogs and Okies from 2005. That album also featured Eric Clapton’s interpretation of another Ramsey original never recorded before, “Positively.”
When I ran into Oldaker again several months later, in the parking lot of the Ace Hardware, the first thing out of his mouth was: “It’s gonna happen, Slick.” He repeated the same thing when I ran into him again several months after that.
During his eight years in Wimberley, Ramsey lived and breathed recording. Money was tight. Checks from songwriter royalties came less frequently, and in smaller amounts. Whatever resources could be scrounged went into studio equipment. Only this time around there was no Leon Russell unlocking the door to any musical kingdom he deign enter, offering an almost unlimited budget to perfect the recording art. And there also wasn’t a Leon Russell to say: “Enough’s enough. Put out the damn record.”
Alison Rogers and their daughter Helen left Wimberley for the Colorado front range in 2008. Willis Alan followed six months later. He built another studio to finish what he started, only to have it flood in 2013.
Jamie Oldaker moved to Tulsa and remarried. I ran into him again in 2016 — Willis Alan Ramsey’s name did not come up during our conversation. Oldaker had acknowledged the difficulty of what he had been trying to pull off in a 2010 interview with Goldmine magazine. “People call me and laugh and go, ‘You still working on that Willis record?’ I say, ‘Yeah,’ and they kind of just snicker. My answer back is, ‘Hey, I’ve managed to get 10 more tracks out of him than anybody else has been able to get out of him in 31 years.’ It may not be out yet, but at least I got him to put 10 tracks on a piece of tape.”
Leon Russell weighed in back in the late nineties in an interview with Andy Gill for Uncut magazine in 2017. Russell described Ramsey as “a troubled soul… early in the game he developed a strong aversion to the possibility of being famous. He did that one record, had a huge success, really, but never did another. He comes from money though — that might have something to do with it. He likes to think of himself as a Woody Guthrie figure, but I think he’s more of a Donald Trump!”
Willis Alan Ramsey’s visit to Austin last November included, in addition to our conversation at Threadgill’s, a tour of Bismeaux Studios, Ray Benson’s South Austin recording complex. Benson marveled over how well Ramsey knew his way around the equipment. “He told me that my great Ampex two-track was the best,” Benson said, “but ‘you gotta cut the metering circuit out to really make it sound great.’ ”
His last piece of business was an early Saturday evening gig at Fischer Hall, the 128-year old dancehall in the Hill Country southwest of Austin, part of the three-day Fischer Fest, a non-profit event featuring acoustic singer-songwriters that attracted an audience of several hundred mostly older white folks smitten with the genre and who were thus suitably reverent and respectful – sort of a Kerrville Folk Festival crowd, only chummier.
Willis Alan Ramsey, early ’70s.
Nancy E. Goldfarb LeNoir
Thirty minutes before he was scheduled to perform, Ramsey sat in a folding chair on the creaky wooden stage picking at his Martin guitar, flanked by two sound men standing above him, while he gently instructed the audio mixer in the back of the room how to properly mic his guitar.
“Maybe move that one to three-K, three-and-a-half. It’s too… makes it sound like a jazz guitar … I tell you what, that’s what I’m hearing. If I hear too much of that guitar, it’s not good … I just don’t feel much power for this guitar.”
The second guitarist, Bradley Kopp, sat beside him, waiting patiently. He knew Willis knew exactly what he wanted.
“That sounds much better. Did you pull down the level, or the frequency? More 10K… more bottom end, around 120… or maybe it’s 200 I need instead of 120… I need a little more sparkle in the guitar. I don’t know where to get it.”
The sound check continued until show time.
By the second song, “Boys Town,” a sweet, tender tale of young white men hopping the Mexican border in search of sin in the red light district (not on the first album), he had the crowd hanging on to every smooth, smoky utterance, effortlessly phrasing as if he’d been taking lessons from Mose Allison.
Tuning was constant between songs. “This guitar always changes when I come from Colorado to Texas,” he explained, before launching into two new, atmospheric tunes, “Desiree” and “Bayou Girl,” that could have been written in the ’30s or ’40s.
He performed “Mockingbird Blues” and “Positively,” the blues ballad also not on the album, but that had already been recorded by Eric Clapton.
When Ramsey fired up “Northeast Texas Women,” which he introduced as a revenge song offered up to all the females in high school who wouldn’t give the kid who’d moved from Alabama the time of day, three white-haired women of a certain age stood up and started to dance in the aisles, singing along to the lyrics.
“Mr. Lemon,” another new one that’s a slow blues tune about a man who doesn’t understand women and finds a sympathetic ear, closed the set.
The seven new-to-me songs that I’d heard that night, as well as “Sympathy for a Train,” were cut from the same cloth as the first album, the work informed by a childlike innocence, a romantic’s perspective and his wizened weariness, which is no longer implied, but rather earned. And little animals.
As a whole, the songs are worth the anticipation, even though I would not likely fully appreciate the technological exactitude being applied to the entire process, nor the extended wait.
But what do I know?
Leon Russell is dead. So is the record business, at least the version of it Willis Alan Ramsey came up in. That dazzling, heady world of million-dollar advances, quarter-million-dollar promo budgets and two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar-an-hour, state-of-the-art recording studios is pretty much gone.
The fanbase that fell in love with Ramsey has reached the upper end of the Baby Boomer bulge. They are a passionate bunch, but they’re senior citizens. Most, like me, don’t get out much anymore. Their numbers are declining. Not that records made by old folks for old folks can’t sell millions of units. It just doesn’t happen as often as it used to.
In the liner notes of Jimmy Buffett’s three-volume compilation Boats, Beaches, Bars, and Ballads, Buffett said “Ballad Of Spider John” was the first song he’d ever recorded that he didn’t write. He called Ramsey “one of the best writers I have ever known, and I hope to one day hear that he has made another album.” That was in 1992.
Extended waits can be worth it, as was the case of Les Blank’s rough-and-tumble film documentary A Poem Is A Naked Person, about Leon Russell. Russell commissioned the film, then sat on it for forty-two years because he quarreled with Blank and didn’t think the end result was very flattering. Russell finally relented in 2015 after Blank’s death. The film generated critical acclaim. Willis Alan Ramsey, Willie Nelson, and George Jones all had cameos.
“I thought I was going to put out many records,” Ramsey said in early February, taking a break from the studio. Some of the vintage recording gear had fritzed out and he was waiting on parts.
“Everybody has their own career path, including my career, or lack of same. It is what it is. I’m sure a few people are going to take a shot and go: ‘Forty-plus years for this?’ ”
Willis Alan Ramsey, early ’70s.
Nancy E. Goldfarb LeNoir
At the very least, the long lapse allowed technology to catch up to his standards. “Digital has finally gotten to the point where it sounds okay for some things,” he said. “It didn’t used to. It used to have great functionality, but no fidelity. Now, the converters are surprisingly musical. So maybe I waited long enough.”
Alison Rogers, who is separated from Ramsey, and daughter Helen, 20, for whom he says he’s dedicating this album, contributed backing vocals.
Ramsey swears it’s about the destination as much as the journey. A new storyline, beyond that eternal quest for a second album, was beginning to emerge. “I’m glad to break the logjam,” he said. “I want to put out more recordings. I’ve got a lot of stuff I’m working on.”
“I don’t know what stops him,” Lyle Lovett said. “He’s a very specific genius. I think he really knows stuff about recording. He either knows intellectually the science behind it, or he has this amazing emotional intuition that allows him to understand the emotional impact of analog versus digital.
“I love Willis just the way he is,” Lovett said. “I accept his process. I accept every turn in the road. I think he’s a brilliant, brilliant songwriter and artist. He can play whatever he wants.”
This story was written anticipating that you, dear reader, would get to hear “Mr. Lemon,” one of Ramsey’s new tracks, to decide for yourself whether or not the wait has been worth it. That didn’t happen. A YouTube video posted in late March, however, shows him overdubbing guitar to “Mr Lemon” while his dog listens.
Willis Alan Ramsey, as we have learned, operates on a different clock. Last I heard, “Mr. Lemon” will be on SoundCloud and on a hard copy EP with “Positively” and “Mockingbird Blues” sometime soon. The whole album, still titled Gentilly as far as anyone knows, will follow later this spring. Or summer. Or maybe next fall.
There is no guarantee. It’s perhaps unlikely the investors who have bet on him will recoup, so why not run out the clock? It’s all about the journey, anyway, not the destination. The process, not the record. Why finish if you can refine, polishing towards perfection? Ramsey swears he’s got several albums of material — but real time is not on his side.
“He has lived an artful existence,” Lyle Lovett said. “It’s kind of a Harper Lee kind of thing, it would almost be cooler if it never came out. But I’d love for it to happen.”
When is that second Willis Alan Ramsey album coming out? Only one person knows for sure.