Willis (XIII) — 21st Annual Woody Guthrie Festival, 2018

Woodyfest 2018: Willis Alan Ramsey

Musical Perfectionist Plays the Crystal

Little Animals

In my sopho­more [Sidenote: Welcome to part twenty-nine of The Bureau’s cov­er­age of Woodyfest 21 (). Today’s arti­cle fea­tures cel­e­brated singer-song­writer Willis Alan Ramsey.] high school year, my fam­ily moved from the house we had been rent­ing in the sub­urbs to a five-acre home­stead in the coun­try. Whereas pre­vi­ously we had lived within walk­ing dis­tance of pri­mary, mid­dle, and high schools, hence­forth my sib­lings and I would ride the bus.

The school buses were equipped with inter­coms which also piped in what­ever radio sta­tion the dri­ver felt like play­ing. In my case that was a soft-rock FM sta­tion broad­cast­ing the likes of The Carpenters, Elton John and Kiki Dee, Barry Manilow, and The Captain and Tennille. Consequently, the pas­sen­gers endured the latter’s mil­que­toast cover of “Muskrat Candlelight,” reti­tled “Muskrat Love,” approx­i­mately one gajil­lion, gazil­lion times. For a teenager keen to explore the dark crevices of prog-rock, the tit­u­lar rodents’ love affair was not an aus­pi­cious intro­duc­tion to its author’s oeu­vre. [Sidenote: I would not aban­don prog’s baroque excesses for punk rock’s back-to-basics sim­plic­ity until uni­ver­sity, when an acquain­tance spun Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols for me while he cleaned his weed stash over the album cover.]

Fast for­ward to , when, upon learn­ing that Willis Alan Ramsey would be one of the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival’s head­lin­ers, I wrote to my brother, If you don’t assign me [to pho­to­graph Ramsey’s] set I will mur­der you in your sleep. [Sidenote: My younger brother Guy Zähller serves on the fes­ti­val board of direc­tors. He per­forms dual rôles as the pho­tog­ra­phy coör­di­na­tor and the camp­ground coör­di­na­tor.] If you have been liv­ing in a her­mitage or you are very young you might not know Ramsey or his work. NPR pub­lished a great piece on him on their blog, The Record, . You really should set aside twenty min­utes to read it. Like, now. I’m not kid­ding. Go read it.

What’s Wrong with the First One?

If you fol­lowed my advice you can skip this sec­tion. The rest of you, here’s the deal. Ramsey’s self-titled début on Tulsa’s Shelter Records was an instant clas­sic and a huge hit. Major record­ing artists cov­ered nine of the eleven songs on the album over the fol­low­ing three years. [Sidenote: The songs also inspired gen­er­a­tions of musi­cians, includ­ing Lyle Lovett, who learned to play gui­tar, in part, lis­ten­ing to the album.] In , hus­band-and-wife duo Daryl Dragon and Toni Tennille — The Captain and Tennille — released “Muskrat Love.” The song rose to num­ber four on the Billboard Hot 100. Soft-rock band America’s pre­vi­ous ver­sion had climbed to the num­ber sixty-seven spot, but now the song was bring­ing in real money.

With a best-sell­ing album behind him and a new found con­fi­dence in his song­writ­ing, Ramsey retreated into the stu­dio to record his fol­lowup. Recording the first album had taught him about the tech­ni­cal aspects of the stu­dio, feed­ing a per­fec­tion­ist mania as he worked on the new mate­r­ial. The songs would be not only writ­ten and arranged per­fectly; they would be son­i­cally perfect.

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?

By the album had a work­ing title: Gentilly. In the inter­ven­ing 25-odd years as well as the sub­se­quent two decades, Ramsey would record in over a dozen stu­dios. He built sev­eral him­self — the last of these, in his Colorado home, flooded in . He’d spent the roy­alty checks, now less fre­quent and smaller, along with funds put up by var­i­ous back­ers, work­ing on the album or acquir­ing just the right mix­ing con­sole or vin­tage microphone.

Former Leon Russell drum­mer Jamie Oldaker, step­ping into the producer’s seat, would get at least ten new tracks onto tape, [Sidenote: Oldaker would even­tu­ally grow dis­cour­aged by the mov­ing release date and step down.] some of which Ramsey would per­form in pub­lic. He played sev­eral of the new songs dur­ing his appear­ance on the Crystal Theatre stage, caus­ing me to put my cam­eras down and just lis­ten. But Gentilly remains unfin­ished — a Will-o’-the-Wisp for­ever reced­ing, never to be cap­tured, cer­tainly not to be known. Le meglio è l’inimico del bene.

Polite Perfection

Ramsey’s per­fec­tion­ism man­i­fests when he per­forms before an audi­ence. He’s known for politely but insis­tently instruct­ing sound per­son­nel exactly how to mic and mix his gui­tar before his sets, with sound checks usu­ally run­ning right up to the curtain’s rise. That gen­tle insis­tence was on full dis­play at the Crystal, when he delayed his set’s start get­ting the sound right. Ramsey con­tin­ued adjust­ing the gui­tar mix well into the set. He explained that the adjust­ments were nec­es­sary not just to pro­vide the proper sound for the audi­ence, but also so he could hear himself.

If any­one minded the delays, they kept it to them­selves. When things finally got rolling, the audi­ence greeted the songs warmly — the old tunes as soon as the famil­iar chords rang, and the new ones when they fin­ished. Ramsey sat­is­fied the audience’s nos­tal­gia with “Northeast Texas Women,” “Watermelon Man,” “Boy from Oklahoma,” and “Ballad of Spider John,” sprin­kling in the new mate­r­ial through­out. The Gentilly songs are ter­rific — worth the decades-long wait, for those lucky enough to hear them.

Festival reg­u­lar Jared Tyler accom­pa­nied Ramsey on res­onator gui­tar for a few num­bers. Ramsey joined home­town favorite John Fullbright dur­ing the clos­ing per­for­mance at the Pastures of Plenty.

Gallery: Willis Alan Ramsey


About Chris J. Zähller

International Man of Mystery. Cocktail Nerd. Occasionally designs websites. Sometimes snaps a picture or two.

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