Musical Perfectionist Plays the Crystal
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.
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.