I had no idea what to expect when driving down into Dallas to see Willis Alan Ramsey perform. Information on the legendary, but somewhat reclusive songwriter is scant at best. No website, no calendar or social network sites to help. If you’re not religiously scanning the fine print of your local alternative newsweekly, and you don’t live in or near Texas, you’re likely to miss him.
And when you’re dealing with a singer/songwriter playing acoustic solo, especially when it is one known in many circles for his songs that other people performed, you never know what the quality of the performance is going to be. Is the show going to be built around the novelty of seeing this person perform their own songs live, with no real value in the performance itself? Fortunately with Ramsey, the performance had value–high value–vaulting his legend and his top shelf songs even higher into my musical ethos.
Willis Alan Ramsey’s legacy began in the mid-70’s Texas Outlaws music scene in Austin. His first and only 1972 self-titled album released on Leon Russell’s “Shelter” label became a thing of legend. It was the album Austin’s top musicians recommended to each other, with Waylon, Jimmy Buffet, Jerry Jeff Walker and others covering songs from the LP. His second album, whose release has been rumored for going on 40 years now, has become just as legendary, with ravished Ramsey fans craving more of the magic the first album delivered.
But no album has been released, codifying Ramsey’s mystique. At the same time Ramsey-penned songs have slowly creeped out into the public conciseness, songs like Lyle Lovett’s “North Dakota” and “That’s Right You’re Not From Texas,” teasing Ramsey nation that his songwriter heart was dormant, but not extinct.
Ramsey was first presented to me by Jan Reed’s definitive book on the Texas Outlaw scene, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock as a reclusive, withdrawn songwriter conflicted by the music business. My curiosity pricked, I got a hold of his virtually unavailable album and drank the Kool-Aid whole.
Live Willis Alan Ramsey gives up nothing to any acoustic performer or signer/songwriter you can name. What surprised me most was his soul. On the album his voice is somewhere between Kermit the Frog and Kenny Rodgers, but especially at the beginning of his set, he was more Taj Mahal, with an ebony heart belting out ridiculously rich dirty muddy bloody blues. Ramsey plays guitar with a pick on his thumb, making occasional use of the harmonica harness and a glass slide. His fingerwork is entrancing, but the best part is the ragtime-era blues inflections he sings with and the way he uses his depth from the microphone to create stress and emphasis to the phrases, all while his foot taps the beat on the bottom of the mic stand.
If lack of long haul touring had allowed rust to form, I couldn’t tell, in his performance and in the stage banter and stories between songs. Though there was one rusty moment during his song “Northeast Texas Women” that turned into probably the most memorable moment of the night. Ramsey was born in Birmingham and now lives in Colorado, but Dallas can hold claim to him as much as any city. If you want to see Dale Watson, you must see him in Austin to get the full effect. You could make the same case for Ramsey in Dallas. And during his tribute to Dallas women he garbled the words, but the hometown crowd was right there to rally around him, singing him back on track until Poor David’s Pub was a virtual choir carrying the song made famous by Jimmy Buffet and Jerry Jeff Walker to the rafters.
Ramsey’s wife, singer/songwriter Alison Rogers (also a Dallas native) spelled him between sets and is an enigma of her own. She was admittedly rusty, but delivered solid performances and later joined Willis on harmonies. Alison has a very intriguing air to her. She has eyes the size of Cajun tires, and just by looking at her there’s something that makes you think that in 15 minutes she could impart enough wisdom to you to make you cry. My guess is in her day she left men dead in her wake.
Willis Alan Ramsey may only have one album to his credit, but he had plenty of material, even with leaving possibly his best known song “Muskrat Candlelight” (turned into the hit “Muskrat Love” by America and Captain & Tennille) on the bench. He played until 12:30, nearly three hours of music and banter, until Poor David’s Pub felt like a living room and a private concert.
Two guns up!