"I'm a Southern boy who got moved to Texas, pretty much against his will," Ramsey says. "We had maids back then -- everybody in the South had maids -- and they were singing all the time. So that music was in the air. Segregation didn't mean that people didn't associate with one another. I was raised more by my black maid Letty. I spent more time with her than I did my parents."
That vision of a dispossessed South -- romantic, sensual and inwardly tragic -- pervades Ramsey's music. "I might go crazy/I might go blind/But I'm never goin' back to that honeysuckle vine," he sang on his 1972 debut, no matter that the song is a lark about a randy honeybee. For Ramsey, Southern flowers flourish amid the refuse.
Ramsey's family moved to Dallas in the summer of 1960, and he has always chafed against the city. "In the South," he says, "if you acted like you were better than someone else, the whole group took you down a peg. In Dallas, you'd find people always acting better than everybody else." Starting in the late '60s, Ramsey, still in his teens, began making a name in the Dallas, Houston and Austin clubs, drawing his inspiration from James Taylor and Laura Nyro and getting the performing nerve from Texas country-folk singers like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Steven Fromholz.
"There was the Sand Mountain in Houston," Ramsey remembers, "the Checkered Flag in Austin, the Rubiayat in Dallas, Cafe York in Denver, the Out Post in Red River, N.M. You had a string of clubs you could play, if you were young and enthusiastic and willing to make spectacle of yourself. At that time, it was a listening thing, before all the progressive-country bullshit. It was in the tradition of the Newport Folk Festival or the better rooms on the East Coast, the Cellar Door or the Bitter End."
Willis Alan Ramsey, his one and only album, at once captures that intimate milieu of folk songs and stories, then leaps well ahead of its time, owing in part to Ramsey's idiosyncratic tastes and a fortuitous encounter with Leon Russell. "I was booked into a motel called the Villa Capri in Texas, and staying at that hotel were the Allman Brothers, Leon Russell, It's a Beautiful Day and Pacific Gas & Electric. I saw their show and made it a point to knock on their doors. Leon was nice and receptive, and I was kind of cocky at that point. I thought I was writing some tunes that he should hear. Leon told me to break out my guitar. He and his road manager listened and gave me their numbers in California.
"They said I should come see them. Greg Allman and Dickey Betts were really nice as well. They invited me to come down and see them in Macon. This was right before the Allman Brothers took off. So I went to see all of them. Greg recorded a demo on me, and then I went out to see Leon, and he made a demo on me. Leon said, "I'm getting ready to tour. If you like, you can stay in my house and record in my studio at night.' That pretty much sold me! It all happened quickly. I was pretty confident in what I was doing, and suddenly I was over my head. I went from playing college coffeehouses and then I'm in Leon Russell's home studio and people like George Harrison are coming over. It was a completely different environment."
But Ramsey never fit into Russell's glamorous and chaotic world. "I was pretty much traumatized by it," he says. Like Tom Petty, Phoebe Snow and other young artists on Shelter Records, he wanted out. "Phoebe Snow said, "Get the hell off that label.' I said, "I can't -- I've got a big contract.' She told me to get my attorneys to buy my way out. I couldn't, because I wasn't selling records."
Instead, Ramsey let his contract run its course. His debut may have been a masterpiece, but there would be no follow-up, no come-back. "I tried making another record with Denny Cordell on some equipment down here in Austin. We just couldn't get on the same page," he says. "My contract ran out just in time for disco and '80s dance music. Things went from nice listening environments to drunken-cowboy stuff. Then, about the time mechanical bulls showed up in the rooms I was playing, I stopped playing. But in a funny way, it's come full circle, and there are a lot of good listening rooms now, like when I started in the '70s."
Given the circumstances surrounding his only album -- recorded over the course of a year in five studios in three states -- we're lucky to have songs like "Goodbye Old Missoula," "Watermelon Man," "Satin Sheets" and "Boy from Oklahoma" at all. Those songs have been covered by Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Waylon Jennings, Shawn Colvin and Kate Wolf. "Muskrat Love," one of the prettiest tunes you'll ever hear, was covered by America and then turned into a huge hit by the Captain and Tenille.
But save its gorgeous melody, that song won't tell you much about Ramsey's art. "Ballad of Spider John," which opens the album, gets closer. Spider John is based on a character Ramsey met while hitchhiking -- in his words, a "small-time thief, an incredibly guilty thief, who only robbed himself."
I was a supermarket fool
I was a motorbank stool pigeon
Robbin' my own time
I thought I'd lost my blues,
Yes, I thought I'd paid my dues
I thought I'd found a life to suit my style
The story of Spider John is as broad, wistful and full of betrayed possibility as America itself. Spider could be Elvis or Robert Johnson, or Huckleberry Finn, the cocksure kid, born to lose, who finally realizes his deepest wish -- and then throws it all away.
The question Ramsey repeats in "Wishbone," "How you goin' to save your soul?" is the central question, and answer, of his strange career. He has always cast a cold eye on the commercial aspects of music, not that he feels himself above the biz, but because he sees no benefit in the compromises it entails, no reason to make music on anything but his own terms, even if that means never making another record again. He will, he says, but he knows better than to say when.
"I've said as much over the years, and those projects haven't happened," he explains. "I don't want to say something again, and have it not happen, as it has so many times before. I always thought I'd have many records out by now. My path has been a unique one, but every artist's path is unique. I'm not somebody who wants to make a vanity record. I don't have any desire to make a modest record; I really want to make something that's important and will last a long time. But there's not a lot of record labels knocking at my door. But I think I might get the last laugh."