BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
In 1971, Willis Alan Ramsey cut his first record. The
self-titled debut, released through Leon Russell's
Tulsa-based Shelter Records, sold modestly, but it packed
an influential wallop in Ramsey's adopted home state of
Texas. That one record, it has been claimed,
single-handedly spawned the alternative-Nashville stance
that has made Austin, Texas, the so-called live music
capital of the world.
Just don't ask Ramsey when his next record will appear.
"That's an area I really don't want to go to," he says,
dodging the requisite inquiries about his work since that
first — and, thus far, only — album ("Have you been writing
all this time?" "Has anything been recorded?" "Will we ever see
a second album?").
"Willis Alan Ramsey" remains the songwriter's one-hit
wonder, and nearly 30 years later many musicians still
invoke it as the fountainhead of their inspiration. A
Ramsey show was the first concert a young Lyle Lovett ever
attended, and he has reported that it inspired him to start
writing songs. Lovett also has covered songs from that
"Ramsey" album, as have such artists as Jimmy Buffett,
America, Waylon Jennings, Sam Bush, Shawn Colvin, Jimmie
Dale Gilmore, Kate Wolf, Jerry Jeff Walker and, of course,
the Captain and Tenille, who made Ramsey's "Muskrat Love" a
Top 5 hit in 1976.
Indeed, never has one batch of 11 songs had such
stamina, and rarely does one find a songwriter so humble --
almost insecure — about such influence. While remaining
enigmatic about his affairs during the last 29 years,
Ramsey frequently writes off his initial experience to the
pure luck of youth and happenstance. "I was just a kid
knocking around," he said, in a rare interview last week, in
which Ramsey eked out a tale of time, Tulsa and tenacity.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., and raised in Dallas by his
Georgia-native parents, Ramsey graduated high school and
"got away as quick as I could." He dropped south to Austin
where he explored some of the guitar-picking he'd been
tinkering with. Ray Wylie Hubbard's fledgling band took
notice of his skills and asked Ramsey to open some of its
shows in 1969.
"I was playing the UT coffee house, and I heard that Leon
(Russell) and Gregg Allman were in town playing a festival
and staying at the same hotel. So I walked in, knocked on
both their doors and told them I thought they should give
me a listen," Ramsey said. "It was a pretty asinine thing to
do back then, and I guess they thought I was so cocky they
gave me the chance. I played my songs for Leon and his
roadie, and then for Gregg and (Allman Brothers guitarist)
Dickey Betts, right there in their rooms."
Both musicians heard promise in Ramsey's material, and
both offered him contracts on their record labels — Allman's
Atlanta-based Capricorn Records and Russell's Shelter,
based then in Los Angeles. Ramsey sought Shelter — with
possibly purely personal motives. "I've never really
thought about this," Ramsey chuckled, "but I guess since my
whole family was from Georgia I liked the idea of going to
L.A. better than being closer to Atlanta."
Mad dogs and Southerners
Ramsey headed to L.A. to cut his record in Russell's
home studio, "probably the first professional home studio
anyone had in the world," he said. He was largely left to
his own devices, as Russell had decided to move back to
"At that point, Leon decided he'd had enough of North
Hollywood and wanted to move back to Tulsa," Ramsey said. "He
and Denny (Cordell, Russell's and Ramsey's producer and
manager) had good luck with Shelter, so they took it home.
Leon bought that whole block with a church on it and put in
a studio . . . He left me in his L.A. place, so I got to
learn how to work in a studio — by myself. I learned how to
write in the studio. That's something Leon taught me: how
to use the studio as a writing tool."
Most of Ramsey's record was completed in L.A., with
Russell helping out and adding piano to one track, "Goodbye
Old Missoula." It was that work directly with Russell that
made Ramsey feel every bit the lucky kid just knocking
"I was a kid musically, and I was stretched and stretched
to the point where I was way past my musical abilities," he
said. "Leon would put you in a studio with Jim Keltner on
drums, Carl Radle on bass and Don Preston on electric
guitar, and he'd sit at the piano. He'd say, `Well, this
song needs an acoustic guitar solo. Willis, why don't you
just play a solo here.' I was 20 and not in the space where
I could just do that on the spot yet. I was definitely over
Ramsey's record came out in 1972 and sold moderately --
not well enough to give Ramsey the escape he needed. Ramsey
-- like nearly all Shelter artists, from Russell to Phoebe
Snow — fell out with Cordell, but without big profits he
couldn't get out of his Shelter contract.
"I didn't have enough sales to be able to just leave and
tell my lawyers to clean it up. Tom Petty did, Phoebe Snow
did, I couldn't afford to," he said.
So he sat out his contract — all eight years of it. By
the time it ran out, it was 1980, Ramsey was in the
doldrums of a divorce and had been all but forgotten by
non-musicians. He bought some synthesizers and "fooled
around with those," but he quickly found that there was no
place for a shy, sensitive songwriter in the "Urban Cowboy"
"I just didn't want to play in a place with a mechanical
bull in it," Ramsey said.
I will survive
Since then, Ramsey says, cryptically, he's been writing.
He wants to record again, but he's not sure he'll ever get
to do it on his terms — which is the only way it'll happen,
"My No. 1 goal right now is to have more kids. No. 2 is
to make more records," he said. "But making records these
days requires a record label, and label budgets are small
these days. That record of mine cost $80,000 to make, which
would be about $300,000 in today's dollars. It was a pretty
expensive first-time record in 1972. I'm not the kind of
guy who can make a $30,000 record. It takes me longer.
There's too much I want to do."
He still performs around the region — "some old songs,
some new" — drawing a sizeable cult following. He's even
appeared on a record recently, coming out of the woodwork
to sing on two Lovett records in the '90s, "Joshua Judges
Ruth" and "I Love Everybody."
Last year, Koch Records reissued "Willis Alan Ramsey" on
CD, and the record has begun to find a fresh audience.
"It still gets around," Ramsey said. "It's been a real
work-horse all this time."
Ramsey on Oklahoma
Willis Alan Ramsey recorded his one and only record for
Shelter Records back in Leon Russell's heyday. That meant
hanging out in Tulsa at Russell's many area studios, where
"you'd go to pick up the phone, and it would be George
Harrison or someone," Ramsey said. Here are a few of his
recollections and praise of his Okie counterparts: "I
was in the process of finishing up my record and got to
work with people like Leon and Jamie Oldaker. J.J. Cale
took me in the studio. I was hanging out with guys like
Gary Gilmore and Jesse Davis, both of whom played with Taj
Mahal. Chuck Blackwell, too. Some pretty serious musicians
came out of Tulsa. I mean, Jimmy Lee Keltner — he and
Oldecker . . . if Tulsa can produce two drummers like that,
well, they're the best, in my opinion. Those Tulsa boys
raised me in the studio."
"When I was playing the Cellar Door Club in (Washington)
D.C., this long-haired kid would come sit on the back
steps, and I'd get him in for free. He was going to the
Peabody Institute in Baltimore. When he finally got up
enough nerve to play the acoustic guitar for me, he turned
out this amazing stuff. He said, 'What should I do with
this?' and I said, 'I dunno, but you'd better do
something.' It was Michael Hedges."
"I still say this, and most people I know say it, too:
Leon Russell is a musical genius. He still is. He's so
incredibly talented, and he's a free thinker. Lots of
Tulsans are . . . But I don't think he ever really
scratched the surface of his ability."
"It was in the '60s when I figured out I wanted to write
and say some things. In New York, I found a book called
Born to Win, a compilation of Woody Guthrie's songs,
stories, poems, letters and drawings. It was this fabulous
direct hit from his pen, with his own unique voice. Even
when I think about that book today, it still really does
motivate me. He was another free-thinking Okie. There was
something about the way he could connect with the thought
and deliver it to you totally unvarnished. So visceral, but
so elegant . . . (My song) 'Boy From Oklahoma' is sort of a
romanticized version of Woody."
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.