Music Memos

By TERRY MATHEWS | News-Telegram Arts Editor

Willis Alan Ramsey

Aug 19, 2007 - Willis Alan Ramsey is probably the most imitated singer/songwriter you’ve never heard. He may have recorded only one album, but he is certainly no one-hit wonder. 

Willis Alan Ramsey
By Willis Alan Ramsey
Koch. 1972.
5/5 Stars

The Dallas native’s 1972 self-titled release is one of the most influencial albums of all time.

�Lyle Lovett owes everything he is to Ramsey. Lovett has ridden Ramsey�s quirky delivery and halting, staggered phrasing straight up the charts.�

Ramsey’s tune, “Sleepwalking” appeared on Lovett’s 1998 CD, “Step Inside This House.” Ramsey and his wife, Alison Rogers, also from Dallas, wrote Lovett’s 1991 hit, “That’s Right, You’re Not From Texas.” Clint Black was once asked to list his musical influences. He rattled off a long list. Then, he simply said, “Willis Alan Ramsey.” 

Jimmy Buffett has covered Ramsey’s “Ballad of Spider John” for years and recently put “Northeast Texas Women” on the highly successful “Live at Texas Stadim” CD released this spring. 

When Buffett performed “Ballad of Spider John” in both Houston and Frisco this summer, a hush fell over the partying parrotheads, young and old alike, as they swayed and sang along.

Buffett told the Houston crowd, “One of my wonderful  memories of coming to Texas, back in the 70s when I couldn’t get work anywhere else and you people kept me alive, was meeting great songwriters who remain friends to this day. I’d like to do one of the songs by my dear friend Willis Alan Ramsey.”

�Spider John� and �Northeast Texas Women� have been part of Jerry Jeff Walker�s set list for years. Walker has� tweaked Ramsey�s lyrics from time to time, but the message remains the same.�

Ramsey, Walker and Buffett hung out in those lean days.

Waylon Jennings and Shaun Colvin have both recorded successful covers of “Satin Sheets.”

Considering his quest for perfection, it’s amazing the record ever saw the light of day. Ramsey’s been known to tune his guitar – on stage – for up to 20 minutes between songs. 

If you can believe what you read on the Internet’s music message boards, Ramsey’s been in the studio mixing a new CD, tentatively called “Gentilly” for most of the past year. The release is creating a lot of excitement, especially in the ranks of independent musicians.

I saw Ramsey perform in smoky little bars up and down Greenville Avenue in Dallas during my college days.  I wore out the original vinyl record and broke several 8-track tapes. The CD is now on permanent rotation on my iPod. After 35 years, Ramsey’s music never fails to surprise and enchant.  

In popular circles, Ramsey’s best known tune  is “Muskrat Love,” but forget the syrupy rendition made famous by in 1976 by The Captain and Tenille. Ramsey’s cut is dreamy and soulful and is guaranteed to make you smile.

�Angel Eyes� is a love song written from a deep place most of us only dream of.

�... and all these things of beauty have left a kiss on her, I�ll tell you, sir.
She’s as sweet as one of her pecan pies.
Listening to her laughter  hypnotizes.
Goodness knows, I love my angel eyes.

�Boy from Oklahoma,�� Ramsey�s haunting ode to Woody Guthrie is widely accepted as the best Guthrie tribute ever written.�

In a pirated recording from The Blue Door, Ramsey talks about how difficult it was to perform the song the night before when Guthrie’s sister Mary Jo was in the audience.

Guthrie’s widow Marjorie wrote Ramsey a letter back in the late 70s saying she liked the song.

�It was so overwhelming, I� never could write back, which I regret� Ramsey tells the crown.�

�There�s one factual error in the song,� Ramsey says. �It says, �Woody Guthrie is dead and buried in the ground.� In fact he was cremated. I knew that when I wrote it, but it didn�t rhyme. I just want to let you know I know what I�m talking about.�

He was just a boy from Oklahoma, on an endless one-night stand.
Wandering and a ‘rambling, 
Drifting with the midnight sand.
He played the blues and ballads, and all that came between. 
His heart was in the Union and his soul was reaching out for the servant’s dream.

Ramsey disappeared from the music scene in the late 70s and 80s. It was rumored he moved to Scotland, lived in a castle and researched the roots of Celtic music. He married Rogers in 1991 and currently lives south of Austin. Ramsey is set to perform at the Big State Festival in College Station this fall. Lyle Lovett is on the same bill. 

If you’re tired of what’s being played on today’s radio, get your hands on Willis Alan Ramsey’s work of art, settle back in your favorite easy chair and drift to another time and place, when songs told stories and their melodies mattered.

Amazon has the CD. It’s also available at

James McMurtry

I heard an interview with James McMurty on National Public Radio one day while driving home from Louisiana. In the time it took to get from Marshall to New Diana, I fell completely under the spell of McMurty’s hard-driving music and tough-as-nails lyrics.

McMurtry reminds me of a young Bob Dylan, singing about difficult personal relationships, society’s ills and the horrors of war. 

Childish Things
By James McMurtry
Compadre Records. 
5/5 Stars

�Bad Enough� tells of war on the home front.�

Where have you been?
I don’t want to know.
Probably some place
I wouldn’t want to go.
Who were you with?
Who did you see?
What did you talk about?
What did you say about me?
Where have you been?
I won’t let it drop?
What were you thinking?
When you gonna stop?

In “Slew Foot,” McMurtry’s lyrics tell the story of a wild bear, but about half-way through the song, you realize he isn’t singing about Gentle Ben at all.

He’s big around the middle 
He’s broad around the rump.
Making 90 miles an hour, 
Taking 30 feet of jump.
He ain’t never been caught.
He ain’t never been treed.
Some folks say he looks a lot like me.

The hardest-hitting song from “Childish Things” is “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore,” an anthem to tough times and war veterans.

There’s a Vietnam Vet with a cardboard sign
Sitting there by the left turn line
A flag on the wheelchair, flapping in the breeze
One leg missing and both hands free.
No one's paying much mind to him. 
The V.A. budget's just stretched so thin, 
And there's more comin' home from the Mideast war.
We can't make it here anymore.

That big old building was a textile mill.
It fed our children and it paid our bills.
But, they turned us out and they closed the door.
We can’t make it here anymore.

�. . .�

Some have maxed out all their credit cards.
Some are working two jobs and living in cars.
Minimum wage won’t pay for a roof.
Won’t pay for a drink, if you gotta have proof
Just try it yourself, Mr. CEO
See how far $5.15 an hour will go.
Take a part-time job in one of your stores.
I’ll bet you can’t make it here anymore.

You might not agree with his message, but there is no denying McMurtry’s mighty talent. Perhaps he inherited his storytelling skills from his famous father, author Larry McMurtry (“Lonesome Dove”).  This Apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. 

In a world full of pablum-infused musical mush, it’s refreshing to know someone is out there writing songs that make us take a long, hard look at our world and ourselves.

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