By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By Carolina de Busto
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
Willis Alan Ramsey is the most reluctant and least likely of Texas singer/ songwriters. With the requisite three names, the dashing looks, the heroic narratives and the memorable songs that became hits for others, he nearly defines the figure -- nearly. Ramsey has made only one record, released exactly 28 years ago, and has lingered in the shadows ever since. Born in 1949 in Birmingham, Ala., Ramsey came to music through his musically gifted mother, a brother who collected rhythm & blues records, clear-channel radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry and the black women who sang all day long and raised him as a boy.
"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."