By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
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."