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Willis Alan Ramsey Finds Comfort In Old, New Songs

Willis Alan Ramsey has, to date, released one album. Issued on Shelter Records in 1972, his self-titled debut remains a high water mark in the pantheon of American singer-songwriter albums. The 11 songs that comprise the record speak volumes about the artist's maturity and breadth of musical and lyrical interests.

Accompanied by legendary players such as Carl Radle (bass), Russ Kunkel and Jim Keltner (drums), Eddie Hinton (guitar) and keyboards, vocals and more from Shelter Records boss Leon Russell, the record includes songs that became part of the larger American musical lexicon across the ‘70s and beyond. "Muskrat Candlelight" was covered by both America and Captain & Tennille (as "Muskrat Love") while Jimmy Buffett tracked "Ballad of Spider John" for his 1974 opus Living & Dying In ¾ Time. More recently, venerable jam band Widespread Panic has covered both "Geraldine And The Honeybee" as well as "Wishbone."

Ramsey has been working on a sophomore release for a number of years and it's slated to be issued in 2018. The record is said to include Americana luminaries such as Sam Bush and Tim O'Brien, Viktor Krauss and Mickey Raphael among others, including Alison Rogers, Ramsey's wife, with whom he co-wrote "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)," which appeared on Lyle Lovett's 1996 LP The Road To Ensenada.

Ramsey performs at the Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine Sunday, July 15.

Interview Highlights

You're set to release your second album Gentilly this year. It's been a sometimes difficult road to this one.

I was fortunate to get a deal when I was just a kid with Shelter Records. The timing was perfect. I just expected everything to fall in place for the rest of my life like that did. It turns out that that was a truly unique situation. It was hard to find something with a decent budget. I couldn't get a deal with a major label and the independent deals that were available were not going to allow me to sell real numbers of records or make any money. So, that led us to independently financing it. That turned out to be a rough road. We had a flood in our studio and some other setbacks. The first time was a cakewalk.

You've continued to gig through the years though.

I took about an eight-year break in '81 when Shelter split up. It seemed like every club I walked into had a mechanical bull in the lobby. That wasn't me. It was a bit Las Vegas. I took a break and traveled around, lived in a lot of different places that I hadn't been to. I ended up in the U.K. For about three-and-a-half years I lived over there, Ireland, Scotland. Really loved it. On one of my visa breaks, I came home and met another singer-songwriter, Alison Rogers, and got married. Then I started playing again.

You must have felt out of sorts in that Urban Cowboy era of the early ‘80s.

There was a folk boom in the ‘60s with coffee house gigs and folk festivals. I grew up in that and started playing at the Chequered Flag in Austin which was very much part of that time. I got onto the college coffeehouse circuit which Keith Sykes, Townes Van Zandt were also playing. You'd stay on campus and play three-four nights a week. It was great. That'd changed by the early ‘80s. It was a turnoff. And some of the best records I heard in the ‘80s were coming out of the U.K. So, I got myself over there. There was a folk renaissance in Ireland that bloomed in the ‘60s and the ‘70s with a guy named Sean O' Riada.

You eventually made your first album for Shelter Records. Leon Russell and Denny Cordell were behind that and you wound up with a who's who of great players on the record. Legendary musicians.

Shelter [Records] was really hot at the time. They could get me any players. Denny and Leon had a great partnership for a time. They discovered so many great new artists. They had older guys like Don Nix and JJ Cale but they also discovered Tom Petty and Phoebe Snow. I had many people tell me when my album came out that they discovered my record because they bought everything that Shelter put out.

That album came out in '72 and it continues to have a life. It seems like every couple of years there's a story about it in a major magazine or on a music website. It doesn't go away.

I think the songs hold up plus I had access to all those great musicians. The performances are pretty good. With the exception of me. I listen to my voice and I hear this scared little kid. Which I was, kind of. Even though a lot of those guys were just a few years older than I was they'd been in the studio a lot more. All the Tulsa guys were sort of sleight-of-hand.

JJ Cale taught me how to be calm in the studio because I was a nervous wreck. Denny and Leon said, "Can you do anything with this guy?" I'd guy into the studio with Cale and he'd go in front of the console and start taking a nap while I was working up a tune. I'd come in and say, "Wake up. I think we're almost there. Should I do another take?" He'd say, "No, man, if you feel like you got another song, do it, man." Then he'd go back to sleep.

I'd get so tense with Denny. He was a real public school rich kid. I think his family owned half of Argentina. A lot of people felt uncomfortable around him because he wasn't an Okie and he wasn't laid back. Cale was able to help do what I needed to do at the time.

I never get tired of playing those songs.

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.