Willis Alan Ramsey

October 21 at Phoenix Hill Tavern

A "Conversion" Experience

By Bill Ede

I've noticed something about myself over the years. It seems that when I hear a performer or songwriter talked up just a little too much or praised just a little too highly, I tend to become quite resistant toward same. Just ask local musician and songwriter Hedy Hilburn, who tried for years to get me to listen to Billy Joe Shaver and later Si Kahn.

With Si Kahn, it was more a question of not having access to recordings, but I just about never made it through all the "Willie and Waylon" hoopla surrounding Billy Joe Shaver. And don't even ask me how long it took for me to "come around" to Mr. Nelson himself, whose music I've grown so fond of in recent years. It was only at the insistence of songwriter Gene Thomas (one of my heroes) that Willie Nelson (one of Mr. Thomas' formative heroes) was "everything they're making him out to be" (meant as a compliment at the time, which I wouldn't understand until later), that my "Willie wall" would finally begin to fall.

It likewise took the endorsement of one Townes Van Zandt to set me straight about songwriter Guy Clark, after my having heard nothing but praise about the latter's music, only to be initiated into same via what could be thought of as his only weak album.

This apparent resistance on my part toward things "too" recommended can be traced back to the Beatles and beyond, and can be partly credited with my having come to value the things I "discover" myself, which I might genuinely not have found out about had I depended solely on word-of-mouth or the endorsement of those whose judgment I trust, while at the same time postponing my eventual appreciation of all too many other artists that have since become among my very favorites and will likely remain so. (I likewise don't always seem to be aware of the same kind of knee-jerk reactions I may be causing in others, while singing the songs and/or praises of some "lucky" victim who may or may not need the extra burden of my unsought zeal. I can only hope that there is truth to the maxim that "there's no such thing as bad publicity," and that I haven't done anyone any irreparable harm.)

So when I heard that Willis Alan Ramsey would be performing at the Phoenix Hill Tavern's Saloon on October 21, I vowed that I would "finally be fair to this guy" who has reaped nothing but the highest praise from virtually everyone in the eighteen years since the release of his self-titled only commercial recording, and you just know how easy that was going to be.

I could feel my knee easing into position as I read Ronni Lundy's preview of the performance in the previous day's Scene, echoing all the positive things I'd heard in the past. Ms. Lundy and I had had our "run-ins" over artists before, though I'd come to appreciate her musical expertise, reinforced by praises I had heard from as far away as Dayton, Ohio, and a particularly noteworthy voice in the music scene there. So I would trust her judgment this time, by hook or by crook (she had, after all, been right so many times before), and maintain my resolve to approach this concert with an open mind.

John Gage opened the show with songs he's performed in local clubs over the years, starting with Jerry Jeff Walker's "Driftin' Way of Life," and including John Prine's "Fish and Whistle," Mike Smith's "Spoon River" and Gage's own "Take Time to Watch Things Grow."

He was joined on stage by Mike Schroeder on mandolin, who was obviously having more fun than a musician should in what was supposed to have been a "work situation." But Schroeder was apparently unimpressed with such formalities, as he mischievously rode the melodies and the situation for all they were worth, most notably, and appropriately perhaps, in the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil."

I'd gotten up to sing harmony on a couple tunes, displaying my recently acquired P.F. Sloan T-shirt (thee I go again), before John would close out his portion if the show with Credence Clearwater Revival's "Lookin' Out My Back Door."

We were then treated to contemporary folk originals by Dallas, Texas' Alison Rogers, including "Mine Someday," "Time Without End," "You're the Song" and "You Owe Me One." They were, for the most part, upbeat tunes reminiscent somewhat of Rickie Lee Jones, who Alison claims as an influence along with Nick Drake, John Martyn and a longtime favorite of mine, Rory Block. She also resembled Ms. Jones somewhat in appearance, of which she seemed to be aware.

Emcee Dave Self thanked Alison for her set, suggesting that we remember "where we heard her first," should that someday become a point of interest. He then proceeded to introduce a man whose sole album was one of only two albums (the other being On the Road to FreedomBy Alvia Lee and Mylon Lefevre) to first hit his turntable on any given Sunday morning for more than a couple of years. Willis Alan Ramsey then ascended the stage, and moved immediately into the "Ballad of Spider John," opening up the set just as he had the album. (The song is about a "sinner gone astray," that I once supposed to be Spider John Koerner, because of the name. I no longer share that view.) He would then toast the women in "Satin Sheets" ("I'd give 'em satin sheets to keep 'em off the streets"), and "Northeast Texas Women" ("Them Dallas women standin' up beat the others lyin' down"). A more insightful statement would be made in "Painted Lady" ("I can feel the pain, I can see the fears, on the painted cheeks that hid the tears, of a lovely, lonesome cowgirl in disguise.")

Over the course of his set, he would cover virtually everything on that debut LP, including the strictly-for-fun "Geraldine and the Honeybee" and his well-known "Muskrat Love," all the while playing "the blues and the ballads and all that came between" as had Woody Guthrie in Ramsey's "Boy From Oklahoma." We were also given a taste of some soon-to-be-released material like "Mockingbird Blues," "Boystown" (a romantic yet bittersweet portrayal of Mexican bordellos), and "Sleepwalkin'," which I remembered hearing in Kerrville, Texas, last year.

He would come back for an extended encore that included "(Goodbye to Old) Missoula" and a new song, "What In the World," plus several others. I would still find myself resisting his music somewhat throughout the show (ask Greg Thompson), although I enjoyed it more "live" than I had on record, and was struck by just how well he sang and played guitar. Perhaps it was the fact that he sounded so much like Leon Russell on the album that put me off in the first place. The concert setting could be said to have given rise to what I now perceive to be his "real" voice, and is no doubt partly responsible for my "conversion." That would not fully take hold, however, until I got home, took out the album, and really started hearing (for the first time) what his words and music had to say.

I now await with eager ears his long-overdue follow-up LP.