It's the early 1970s in Austin, Texas, and the Outlaw Country movement is in full swing. Willie just played the Armadillo World Headquarters. Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band just recorded Viva Terlingua live in Luckenbach. But the most revered record among Austin singer-songwriters is by an unknown 20-something named Willis Alan Ramsey.
The self-titled 1972 album, produced by Leon Russell and released on Russell's label Shelter, is considered the holy grail of songwriting. Artists such as Lyle Lovett, who has long praised Ramsey, still names the record as one of his greatest inspirations. The album, which featured Ramsey on the cover wearing a tilted-back cowboy hat and a mischievous grin, was passed around pickers circles and college campuses, along with the message "You have to listen to this guy."
Despite its appeal, Ramsey's album never spawned a hit. Okay, that's not entirely true. In 1976, pop group Captain and Tennille spun Ramsey's tender, quirky "Muskrat Candlelight" into the much maligned synthesized rodent romp, "Muskrat Love." And even though his mailman surely gets a workout from delivering his royalty checks, Ramsey never really got his big break. There was no large scale tour and little to no radio play of his record. His songs didn't appeal to a drunk and rowdy bar crowd. Willis Alan Ramsey is music to drink at home to. His stirring story songs about tragic characters like Montana barmaids and small town petty thieves were made to be heard, not shouted over in a honky tonk.
Most artists who only record one album fade from public memory. But not Willis Alan Ramsey. His songs are too good. After over forty years, fans are still clamoring for a follow up album.
With one perfect record, a cult figure was born.
The Ballad of Spider John
Willis Alan Ramsey was born in Alabama and raised in Dallas. Fresh out of high school, Ramsey began kicking around Austin coffee shops with fellow songwriters Ray Wylie Hubbard and Steven Fromholz. The young songwriter was in the epicenter of the burgeoning cosmic cowboy movement lead by Michael Martin Murphy, Jerry Jeff Walker and B.W. Stevenson. Ramsey's honest, offbeat lyrics appealed to the long-haired crowd in the capital city and across Texas. One night, a young aspiring songwriter and Texas A&M student named Lyle Lovett was in the crowd at Ramsey's show. Lovett was enraptured by Ramsey's voice and lyrics. Lovett began booking Ramsey at the Texas A&M coffee house he frequented, getting a crash course in songwriting from his idol.
"I learned every song off his record," Lovett once said. "I wanted to be Willis Alan Ramsey."
He wasn't alone. For many, Willis Alan Ramsey was the soundtrack of Texas youth. The swaggering country-funk song "Northeast Texas Women," later covered by both Jerry Jeff Walker and American Aquarium, became Ramsey's first regional hit. The song celebrates the "cast iron curls and aluminum dimples" of Texas women from Dallas to Dimebox.
But it's Ramsey's ballads that pack the biggest punch. "Angel Eyes," an achingly beautiful love song, is especially impressive considering Ramsey was only 21 when it was recorded.
"Lord, she's as sweet as one of her pecan pies," Ramsey sings in a wise-beyond-his-years warble. "Listening to her laughter I get hypnotized."
After the release of the album, Ramsey tried moving to Nashville. In 2000, Ramsey told The New York Times he had felt no one was listening to his quiet story songs in the Urban Cowboy-crazed Texas of the 1980s. He quickly became disenchanted with Music City and moved to London for a stretch.
All the while, Ramsey's status as the unsung hero of Texas music only grew. His songs were recorded by Waylon Jennings, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Jimmy Buffett and Shawn Colvin. And then there's Lyle Lovett, perhaps the greatest Ramsey disciple of them all. Lovett recorded Ramsey's "Sleepwalking" on 1998's Step Inside This House and co-wrote "North Dakota," from 1992's Joshua Judges Ruth, with his songwriter hero.
Eventually, Ramsey moved back to Texas when he met and married Texas singer-songwriter Alison Rogers. (The couple co-wrote Lovett's "That's Right, You're Not From Texas.") After a few years out of the spotlight, Ramsey was ready to return to the Lone Star spotlight. He started performing on lyrics-focused programs such as The Texas Connection, hosted by Jerry Jeff Walker.
In the video below, Ramsey performs "Ballad of Spider John," about a small time criminal reckoning with his past.
Worth the Wait
When asked "Where's the second album?" by fans, Ramsey's standard response is "What's wrong with the first one?"
The answer among Ramsey devotees is, of course, "absolutely nothing." His one and only album is a highly sought after rarity. Named as one of the 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, the cult of the Willis Alan Ramsey record is constantly gaining new members. There's currently a Willis Alan Ramsey CD listed for $70 on eBay. As for snagging a copy on vinyl, well, good luck. (The album is available for streaming on Spotify.)
But you can't blame us for wanting even more from the songwriter. And the truth is Ramsey does have plans for a sophomore album. He's been working on a second album, Gentilly, since about 2003. A string of setbacks, including a flood that seriously damaged his Loveland, Co. studio, as well as Ramsey's notorious perfectionism, has caused over a decade of delays.
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Ramsey still plays the occasional show, usually in Texas listening rooms. He doesn't have to worry about anyone talking over his songs these days. They're hanging on every word and waiting for an indication of how long he'll keep us waiting on his mythic second album.
For now, we can only guess. In the meantime, we'll gladly put the needle down on Texas' greatest one album wonder for yet another spin.