Considering the billions of albums that have been released over the years, it’s safe to say that the ones that have endured and sustained the artists’ careers are in the minority, while the rest have languished in obscurity since their release. Of that majority are performers that came and went, sometimes achieving one-hit wonder status and currently residing in the “where are they now” file.
Some of those one-hit wonders are due to external circumstances; Jeff Buckley only had one album out before he drowned, while Robert Johnson was already dead before anyone had heard of him. There’s the hypothesis that if Elvis Presley had disappeared after only recording the Sun sessions, we’d be talking of him in much different tones today.
Then there’s Willis Alan Ramsey, a Texas singer-songwriter who recorded exactly one eponymous album nearly forty years ago, and hasn’t been in much of a rush to do another one, despite continual rumors and pleas.
The album straddles the lines between country, folk and bluegrass; you can hear Leon Russell (who plays on the album and signed him to his Shelter label) in his twangy croon, and Lyle Lovett (who idolized him and eventually collaborated with him) in his alternately wry and tender songwriting.
“Ballad Of Spider John” follows the tradition of “young guy writing as an old man” while staying original. “Muskrat Candlelight” likely kept him flush for several years, thanks to the hit versions by America and Captain & Tennille. It doesn’t induce as much wincing here, with a nice touch on the vibraphone. The jaunty “Geraldine And The Honeybee” and “Wishbone” simmer with Okie charm, followed up by “Satin Sheets”, sly and ironic considering his eventual shunning of the spotlight (best line: “Praise the Lord and pass the mescaline”). But “Goodbye Old Missoula” is the one you’ll be humming long after the side ends.
Side two is more overtly country, with the fiddle sawing through “Painted Lady”, the swampy “Watermelon Man” and the tribute to Woody Guthrie in “Boy From Oklahoma”. The super-sweet “Angel Eyes” is probably the best song ever written with that title, and to leave things on a high note, “Northeast Texas Women” puts you amidst a front porch hoe-down.
A track-by-track synopsis doesn’t suffice here, mostly because we feel we haven’t been able to do them justice. Each of the songs are striking in their own way, and Willis Alan Ramsey remains an album that any singer-songwriter would be proud of were it the only physical evidence of their work.
Willis Alan Ramsey Willis Alan Ramsey (1972)—4