Albums from the Lost and Found: Willis Alan Ramsey

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

While it may not have yielded any chart hits, Willis Alan Ramsey’s self-titled debut ironically still boasts many a familiar tune.  The disc sold only modestly at the time but has been partially credited for giving birth to the “progressive country” genre that would later spawn cult stars in the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and give rise to the long-running television program Austin City Limits, and the album remains a cult classic. Renowned new-age guitarist Michael Hedges has credited this album for being one of the biggest influences on his own style of playing, while a long list of acts spanning the gamut from Jimmy Buffett, Shawn Colvin, and Captain & Tennille to Waylon Jennings, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and David Bromberg have all gone on to record covers of songs from this album. [Lyle Lovett, who has repeatedly praised this album in interviews, even managed the feat of getting the reclusive Ramsey into co-writing new material with him, resulting in the Lovett tunes “North Dakota” and “That’s Right (You’re Not from Texas.)”]

Much like the New Radicals’ Gregg Alexander, Ramsey, in part due to conflicts with his record label, quickly grew disenchanted with the life of a performer and the workings of the music business and walked away from the industry shortly after. While he did make a surprise return to the stage at the end of the ‘80s and still sporadically plays live (notably even serving as one of the featured artists on a 2001 episode of “Austin City Limits” in spite of having no new album in stores to promote), Ramsey famously never did release a follow-up to his well-loved debut album (and is even known to answer fan requests for another record by jokingly replying “What’s wrong with the first one?”)  More than forty years later, this still remains the only recording in the talented songwriter’s discography, which has only added to both the man’s and the album’s mystique, and Ramsey seems happy to let things remain that way.

Released on the fairly obscure label Shelter (co-founded by singer-songwriter Leon Russell and responsible for releasing the first albums from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Phoebe Snow, J.J. Cale, The Gap Band, and Dwight Twilley Band), Ramsey’s debut features a surprisingly all-star cast of musicians, including Russell himself and famed session greats Jim Keltner, Red Rhodes, Russell Kunkel, Carl Radle (formerly of Derek and the Dominos), Eddie Hinton (from the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section), Leland Sklar, Ernie Watts, Tim Drummond, and Kenny Buttrey.  Ramsey’s debut also benefits from the co-production of Shelter co-owner Denny Cordell, better known as the former producer for both Joe Cocker and Procol Harum.

The most famous song on here wasn’t a hit for Ramsey, but a year later, the pop trio America (of “A Horse with No Name” fame) covered “Muskrat Candlelight,” retitling it “Muskrat Love” in the process, and took it as high as #67 on the Hot 100. Three years later, the Captain and Tennille would also cover it, the record climbing all the way to #4 and becoming one of the duo’s trademark songs, but it’s Ramsey’s version that’s far and away the best of the three versions, thanks to its raw but lovely arrangement, which nicely showcases Ramsey’s gritty voice and some lovely vibraphone playing by Leon Russell and stands in stark contrast to the overly mellow and downright campy Captain and Tennille version. In Ramsey’s hands, the song actually sounds legitimately good, not an easy feat considering the song’s unusual and off-kilter subject matter.  

The fantastic “Ballad of Spider John,” the arrangement of which unexpectedly but brilliantly works in some fine sax playing from Ernie Watts, would go on to get greater exposure in the form of a cover by Jimmy Buffett on his album Living and Dying in ¾ Time.  The equally great “Satin Sheets” would later be a minor hit single for the country-pop duo The Bellamy Brothers (“Let Your Love Flow”) and also be covered by country icon Waylon Jennings and folk-pop singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin, while “Goodbye to Old Missoula” would get covered by cult favorite Jimmie Dale Gilmore and “Geraldine and the Honeybee” would be covered on a live album by, surprisingly enough, the jam band Widespread Panic.  Best of all is the much-loved, heavily percussive jubilant album closer “Northeast Texas Women,” which periodically pops up in the set list at Jimmy Buffett shows and has been covered on record by the David Bromberg Band and Jerry Jeff Walker. It’s a deliriously fun ending to one of the most enjoyable and criminally overlooked singer-songwriter albums of the early ‘70s.