Willis Alan Ramsey was barely out of his teens when he released a remarkable debut album that sounded like a greatest-hits project from a veteran artist. Now, 40 years later, Ramsey is more famous for having never released a second album.
Not that he isn’t trying. He started working on his follow-up, Gentilly, in 2003. “We recorded most of the basic tracks” back then, Ramsey said in a recent phone conversation. “We’d record for a while, and when we were low on mone,y we’d go out and play some dates and then come back and record some more.”
But life kept happening. Family and financial obligations, gigs, excursions, even natural disasters have played parts in delaying the most eagerly awaited album in the history of Texas Music. Ramsey, in typical fashion, is taking whatever time he needs to make sure his second album is as good as the first.
“If you’re going to do something, do it right,” he said. “And if you’ve taken this long on something already, don’t blow it this close to the home stretch.”
Making fans wait for what’s been dubbed the mythical second album carries the risk of setting exceedingly high expectations. “I’m fully prepared to have people coming to me and saying, ‘Forty years for this?’ ” Ramsey said, laughing.
They’re unlikely to be disappointed, however. Ramsey has played songs pegged for the second album for years, and they’re every bit as melodic and intriguing as his early songs. Ramsey is older, wiser, better. He’s spent years traveling to study music, writing, and recording techniques. If anything, Gentilly should exceed the first album. But there we go, adding to the expectations.
The Outlaw Music scene was just starting to roar in the early 1970s with the likes of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings leading the rowdy parade in Austin. But a studious Alabama native who’d been raised in Dallas and was living in Austin would release the most talked-about album of the era. Songs on Willis Alan Ramsey jumped off the vinyl, quirky stories about honeybees, wandering minstrels, watermelons, and painted ladies. The song that got the most radio play locally was “Northeast Texas Women” with its opening lines: “North of Waxahachie / East of ol’ Cowtown / Them Dallas women standing up beat the others lying down.”
Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, America, and Jimmy Buffett recorded versions of Ramsey’s songs. But the curious coupling of a song about frisky muskrats with a pop band known as Captain & Tennille propelled “Muskrat Love” into the No. 4 position on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976.
Outlaw Music was all about toughness and independence. Some fans looked askance at this new songwriter. And when they went to hear Ramsey perform, they found someone who didn’t wear a cowboy hat or boots and didn’t do tequila shots with fans.
“When I started off in the 1970s playing stuff I’d written, a lot of people didn’t get it,” he said, recalling noisy crowds, bad sound systems, and concertgoers more interested in getting drunk and laid than listening to lyrics. “I used to play all kinds of shit-kicker bars.”
But he didn’t hang with Willie, get his picture taken in all the right places, or even market his music. He’d drop out of sight for lengthy periods, resurface for short tours, and disappear again. In recent years he’s been living in Northern Colorado.
Gentilly was almost finished when a flood drenched the Rockies and saturated Ramsey’s private recording studio a year ago. He and wife Alison Rogers have spent the past year cleaning up the mess and replacing equipment. The second album was pushed aside yet again.
“There were a few moments,” he said, “where Alison and I sat down and said, ‘Hey, is somebody trying to tell us something?’ ”
Now that the studio is just about restored, Ramsey is focusing on the album again. First, though, he’s got a few gigs to play, which brings him back to his old stomping grounds, where those Northeast Texas women with their “cotton-candy hair” will get a rare chance to hear the mysterious muskrat cowboy once again.
Willis Alan Ramsey
Thu, Oct 16, w/Alison Rogers at Shipping & Receiving, 201 S Calhoun St, FW. $20. 817-887-9313.