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‘People find this record, they fall for it’: Why a 50-year-old Texas album has captivated so many songwriters

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From Texas Standard:

Many music fans can rattle off the titles of albums considered to be Texas classics. But among veterans of the Texas music scene, one album in particular seems to pop up on most “best of” lists, even though it didn’t set the charts on fire when it was released. Fifty years ago this month, a singer/songwriter named Willis Alan Ramsey released his first – and only – album, which included songs that have since been covered by Jimmy Buffett, Lyle Lovett and Captain & Tennille, among others.

Texas Monthly Senior Editor John Spong spoke with a who’s who of high-profile Willis Alan Ramsey fans about the album, and pondered the question of when and whether there will ever be a second one. Listen to this extended version of the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about Willis Alan Ramsey. I think a lot of listeners may be scratching their heads wondering, who is this guy and who was he in 1972 when he made this record? 

John Spong: Willis was a 19-year-old singer/songwriter, Dallas folkie, basically, who was in Austin to play a gig that Leon Russell and the Allman Brothers were playing, like a festival of some sort. Willis played, and afterwards, as people did in those days, everybody went back to the Villa Capri Hotel and there were parties all night. And so in the morning, once everybody’s finally clearing out and Leon Russell finally has everybody out of his hotel room, there’s this nice-looking kid with a guitar in his doorway. And he said, ‘What are you doing? Are you going to play that thing, or what are you doing here?’ And it’s Willis. And he’s just a kid. These are songs he wrote while he was in high school. [Russell] loved the songs and he said, ‘Willis, I need you to record this record. And record it on my label. I’m fixing to go on tour. Go stay in my house in LA. I’ve got a studio there, do some recording, and I’ll come back and we’ll put the record out.’

You talked with people like Jimmy Buffett, Shawn Colvin, Lyle Lovett. I mean, they’ve been fixated on this album for decades. This is something that people listen to, wear out, try to get another copy, that kind of thing. What is it? What’s the mystery behind these songs? 

Those are authoritative takes on what makes quality songwriting, right? And they all love this record. And in fact, the song that Jimmy Buffett covered off the record, it’s the first track on the record. It’s called ‘The Ballad of Spider John.’ That was the very first song that Buffett ever recorded that he hadn’t written himself. That’s how much he loved it.

The guitar playing is wonderful. Willis’ voice is kind of nuts. It sounds more like an 80-year-old than a 20-year-old. And I had never sat and just studied the lyrics the way we used to do. Once upon a time, you know when you would get a big vinyl record with lyrics in it? I did that after talking to these songwriters about the songs on the record that they loved, and I was floored by the language. And there is a real literary quality to the way he describes things, to the word choice.

Some people were invoking the name of Faulkner and other great writers when they were talking about this album, which is pretty remarkable. And yet another aspect of this is probably the song that most people know – one of the cheesiest songs of the 1970s, Captain & Tennille’s ‘Muskrat Love.’ It was called ‘Muskrat Candlelight’ or something on Willis Allen Ramsey’s album, right? 

That’s right. And, you know, I have to draw a line there, you know. Cheese is a subjective determination.

Fair enough. 

It is such a beautiful melody. And as a 10-year-old kid listening to that, that was my song that fall. I just loved that record. And to get to talk to Toni Tennille about that song was an absolute treasure for me. She was so great. I cried twice during the course of the conversation, but I’ll do that.

Lyle Lovett, interesting that he used the word ‘mystery’ to describe Willis Allen Ramsey. What’s a mystery? 

You know, there’s a bunch of them. One is, where’s that second record? But I think for Lyle, the mystery is like Willis has told him repeatedly about things that he hears when he’s listening to music. Some players, they’ll leave the guitar strings long …

On the headstock.

There’s players, performers who will leave the strings long there. Others clip them down. Lyle always used to clip them down. Willis said, ‘stop doing that. It changes the frequency of the strings and it’ll sound a little different,’ Lyle said. ‘I have no idea what he’s talking about. I cannot hear it. But Willis told me to do it that way, so I do it that way.’ If you ever see Lyle and the strings are hanging out, that’s because Willis told him it’ll sound better.

That says something about the impact of Willis Allen Ramsey. And yet here’s the big kahuna, I guess. At the end is that question mark: What about album number two? If this album was so important, so influential to so many singer songwriters, you would think that that second album would have been made a long time ago. 

Yeah, and he’s been working on it, and there’s so many ideas about what it could be or why it’s not out there. The easy answer was that he made this record for Leon Russell. Leon was paying for it, and Leon got the tapes. He’s like, ‘you’ve had a year, you’ve been in five different studios.’

And that’s the thing. He is a perfectionist. He recorded that album in five different studios because he kept not getting what he was hearing in his head. That’s that thing Lyle said about the mystery and what Willis can hear that the rest of us cannot. He’s recording with different musicians in each place, which is one of the real marvels of that record. It should not be as cohesive as it is. It’s five different settings, five different backing groups. Willis will tell you that the key was that the engineer they had was Al Schmitt. And Al Schmitt just engineered everything. He’s the greatest engineer, the most honored, decorated engineer, I think, in rock music history. He made that record sound like it was of a piece.

Leon said ‘it’s time to release it.’ There was nothing Willis could do about that. So that record is out in the world, and it’s not been that way with the fabled second record. And I think, too, to have that much acclaim for something you do when you’re 20 that you wrote when you’re 19 and 18, has got to be a crazy amount of pressure, especially as the 10- year mark became the 20-year mark, became the 30-year mark.

I was thinking about it in the reporting of this story. Brian Wilson walked around for, what, 30 years, 40 years, not having completed ‘Smile,’ and people always wanted to ask about it despite all the other things he had accomplished.

That’s an interesting comparison. You think that Willis Allen Ramsey’s kind of our Brian Wilson? 

Well, it’s good to be alive to get the record out because ‘Smile’ is out there now.

Yeah, that’s true. 

When we went to do the story, the initial thought really was, let’s do a story about this tortured artist who’s been rolling the stone halfway up the hill for 50 years. And then we thought, why would we do that? Partly, why put more pressure on him? But also the first record is great enough that it should be celebrated. It’s also obscure enough that we need to introduce music lovers to this record. People find this record, they fall for it. And there you go.

Clarification: Texas Standard heard from Willis Alan Ramsey after this interview aired and was posted online. He asked that we add the following notes:

"No one at Shelter Records, especially Leon Russell, ever coerced me to release the record. Shelter consistently provided funding for all recording sessions when it was needed, facilitating the orderly production in any way that was required at the time. Ms. Brisbin’s piece implied that I had to be pressured to release it, which is simply not true. Most popular records require a good deal of funding on a timely basis in order to enable a smooth, orderly production process. Since my experience with Shelter, the simple truth is that I've not been able to secure another production deal like that.

One other clarification, Al Schmitt, one of the great, legendary recording engineers, never took part in the recording of the record, although he did bring his considerable talent to bear in the mixing process."