April 9, 2003, Wednesday
THE ARTS/CULTURAL DESK
IN PERFORMANCE: POP; Southern Manners and Myths, With Sarcasm and Romance
By BEN RATLIFF
Willis Alan Ramsey
The Texas singer-songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey is in the middle of a little tour, which seems inexplicable. He released one self-titled record in 1972, and has been mostly silent since: no more albums, few performances, few new writing credits. But that one album, released on CD a few years ago, continues its slow-burning life, with its motley instrumentation (including accordion, vibraphone and cello), its folkish, post-honky-tonk Southern mood and its enclosed cosmos of small-time characters (some of them small animals). The record's list of enthusiasts includes Lyle Lovett and Shawn Colvin.
Back then, Mr. Ramsey's songs had a bit in common with those of contemporaries like Leon Russell and the young Elton John. He made his voice sound like Ray Charles, connected blues and folk and worked out a sardonic-romantic attitude toward Southern manners and mythology.
But his cozy, orderly, tiny-detail songs expressed a willful turnabout from hippie chaos, a visceral reaction particular to the early 1970's. They are sweet, emotionally guarded and often musically complex, fitting strains of melody together that seem as if they ought not connect, expertly using rhythmic displacement as the words and chords unspool.
On Sunday night he played alone, with only his guitar. With a deeper, froggier voice that accurately hit falsetto notes and with precise, finger-picking rhythm, anchored by the strict tapping of his shoe on the microphone's metal base, he performed most of the old album and some new songs that bear similar literary marks.
''Mockingbird Blues'' was an allegory about Southern gossip; ''Mr. Lemon'' was a bar-stool monologue from a man who can't understand women. ''Boys' Town'' fulfilled a tough assignment: distilling the pathos in a picture of young Texas men on a trip to Mexican brothels. (There have long been rumors about the making of a second album; at the moment they seem more substantiated.)
The old songs have aged well: they're stocked with carefully rendered lines and carry no fat on the bone.
''Spider John'' describes a petty thief who mostly shakes down himself: ''I was a supermarket fool/I was a motorbike stool-pigeon/ robbing my home town.''
''Northeast Texas Women'' admonishes a friend to waste no time in finding a Texan with ''kisses sweeter than cactus.'' And the love song ''Angel Eyes,'' then as now, is a mule kick to the emotions. Perfection is terrifying, and some of these songs felt spooky. BEN RATLIFF
Published: 04 - 09 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 3 , Page 3