American Routes Shortcuts: Willis Alan Ramsey
Songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey came from Alabama via Dallas and had been a student at the University of Texas. Willis was a dashing but mellow figure in a rumpled cowboy hat who made memorable songs like “Muskrat Love,” “Northeast Texas Women,” and “Ballad of Spider John,” all of which were on a 1972 LP just called Willis Alan Ramsey. This interview in 2003, by then 30 years later, reminds me that Ramsey is known as much for not having made another recording in the intervening years as having made the one he did.
Willis Alan Ramsey: Well I got in a little folk trio with a friend of mine who was a writer. It seemed like every time he would play a song or it would be a song that he would lead, he’d go, “And here’s anther song I wrote.” After a while, the element of intimidation took over, and I decided if I wanted to keep up in front of the audiences and whatever and have at least a few of the girls looking at me every once in a while that I should play a song that I wrote.
Nick Spitzer: Maybe you can get me from the folk trio with the bourgeoning songwriting to Austin, coming to Austin, getting involved in the scene here in the ‘70s.
WAR: Well when I graduated from high school in Dallas just as quickly as possible, I wanted to get out of town so I ended up going to school here at UT, and there was sort of a folk scene that was fairly well established by that time. Janis Joplin had been discovered here, you had guys like Jerry Jeff, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, and it just totally blew me away because it was right about the time I was starting to get interested in roots oriented people like Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson. Everything seemed to indicate a green light for maybe thinking about playing music. Woody basically just sort of gave any artist permission to say whatever they felt and to do it in any manner of art form that they felt like. I think he was really one of the first true multi-media artists if you will because he wrote poems, he wrote essays, he wrote letters to Congress–
NS: He did radio.
WAR: Exactly. There seemed to be that same sort of feeling about Austin and this area in Central Texas.
NS: Who is Spider John?
WAR: Spider John is a guy that picked me up one time when I was hitchhiking from Memphis ultimately to Washington, D.C. Sort of this dodgy character that was a drug dealer and obviously sort of a shady sort of fellow. I have no idea who he is, but I patterned it off of this guy who gave me a ride, and it’s all in the song.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.