Summer. 1973. Baton Rouge.
I was a year of being earlobe deep into what had come to be known as “progressive country.” It had really started the year before. At least that’s when I became aware of it. Today, with some historical perspective that evaded me at the time, it had been brewing for a little while just a state away over in Texas. This music didn’t come out of Nashville. Fact was, the Texas boys hated Nashville. And Nashville hated them back.
Austin was the place. Dallas, too. Ft. Worth. Houston. El Paso. Amarillo. Texas. All 268,581 square miles of it. 773 miles across. 790 miles long. So many stories. So many guitars and songwriters. And truck drivers. And cowboys. Peer down into the hill country, on into Austin in 1972 where the University of Texas had one of the larger enrollments in the country. I can’t remember, but Ann Arbor, Michigan – home to the University of Michigan – may have been one of the few schools with more students.
But the time was equally important. Not just the place.
Eleven Olympic athletes from Israel were murdered by Arab terrorists in September 1972. We all watched anxiously as Curt Gowdy walked us through the horrible events. If that weren’t bad enough, back in January 5 White House operatives were arrested for burglarizing the offices of the Democratic National Committee the start of the Watergate scandal. That same year up in the Andees Mountains 16 survivors of a plane crash were rescued. Turns out they survived by cannibalism. On a brighter note, the last ground troops withdrew from Viet Nam.
If environment is gravy, then timing is the chicken fried steak. The time was right. I was 16. The time was not just right over in Austin, Texas. It was right for a high schooler in Baton Rouge who had fallen in love with some guy nobody had heard of…Willis Alan Ramsey. In the summer of 1973 I finally got to see him play live. It was a progressive country outdoor festival with the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett (this was well before the Parrothead craze…back when Jimmy was writing terrific stories set to music), B.W. Stevenson and I wish I could remember the others.
In 1973 America – the band – had released their 3rd record. The first track on it was this song – Muskrat Candlelight by Willis Alan Ramsey. I had all 3 of their records. Three years later, in 1976 a group whose music I did not listen to – The Captain & Tenille – recorded it and sadly, their version went higher on the Billboard 100 than either America or Willis. Proof that much of the country were idiots even back in the 70’s. Some things just never change.
I was in a phase like most teenagers endure. Mine was almost always centered around music. Music has provided the clearest timeline of my life. The Beatles broke up in 1970, but I wasn’t a big fan. Instead, I was listening to Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, The Who and Jefferson Airplane. Which is interesting that hard rock preceded my love affair with progressive country. Go figure. I was diverse in my tastes. I still am.
Papa John Creach, the blues violinist for Airplane was about as close as I had come to country music by the time 1972 rolled around. And by the summer (really early fall – September or so) of 1973 I was wearing out the first two records by Poco and Pure Prairie League. Living in a college town myself helped. Over in Austin, they had UT. In Baton Rouge we had LSU. And the two weren’t so different. Two big schools in the south. Two areas of the country where music was a big deal. And when you’ve got a big population of college kids, you’re going to have exposure to great music that isn’t so mainstream.
And like I said, the time was right. With all the stuff going on in the world, it was time for this renegade outlaw brand of country music to take flight. Nashville wanted no part of it. Seems the folks who had made it in Nashville, even the younger stars at the time, didn’t want to risk upsetting the old regime. A story was told about one of the Austin boys going to Nashville for something and he saw an album cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers taped on Ralph Emery’s door (he was a powerful Nashville DJ at the time) with a big red X marked across it and the words, “This is not country music.” I think I read that in Rolling Stone at the time, and being a fan of the Burrito Brothers – and not the traditional twangy country music – I remember thinking, “He’s right. It’s not country music. It’s something better.”
It’d be years later that I’d learn more of the back story of some of the people whose music marked my time as I left high school and entered LSU. Who knew that many years later I’d spend the better part of 20 years running a retail company in Dallas that prominently served the neighborhood where Willis Alan Ramsey grew up – Highland Park, the most affluent part of Dallas. It sort of blew my mind that Willis graduated from a prominent affluent high school. Who’da thunk it?
Dallas wasn’t on my radar in the summer of 1973 as I sat outside watching these guys who had been in my ears for a few years. I knew Willis had come from Dallas, along with B.W. “Buckwheat” Stevenson. Prior to all these Texas cats my only exposure to Texas music really was ZZ Top. They were right there with Led Zepplin for me. In fact, they were higher on my music chart. Tres Hombre was released in 1973 and it was like a jetpack strapped to the backs of all three Houston boys who lived in our cars thanks to 8-track tapes. By the time I was sitting on a blanket avoiding a guy who drank too much, and listening to Jimmy Buffet for the umpteenth time…I was listening to ZZ Top and Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young as much as anything else.
Here’s a footnote. There was a pretty short period of time where I think I went to see Buffett six times straight, even driving over to Lafayette to see him. His early stuff was a big player for me. Then he lost me. But look at all the fortune he made. Good for him. When I first learned about Buffet he was part of Jerry Jeff Walker’s crowd. I had heard Walker was helping him and because LSU was a happening place, Jimmy was in town quite a lot back in those days. He was from Mobile, Alabama so the Gulf Coast was his stompin’ ground. Lyrically, Buffett was top notch.
Gram Parsons was part of those Flying Burrito Brothers. He died just days before one of favorite records was released, Crazy Eyes by Poco. Richie Furay, leader of Poco, was enormous for me. High harmony and I’ve spent hours and hours listening to him. That record – Crazy Eyes – was partly homage to Parsons. The Byrds were bigger than the Burrito Brothers ever could have been, but they were just slightly ahead of the timeline for me. By the fall of 1973 it was all over but the shouting for The Byrds. By then, Texas was ground zero for the stuff that was impacting me – at least the country or folks kind of stuff. Well, that and ZZ Top.
Another Dallas guy, Stevie Ray Vaughn, would come around much later. But this guy from Highland Park, Willis Alan Ramsey, was the guy. I kept his album on the turntable a lot. I know I went through 2 copies of it, buying a 3rd. I won the first one from a local Baton Rouge radio station, WFMF – Loose Radio. I don’t recall how I won it, but I remember they were giving it away…probably some “be the 13th caller” kind of a thing. At any rate, I remember going to the station to get it and rushing home to play it. That was in 1972 when it came out. Here I am a year later watching him play live for the first – and only time of my life.
Outdoor festivals – even if they focus on music that’s really important to you – aren’t the best way to experience such artists as Willis. Not for me, any way. Too much rambunctiousness and nonsense.
We all thought Willis would give us a string of great records. But it never happened. Like so many others, I waited. I was busy listening to other artists. Work. School. A girl. It’s not like I was obsessing, “Willis? Where’s that next record?” But we just never heard anything. And over time it turns out Willis was right in saying, “What’s wrong with the first one?”
Nothing. Nothing at all.
Of the 11 tracks on the record, 8 have been recorded by other artists. Pretty amazing. One man. One record. Forty plus years. It was such a cult draw among those of us who appreciated that type of music, I often thought – “how do you top that?” Surely, Willis must have felt or thought that a million times. When B.W. Stevenson broke through with his hit, My Maria, I read in Rolling Stone how backward and shy he was. Later, I heard how he desperately wanted to make it so he’d record more pop type records hoping to crack the charts. Poor B.W. couldn’t stay true to his roots, but in the summer and fall of 1973 he was. B.W. had recorded what was to be the first airing of Austin City Limits, a TV show featuring great music. That was in 1974. Unfortunately, the recording wasn’t up to par and got ditched. The next night Willie Nelson’s performance was taped and that became the first episode. Makes me wonder what might have been if that recording of Buckwheat had turned out okay. Such is the life of timing and good or bad breaks.
I arrived in Dallas in 1989. A year earlier, we lost Stevenson when he died during a heart surgery. He’d been overweight most of his life. He was only 38. He and Willis were within 2 years of each other in age. Both from Dallas. And in 1973 both were sharing a stage in Baton Rouge filling our ears with — well, okay, it was outdoors so it wasn’t that clear. Even so I was glad to be there.
As I was thinking of today’s show it dawned on me how brief my obsession really was with progressive country. I was 16 or so when it began. And by the time I was 18 it was over. Well, it’s never really ended, but it’s like a kid who will only eat one thing on his plate at a time. The green beans on my plate in those years was this genre of music. Unlike green beans, I wanted to consume this though. And I devoured it. From one man bands like Willis to bigger bands like Poco…I enjoyed the lyrics, the steel guitars, the harmonicas and the harmonies.
The Eagles erupted during this time, too. Their first record was released in 1972. That same year I had found an artist I’d never leave, Jackson Browne. Linda Ronstadt had become mainstream and given rise to some of the southern California evolution. Browne hit my radar while with the Nitty Gritty Dirty Band, another progressive country group I listened to. So you can see it was a boiling pot of great music by the time 1973 hit.
Eagles and Jackson Browne would grow in their musical prowess. Not that the others who survived didn’t, but those two in particular did what few were able to do. If B.W. Stevenson wanted to make pop work, well, it didn’t. Not really. He recorded some crappy songs. Jerry Jeff Walker who has one of the best voices I’ve ever heard never veered from what he was, or ever wanted to be. He did do a jazz type record, but it was so him. Suited him well. Walker never left the Austin music scene. Not bad for a kid born in New York named Ronald Clyde Crosby. Jerry Jeff sounds so much cooler.
Buffett? Well, we all know what turn he took. The boy did good. REAL good. Eagles did real good, too. ZZ Top? Well, they clearly sold out to schick, but I still listen to Tres Hombre pretty regularly. Jackson Browne? I still love his music, but hate his politics. And Late For The Sky is still one of the records I’d take if I could only take 3 with me.
Then there’s Willis. About once a year I go on a scavenger hunt looking to see what he’s up to. For a number of years he was completely out of sight, living in England. At some point he came back and word started filtering through the Texas music scene that another record was going to happen. He lived in Colorado somewhere and was supposedly working in his own studio on it. We all collectively rubbed our hands together in anticipation. But nothing.
Life resumed as normal. Other music filled the air and my ears. About once a month I’d revisit this record and almost always play it multiple times in a row. Every track. Over and over again. Then I’d forget about it for another month. Maybe a bit longer.
Late in September when I lost Rosie, our female White West Highland Terrier, I couldn’t help but think of all the songs that contained her name. One of the first ones that came to mind was a song I’ve already shown you, “Goodbye Old Missoula.” He sings, “I met a girl named Rosie, sweet as she could be. But I guess that Rosie, didn’t have eyes for me.”
That prompted some recent nostalgia with nearly a lifetime love affair with this record and a man I’ve seen perform live just one time. And then not under ideal conditions.
The other day I was on the treadmill at the gym listening to this record and thinking, “I’d sure like to talk to Willis.” For a flash, I considered reaching out, but time and history have shown me he’s not much for talking or sharing. And a collection of 11 songs is all I have to really understand him. Well, that and some wordsmithing done by various music reporters through the years – and some interviews with folks who knew and know him – I’ve got some picture of the man. Is it accurate? I’m not sure, but it’s the story I’ve crafted about him based on what I’ve learned and no doubt what I hope him to be. It’s idealistic for sure. Cause that’s how I prefer to roll.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama…growing up in Dallas, Texas. In Highland Park at that…I listen to the record with wonder at how a kid at 21 can release this kind of record. And how old was he wrote some of these? He doesn’t sound a privileged guy from an affluent neighborhood, does he?
It sparks so many questions, which may be why he’s an enigma. And that may be best.
Willis Alan Ramsey isn’t a one hit wonder. He’s a one album – one remarkable long enduring record – wonder. From Widespread Panic to Lyle Lovett, music folks will talk about how impactful this record is for them.
Such high praise – the record achieved critical praise the moment it was released – so soon. Is it harmful to a career? It can be. Is that what happened? Or did Willis just have these 11 songs that had to come out, and when they were out…he was good with it. Done.
Like Woody Guthrie, I’m just a boy from Oklahoma. Not as impoverished as Guthrie and not likely as well off as Ramsey. No matter. We all come from somewhere. And we’re all headed somewhere. In between we’ve got whatever living there is. There’s love. Falling head over heels for a girl. There’s heartbreak. The struggle to create art (or business, or whatever it is you create). There’s where we’re from and where we feel like home.
For me, it’s here in north central Texas. I’ve been here longer than anywhere. I may be a Sooner football fan, but like the bumper stickers say, “I wasn’t born here, but I got here as fast as I could.” Marrying a Ft. Worth girl helped matters some. As much as I may hate Austin during college football season I love what Austin has done for me musically. And I can’t image life without the progressive country scene that emerged because guys like Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark and others bucked Nashville to do their own thing in their own way.
In an era where some teenage girl can hit a stage with auto-tune and a skimpy wardrobe, I’m pretty thankful that when I was 16 or so this record landed on my turntable. It’s had a home in my head and my heart ever since.
He’s pushing the 50th anniversary of a wrecked life. That’s his description. Not mine.
The line from some comedian leaps into the conversation. “I like to start out slow, then peter out.” That’s how he feels about his life. He was a fast achiever. He peaked by the time he was 7. Second grade was the high-light of his life. Since then he thinks it’s been pretty much downhill, or an uphill push.
Over the course of lengthy, but few conversations he pulls…pulls back the covers to bare the scars. Some may be physical, I don’t know. But those aren’t the ones we talk about. Instead, we talk about an abusive father who regularly abused him – verbally and emotionally. Sure, there was some physical violence, too. It’s interesting that he struggles more with acknowledging the physical abuse than the other. These are the ways of a human mind. We all have history.
His history isn’t one he’s forgotten. Nor is it one he’d rather forget, which seems odd to me.
He’s not telling his stories with a “woe is me” spirit. Complaining isn’t the proper term for what he’s doing. Unloading is the term that comes to my mind. He’s unloading years of the push. Pushing to survive. Pushing to get to whatever the next step may be. Pushing to achieve whatever dreams and goals he once had. It’s easy to see they’re quickly being extinguished. And even a guy like me can understand it even though my life experience is very different.
I’m older by about a decade. But there’s something weird that happens with time and age gaps. They grow closer together, not further apart. You know it’s true. The 30 year old guy who marries the 20 year old girl…by the time he’s 50 and she’s 40 that decade gap doesn’t seem much at all.
We’re close enough in age to share some cultural references like music, TV shows and such. But we’re worlds apart in other ways. Most every other way.
His history is strewn with fractured relationships, broken marriages, long bouts of unemployment, few friends and no family. What seems most strange to me is that he owns it all. I’m fascinated, and sad, that he thinks his poor treatment by ill-equipped, mentally ill (perhaps) and alcoholic parents was his fault. He doesn’t come out and say it that way, but he does talk about how he should have done something different. Or not done other things. I respect anybody willing to own their choices and behavior, but when we’re talking about children — different rules apply.
Sure, he’s a grown man now. An aging man. But that’s not where the push started. It started before he entered school.
Parents displayed no affection. Just a bunch of hollering and yelling. Sometimes devolving into throwing things. Always berating him and what he was doing or had done wrong.
School just added to the push. One more pile of weight he was expected to push. Alone. No shock he struggled to get it done. A lot more failure followed confirming what everybody told him – “you’re a loser.” Today he recalls nearly 5 decades of life by admitting it. Confessing it, really.
Listening to him talk about it all he recollects choices he now knows were foolish. Wisdom escaped him because he acknowledges he “never learned how to exercise wisdom.” Life has mostly been one foolish decision followed by another one.
He wonders if it’s in his DNA. Who can blame him? I’m not smart enough to know if there’s validity to such a thought, but I know we all have the power of choice…even if we have to push against our DNA. That’s a push he never took on. It’s one he now wishes he’d figured out sooner. I encourage him to start now…there’s still time.
“Time for what?” he asks.
“I don’t know. For whatever you hope for now,” I reply.
Hope left long ago. Pushed out by all the adversity and failure. His situation does seem desperate to me, but my life is so very different. I’m like the proverbial man with no shoes who feels suddenly better when he runs across a man without feet. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.
I don’t feel guilty about my advantages – growing up very middle class. Back when there was a middle class in America. I’ve lived most of my life being upper middle class. Well, it felt like that, but the older I grow the more I realize I’m among blessed company. Advantaged. Two parents who are still together after more than six decades together. A wife whose been by my side for almost 40 years. Two grown kids with families of their own. Five grandkids, all healthy and mostly happy, until they don’t get their way (which happens often thanks to their parents who are trying to teach them discipline and self-control). A lifetime spent mostly in leadership roles in business. My life looks nothing like his and I can’t help but consider the phrase, “But there by the grace of God.”
He hasn’t lost the desire to push. Energy isn’t so much the problem as direction. More than once I use a phrase I’ve used before – one I first heard from a mentor who is more than 15 years my senior. He’s “trying to outrun his past.” It always reminds me of a book I read when I was a kid. “My Shadow Ran Fast” by Bill Sands. Shadows do run fast and we can push hard to catch them in an effort to outrun them. This man has failed, but no matter how good the company — it’s still not fun. Wrecked live never are.
Mostly I listen. Occasionally I scatter in some cheerleading, encouraging him to keep pushing, but in a direction that can serve his character. He’s not a bad guy. He’s really a good guy guilty of bad choices. I feel I’m smart enough – and wise enough – to distinguish between the two.
The conversation goes to expectations, accountability and always includes the main topic of this website…WISDOM. Richard Pryor, playing the role of Hambone (an old man) once said, “You don’t get to be old bein’ no fool.” Well, that sounds good, but it’s untrue. There are plenty of old fools roaming around. Young ones, too. Young fools who don’t learn or who get stuck tend to become old fools if they live long enough. He’s lived long enough to consider himself an old or “aging” fool.
I tell him it’s time to change all that. Time to get unstuck. Time to push in a different direction. Time to establish some new habits, new standards and new choices. It’s not therapy, but it is therapeutic. I keep urging him to alter how he thinks and how he sees things. It’s like asking somebody to “be different.” Sounds exactly like what he needs and wants. But how?
When you’re pushing 50 and you’ve got not much else to lose, it helps. The bottom provides a place from which you can push harder in a different direction. It’s like having your back up against a solid concrete wall. You can push knowing the wall isn’t going anywhere…which means you’re going to move forward. It can’t be helped. Physics or something.
I try to shake him, but not too hard. Just enough to alter his thought process and choices. Like distracting a child pitching a fit…anything to snap him out of it. I lean hard on the fact that most everything he’s tried so far hasn’t worked. “What have you got to lose?” I ask. No argument. For good reason. He knows I’m right.
We focus on the good news. He’s not bitter. About anything. Regretful? Sure. He’s sad about the broken marriages and that he’s alone today. But he knows what he should have done better — what he could have done differently. He also knows he didn’t do a great job of selecting the right women. The boy he once was never learned how to select a wife, much less live with one. What do you do when the things many of us take for granted aren’t part of your raising?
I think of my wife. And my grown son and daughter. I think of my five grandchildren. And my own failings as a man, a husband, a father and now a grandfather.
Just yesterday I heard about an interview Tiger Woods gave recently. He was asked about what he’d do differently at this stage of his life. He said there’s only one thing he’d do differently. Let your imagination run wild thinking of what one thing he might change. You’ll be disappointed. That’s not what he said.
No, Tiger Woods said the only thing he’d do differently is he’d have stayed at Stanford one more year. That’s it.
Proof that talent and wealth won’t get you wisdom. Foolishness is a habit. And that’s the point. Tiger isn’t so different than the almost 50 year old wreck. A lifetime of habits are hard to break. Except this guy is wiser than Tiger because he’s got regrets. Suitable regrets. The kind he should have. And they don’t have anything to do with college. They involve his behavior and the people who have entered and exited his life. Sure, he regrets some circumstances, but knows – logically, at least – that he wasn’t the cause of those when he was a child. Life happens. Sometimes it’s good. Other times, not so much. He didn’t get a very good first hand. Sadly, he never learned to leverage that bad hand into any more than a long string of more bad hands.
I urged him to fold, stand up and walk away from the table. Time to find a new game. Clear your head. Forget your losses ’cause you’ll never gain by focusing on them. Instead, get into a game that fits your talents and desires. Mostly, find one that you can win – more often than not.
It starts with pushing away from a table you’ve been sitting at your whole life. That’s hard. I suppose. The devil you know is more comfortable than the one you don’t. But that’s fool’s gold and I tell him, “You’re no fool, so don’t act like one.” I told you I was a cheerleader.
What’s your push? We’ve all got one. Or a million. Much of it negative – the stuff from which we need to push ourselves away. Much of it positive – the stuff to which we aspire to acquire or accomplish. For all of us it involves pushing away from the past by learning what we can, turning loose of the stuff that teaches us nothing (but might encourage bitterness) and pushing harder toward a better life. A better us. Better choices. Better behaviors. Better outcomes.
Fifty isn’t too old to start over. Come to think of it, if you’re alive at any age it’s not too late. It may mean you have to push harder, faster ’cause you’re running out of time, but as long as you’re making progress…does it really matter if you reach whatever goal you’ve fixed? Probably not. ‘Cause we all know the goal reached is never enough anyway. The push is the process. It’s our life.
A fictionalized account of real, sorta real and completely fabricated events and people