Notable this week are poor Tennille and poor creepy the Captain, getting divorced after “Love Will Keep Us Together” and 39 years of marriage, under somewhat mysterious circumstances that may have something to do with health benefits for Captain Daryl Dragon, who reportedly has Parkinson’s. I’m not about to suggest you revisit their catalog—I’m sure it’s as skin-crawlingly smarmy as my teenaged self judged back in the day.
But some of the tossed off punch lines—“No muskrat love left for Captain & Tennille”, “It’s a sad day for muskrats”—did send me back to the source of their loathsome cover: Willis Alan Ramsey’s self-titled debut from 1972, still after all these years his only recording in spite of continued (intermittently continued) performing and a slew of covers from the album, included one by the aforementioned divorcees.
If Ramsey is partly responsible for his virtual anonymity these days, there’s still something peculiar about how far off the map he is. Leon Russell was at his peak notoriety when he produced and released Willis Alan Ramsey on Shelter, and I recall the album as a semi-staple on WABB-FM in Mobile AL while growing up. And yet Robert Christgau, who by admission and action was listening to every rock-oriented record that came along in those days, never mentioned it.
But the album did resonate with a certain crowd. There’s the Captain & Tennille, who took a retitled version of Ramsey’s “Muskrat Candlelight” up the charts in 1976 (el-lay bland-rock scions America got to it even earlier). More to the point, pre-“Margaritaville” Jimmy Buffett visited “The Ballad of Spider John”, after which a rogue’s gallery of alt-country forebears (Waylon, Jerry Jeff Walker, Shawn Colvin, Jimmy Dale Gilmore) snatched up tunes off Ramsey’s debut for their own purposes. (Ramsey’s biggest payday is a co-writing credit on one of the few songs of his that have surfaced since the debut, Lyle Lovett’s version of “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)”).
But the album disappeared along with Ramsey, who has moved around (including a stint in England studying early folk music forms) without ever finishing a long-threatened follow up album. Only briefly available on CD (now going for a mint you-know-where), those few who remember the debut do so fondly—Tom Moon included it among the 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die in 2008.
And fondly is about right. Willis Alan Ramsey encompasses a panoply of American song forms served with a Texas twist, plus a unique guitar style, scat singing, a wry sense of humor (the Lovett connection is no accident), and precision songwriting. Not to overstate the matter, but if Gram Parsons is the foundation of country rock, then Ramsey’s debut is one of the threads that became alt-country. It’s jaunty (“Northeast Texas Women”), poignant (“Goodbye Old Missoula”), better than Dylan even (Ramsey’s Guthrie tribute “Boy From Oklahoma”). Heck, I like “Muskrat Candlelight”.