Bo Ramsey: Breath of the Cool
Photo by Dan Welk
“Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them – if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.” – the teacher Antolini to the student Holden.
When describing a man so bereft of embellishment, it is of good instinct to follow suit. One such man, Robert Franklin “Bo” Ramsey, is an artistic embodiment of Roosevelt’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far” ethic. For this consummate journeyman, the proverb has proven far more than rhetoric; commanding yet supportive, his presence can turn the supple to steel, and back again.
Born the same year Salinger offered us Catcher in the Rye, Ramsey has been both student and master during his journey into the roots, tragedies and joys of America’s musical forms. As a musician, his reputation is that of an uncommon artisan, who can part a song’s sea with one note. As a producer, he milks the distance between souvenir and statement until both are as one. To say these things is not to embellish, but to be factual. He is ornamental with sincerity, and he provides gravity without heavy hands. In conversation, his use of words such as ‘real’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘natural’ ring and repeat like ragas droning onward towards climax; often he accentuates the key word when unfurling his thoughts, again for climactic effect.
Much like the ronin that Mifune brought to life for Kurosawa, Bo Ramsey has been masterless for most of his career, yet remains bound in service to those closest to him. His first taste of musical brotherhood came during his nearly five years in the Mother Blues Band. Friends made during those years would prove to be brothers-in-arms for the rest of his life, including guitarist Joe Price and Patrick Hazell, the band’s co-founder, pianist and driving force; drummer Steve Hayes continues to drum alongside Ramsey to this day.
Leaving one band to form another, Ramsey started his own Backsliders, which included songwriter/guitarist Kevin Gordon at one point. As is often the case, the road started to leave Ramsey in disrepair, so he wound up working outside the craft for a while in the mid to late 80’s. In 1989, he began his most fruitful relationship, with legendary folk artist Greg Brown, one that continues to this day.
Then came the 90’s, where his work would land him in Lucinda Williams’entourage. Williams, the diva darling of the alt. country rodeo, stumbled across Ramsey’s sound half a world away at just the right time. Ramsey would provide taste and touch to her Grammy-winning smash hit Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (1998), followed by co-production on 2001’s Essence. The album featured his signature tremolo and spaciousness behind Williams’ Grammy victory for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.
Departing from Williams’ band, he would step into the life of Pieta Brown, daughter of Greg, and a righteously talented singer/songwriter herself. Partners on and off stage, Bo and Pieta make for a potent dynamic, as evidenced by their summer stint opening Mark Knopfler’s American tour, then flying into Hoyas del Espino, Spain to help close his world tour in August.
Ramsey’s resume is stocked with interesting projects, a sampling of which includes work with indie sweetheart Ani Difranco, revered songstress Iris Dement, southwestern rockers Calexico, and international award-winning singer/songwriter Chad Elliott. Indeed, his resume is full of beautiful, reciprocal arrangements. But it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.
BF: You and Pieta Brown just opened the North American leg of Mark Knopfler’s tour. Was Mark familiar with Pieta and you beforehand?
BR: I don’t really know. There were a lot of submissions and he chose her, which was very complimentary to her. I work on her records, so I’m guessing he was somewhat familiar with my work. I don’t know, I didn’t ask. I do know that he chose her to open the shows for him.
BF: What was the experience like? What’s an average conversation like between Mark Knopfler and Bo Ramsey, for instance?
BR: There was a lot of conversation. Daily. It was very normal...
BF: People tend to forget that their heroes are just normal people.
BR: Right. He’s a great musician that we all know about. But he’s really a terrific human being, and just cool. We did a lot of hanging out and talking. We talked about the kids and family, we talked about music, we talked about guitars and amplifiers. [Just a] normal kind of conversation between a couple of guitar players, you know?
It was a pure pleasure doing the shows with Mark Knopfler and his band. Truly inspirational, high-level stuff, across the board. One thing I learned listening to Mark is that he is not only a great singer/songwriter and musician, but also a great composer.
BF: Let’s go back to your beginnings, which was the blues. You are from Burlington, Iowa, which is fairly rural. Your father was a guitar player, but when did the interest come to you?
BR: The interest came from listening to music. The music that I heard back then was Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and then, of course, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, that whole thing. I was just in junior high school, so I got caught up in all of that. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix…. it was a very explosive time, very powerful, musically.
All of that stuff was on AM radio. You would hear Marvin Gaye, and then you would hear Bob Dylan, and then you would hear the Rolling Stones. It was a terrific time to be a part of. I heard that stuff and it was very powerful. It moved me to pick up the guitar. My dad had this guitar laying around. He had since quit playing, but I picked up that guitar and started banging on it. I was probably sixteen or seventeen.
BF: So in some ways, you actually started as an adult.
BR: And actually I did. I was just goofing around then, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I remember trying to pick out “Folsom Prison Blues”- Johnny Cash with Luther Perkins on the guitar, [doing] that low down thing.
And then I tried playing Bob Dylan songs, stuff like that. I was always moved by all that was going on around me. And then I got to be in college and about twenty years old, that’s when I really discovered blues music and that really had a big impact on me. That got me really playing, really thinking about the guitar and music more seriously.
BF: Was there someone in your life who was influential in that time, or was it just around and it caught your ear?
BR: Yeah, just hanging around. Everybody was listening to music, playing records, and it was the center of social activities. Like, “Hey, let’s listen to this record”, and we’d sit down and listen to a record. I remember going over to a guy’s place and he put a Muddy Waters record on, and I just remember standing there, looking down at the record going around, and I couldn’t believe the sound coming out of it. And I thought “Oh my God, what was that?” I almost didn’t know if I liked it, you know? It was so kind of…
BR: Yeah, it was different and it was very striking. And then, you know, it wasn’t too long before I couldn’t get enough of it.
BF: Then, between 1974 and 1978, you were in the Mother Blues Band. Once you joined the band, (guitarist) Joe Price and (pianist) Pat Hazell helped develop your love for the blues and you seemed to grow up together.
BF: Post-Woodstock, what was it like to be a group of predominantly white guys doing an urban music in the heartland of America?
BR: Well, it seemed all very natural, working with Pat Hazell and Joe Price. Joe Price was deeply into the country blues, like Son House, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, that whole kind of thing. And then Pat Hazell brought a really kind of wide [perspective] to things, being into blues and then also free-form jazz.
Those two guys are definitely two of my main influences. It was just a wonderful time and really wide open. Pat Hazell had a rehearsal space, and sometimes we would play for hours on end, and sometimes not even name a key- just play. You just don’t hear that [today]... I mean, the jamband thing, maybe I can relate to, because that’s what we did back then. I mean we would just jam for hours on end, for days on end.
BF: That’s the same way the Allman Brothers started, what you just described. A very communal thing.
BR: Absolutely. It was all about the music. It was all very natural. Blues music was kind of a common ground, it was a place for us to start, to kind of build on. And it made sense to me. So, we loved that music and we played it in a kind of way we wanted to.
BF: Moving forty years forward, the music industry and narrow-minded ‘fans’ have put labels and boundaries into place regarding ‘the blues’. Back then, it seems as though there wasn’t as much segregation between styles, and I don’t think people can’t easily grasp that.
BR: I consider myself a musician. Music is a big, wide, beautiful place, and that’s my deal. I’m not a businessman, so labels, that’s someone else’s deal. But we got into that music because we loved it, and we loved it deeply, and still do. It’s still a constant source of inspiration for me. And we started to write songs, kind of individually and together, and it was all kind of based on that. Kind of like, let’s say, The Rolling Stones. They started out playing Muddy Waters songs, Bo Diddley songs, and then they started to write songs, and they all kind of came out of that place. And then you had ‘The Rolling Stones.’
The music, I think, that stands the test of time- Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers- there’s blues in it. Miles Davis… it doesn’t matter what category. These are real musicians, so they’re open to a lot of things, and I think that blues is essential to great music.
BF: You saw both Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in the flesh- did the blues lose something along the way, perhaps once the music went to Britain and the British rock bands sold us back the blues?
BR: I think that whole British thing was cool, you know? These guys loved that music, just like I did. The fact that they started playing it, and reintroduced it to that generation of listeners, was a beautiful thing, because that music is important.
I think just being open and doing your homework is important. It’s important to be aware of what came before you. And I think there’s a lot of great stuff that came before us [laughs]... like, really good. I always say that I try and keep one ear listening to things that came before me, and then I have an ear open to things now. I try and keep my ears wide open, and I love all kinds of music. But I think that blues thing… it’s just real. It’s real people singing about real life. It’s essential and fundamental.
It’s like… we should stop and think about tearing down a building that’s been there for a long, long time, [and then] you put up a piece of crap. You should really stop and really think about it. It’s kind of like that with music. You should pay attention and listen to what came before.