Bo Ramsey: Breath of the Cool
BF: One of your greatest joys must be playing with Pieta Brown, who is also your wife. How special is it to share your life and your work with the same person, much like Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, or Buddy & Julie Miller?
BR: Oh my God… I can hardly put words on that. The thing with Pieta and I is that we have a deep musical connection. We love a lot of the same music, and we have a similar kind of sensibility, so therefore, we work really well together. It’s [the same] with Greg Brown. There again, we are on the same page. We understand each other, we love a lot of the same music, communicate well. There’s a deep connection.
With Lucinda, there was a deep connection, the music brought us together, and there’s a real similar thing with Pieta. She’s a great artist and we have a deep connection. Like Joe Price and I- we have a deep connection. Steve Hayes, a drummer that I’ve worked with for thirty years, we have a deep connection.
It’s like that “chemistry” thing, I love hearing “chemistry”. I just did the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and Jorma Kaukonen was there with Jack Casady. This was the first time I’d heard them live, and to hear that chemistry was just beautiful. Or you listen to the Rolling Stones, and it’s that band. Or U2- I’m not a huge fan of that music, but I’m a big fan of that chemistry. It’s like these guys together are greater than the sum of the parts. I love that. That’s what it is with Pieta, or Joe Price or Lucinda Williams- whoever the people are that I’ve come in contact with and connected with deeply, musically.
BF: You brought up Greg Brown. In 1989, you co-produced and played guitar on Greg’s One Big Town, which marked a new beginning in music for you. Around that time you were also working a factory job. What was that time in your life like?
BR: I did [the factory job] for the music. I was never out; it was something I had to do to stay in it. I wanted to pull myself back as far as I could. A band I was in had dissolved, and I thought “I have to get clear of this”. And I went to work in a factory. I knew I was going to walk out of there. It was thirteen months later. I didn’t think it would be that long [laughs].
I did that very purposefully. I needed to recharge my batteries, and I needed to get a different angle on [things]. And I just needed to get with my wife. I was married at the time and had a kid, and I just needed to get centered. I knew it was an important time just for myself, and my family at the time. I just knew I had to take a real break and get my feet square on the ground.
So, it was about that time that I heard Greg on the radio. I remember that I was thinking about him, and I turned the radio on, and on this frickin’ thing… there he was, and I thought, “Oh my God.” I was just thinking about him and his music. I didn’t really know him at the time. I was driving and thinking about him, and then I turned on the radio and there he was. I didn’t change the channel or anything.
I didn’t think I could take his songs to a different level or anything like that. I just thought that maybe his songs could potentially have a wider sonic scope. I did think that maybe I could bring something to this. I didn’t think anything about the results of that. I didn’t know anything. All I knew was that this guy was really good, and he was speaking to me.
I remember walking into The Mill [a favorite Iowa City haunt for roots, folk and jamband music afficionados] years ago and I didn’t know who was playing. I asked someone and they said “Oh, that’s Greg Brown” and he was up there and had his head down, and wasn’t even looking at the crowd, and I thought “I could play with that guy”. You could just hear it in the music.
So, it was just speaking to me from a distance. I went and I called him up. He was aware of me, but we didn’t know each other, ‘cause we ran in different circles. I was a band guy, he was a folk guy, but we eventually hooked up, and it’s been an amazing relationship.
BF: What has Greg brought to you as an artist?
BR: [laughs] He’s just the real deal. He’s one of America’s finest songwriters, no questions about it. He’s taught me so much, it’s amazing. For one thing, every time I take the stage with him, from back then ‘til today, it’s a challenge playing with him, ‘cause you don’t know what’s coming. Ever [laughs]... it’s hard to talk about all this stuff, but he’s such a good musician. When you hear people talk about Greg Brown, they talk about his songwriting. But he’s an incredible musician.
BF: For musicians who truly love the fingerstyle tradition, he is amazing.
BR: Check it out, man. To this day, I stand on the right side of him so I can look at that left hand. And even then, he’ll play chord shapes- like, he’ll play a D, and I’ll go “What is that?” Well, it’s a D chord, and it does not look like your traditional D chord. And he’s constantly challenging me. Therefore, I’ve grown so much as a player from playing with Greg Brown. It’s just been an education, and continues to be.
His wealth of knowledge is staggering. It’s stunning. Stunning. Not only the amount of songs he’s written, which is staggering, but the amount of songs that he knows is unbelievable. It never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes, we’ll be on stage and he’ll do a song that I’ve never heard him do- ever, and I’ve been working with him for twenty plus years. I don’t know if he has like a photographic memory, but he can hear something, and he just [remembers it perfectly].
I met Bob Dylan, and I played music with him, for one day, all day long. And I remember when I came away from that day with Bob, we played a lot of songs. Not just Bob Dylan songs, but a lot of songs I’d never even heard before. And he sang every word. At one point, we sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, and he sang every verse. I don’t know how many verses are in that song, but there’s a lot- maybe fifteen, and he sang every one of them. And I just know that there’s a whole lot more that we didn’t do.
And I came away from that and I thought to myself that the only other person I can even put in that league, just as far as knowledge, is Greg Brown.
BF: That’s mighty high praise. Let’s talk about your own guitar style, particularly your slide playing. Outside of the well-known blues legends, I can pick out George Harrison. Who else comes through?
BR: For slide guitar playing? Joe Price. I remember way back when I first met Joe, he was playing slide, and I wouldn’t even attempt it. So Joe turned me on to open-tuning the guitar, putting the slide on, and fundamentally what you could do. Joe is an inspiration for me, since day one ‘til this day. [He’s] unbelievable, man, and I think he’s great. He was a constant source of inspiration for me, and still is. Joe and I talk on the phone for hours. We try not to go on too much, ‘cause it’ll run my phone bill up, but Joe is a really big influence and introduced me to slide guitar. I owe a lot to him.
Muddy Waters. Robert Nighthawk- I thought he had such a beautiful touch. Mick Taylor.
BF: That’s a great pick.
BR: Just his vibrato… his voice… just beautiful. George Harrison; it’s just so him. You hear George Harrison play slide, you know it’s George Harrison. It’s beautiful man, it’s so unique, his choice of notes, just brilliant. There’s a guy, a dear friend of mine, name Kelly Joe Phelps. He’s not even playing slide anymore- I don’t understand it, but it’s true. One of the very best slide guitarists I’ve ever heard. Played it in his lap, but truly a beautiful player. Very musical, very inventive choice of notes, stunningly beautiful. There’s a couple of slide solos on my record, In The Weeds, that Kelly played. One of ‘em is on a song called “Precious” and the other is called “King of Clubs”, and that’s Kelly Jo Phelps playing the little solos. Beautiful work. Also, Blind Willie Johnson, Earl Hooker, David Lindley and Mississippi Fred McDowell are influences.
And then, you know what… I remember being really touched by Wayne Shorter. I saw Weather Report one time in Iowa City. I remember they came out and it was so loud. Years later, I played that stage, and understood that it was an extremely sensitive stage. I played through a little bitty amp on like, 2, and it worked. I think it was built for acoustic music or theatre. But electric instruments in there is an extremely delicate thing. But I remember Weather Report in there and they overplayed it. During that performance, each guy did a solo section, in the band with Jaco Pastorius, they took a turn by themselves playing and they each did their thing.
And then Wayne Shorter did his thing, and the first thing he did was walk away from the microphone and he just ‘sang’ his solo into the mic. He was ten feet away from any mic, and I was so struck by that. I thought to myself that this was a serious musician here. And then I began to listen to him. I remember hearing a Joni Mitchell record and Wayne Shorter was a guest artist on that record. He took a solo on a song- I don’t remember which album or song right now, but it was so beautifully played. His choice of notes [was] very economical. This guy can play anything, but in this solo, there weren’t many notes, and they were so beautifully played. Talk about “serving the song”- it all goes back to that. But I remember being really influenced by hearing Wayne Shorter. His taste, sense of economy, serving the song, and his choice of notes.
You hear people talk about a song or a solo- “there’s a beginning, a middle and an end.”- about making a statement. But then you hear Andy Summers who would do these anti-solos. There’d be a solo section and there’s just like a sound that just goes [on]. And it’s perfect; there was just a sound, and it worked. So I thought, “OK, there’s a lot of ways to work at this.” We should think about this, and not just blow a whole bunch of notes. Think about it. Stop and listen. I think with Wayne Shorter doing that, that night, I thought that [he] was really listening. He pulled away from the microphone in order to listen to the room. By doing that, he played ‘music’ to the people in that space. I’ll never forget it.