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|Following the Songs: Bo Ramsey, March 21 at the Redstone Room|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Wednesday, 12 March 2008 02:44|
If you're a fan of Bo Ramsey - the Iowa-based guitarist and producer - you take what you can get in terms of records bearing his name.
Before 2006's blues-cover record Stranger Blues, his last album was 1997's In the Weeds.
So the rootsy Fragile, which Ramsey will release on his own label on April 8, is something of a surprise, coming just a few years after his last CD. The album was something of a surprise to Ramsey, too.
When he finished Stranger Blues, "part of me said, ‘Well, that's probably the last record I'll make,'" he recalled in an interview last week. "Well, it wasn't."
Ramsey - who will perform at the Redstone Room on March 21 - doesn't need to write his own stuff and record it. He's produced and performed on records for Lucinda Williams (including the Grammy-nominated Essence) and has regularly worked with Iowa legend Greg Brown and his daughter, Pieta Brown - who is now married to Ramsey. As he said of the period between In the Weeds and his new album, "I worked on a lot of records during that time. ...
"I'm not a songwriter like Greg Brown or Pieta Brown," he said. "Songwriting is something I've worked at, and I'm not a natural-born songwriter. I feel like I'm a natural-born musician. ...
"I have to play the guitar and I have to make music to keep me sane. And writing is the same thing for them [Greg and Pieta Brown and Lucinda Williams], and it's not for me."
So the last four songs on Fragile are leftovers, and not fresh ones. "I had a few songs laying around that I hadn't recorded, that I wrote just before I went out with Lucinda Williams back in around 2000," he said. He wanted decent recordings of them, and he realized, "If I could maybe write a few songs, I might have a record," he said.
All of the six new proper songs were co-written with Pieta Brown, and Ramsey said the collaboration "wasn't forced or planned."
He described the process behind the album opener, "Can't Sleep" - the last thing written for Fragile. He played a bit for Brown, and she walked out of the room without a word, Ramsey said. She returned a few minutes later with two verses written, and the whole song came together in 15 minutes, he said.
"Now we know we can do that," Ramsey said. "So hopefully we'll do that some more. I enjoy collaborating."
Fragile is mostly hushed and spare, and it treads cautiously - restrained but not uncertain. On "Can't Sleep," Ramsey's guitar only steps into the spotlight when absolutely necessary - a dusty moan in the chorus and then a gleaming spike of longing for the solo.
His grizzled voice typically sounds like an afterthought - secondary to the tune and to Ramsey's well-spoken guitar - but the words are well-chosen. When he nearly whispers "You are a pipe dream" and "You are whatever" and "You are a pink casino" and "You are et cetera" on "Dreamland," the elliptical words carry a great weight, and force you to listen more closely, to both the lyrics and the guitar background painted with extraordinarily fine detail.
For somebody best known as an expert guitarist, Ramsey pays inordinate attention to the song and the treatment.
He noted that Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" is immutable. "He always plays that song exactly the way he recorded it," Ramsey said. "It's so perfectly written and arranged and recorded, why would you want to do anything else with it? It's perfect." (Petty gets a tribute of sorts on Fragile's title track, with its vocal whine and pop sensibilities.)
On this record, Ramsey said, "And I Wonder" hasn't changed much since he first recorded it in demo form in the 1980s. "I pretty much did the same thing," he said. "I approached it exactly the same way. ... And I have actually kind of messed with that song, just to see if it wanted to go anywhere else."
"I Don't Know," on the other hand, started "up-tempo" and "rocking" but found new life in the easy-going, fatigued version on Fragile. The new recording, Ramsey said, is "just a much more intimate version, and kind of got at a whole different emotion that the song contains. You really don't even know until you explore those possibilities.
"Some songs just say, ‘This is the way I am, and this is the way I want to be played, and that's it. Over and out.' And then there's other songs that are just mysterious, and there's more to them. There's some songs that can take anything. You can throw anything at them, and they'll accept it.
"It's the nature of songs. Songs are living things, and if you listen closely, they'll tell you what to do. And some of them are really just wide open."
Bo Ramsey will perform on Friday, March 21, at the Redstone Room in downtown Davenport. The show starts at 9 p.m., and tickets are $12. For more information, visit (http://www.redstoneroom.com).
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