Repetition and monotony aren’t necessarily the same thing. Monotony is always tedious; repetition, however, accounts for some of life’s most moving experiences. Whether it’s dancing, daily meditation or good sex — or, for that matter, a committed long-term relationship — there’s no substitute for abandoning oneself to a deep, abiding groove.
Judging by the vamping guitar and stark, brooding vocals on his new album, Bo Ramsey believes in the power of the groove. “The groove is the source,” the Iowa native explains. “Without it, music lays there and doesn’t move; songs are just words on paper, and that doesn’t do anything for me.”
Holding forth on the transformative power of the groove, Ramsey sounds a lot like Elvis during the Sun Sessions when, halting “Milkcow Blues Boogie” mid-take, he says, “Hold it fellas, that don’t move me. Let’s get real, real gone for a change.”
Even so, it wasn’t ’50s rockabilly that first moved Ramsey, but rather the spine-chilling blues recorded that same decade at Chess Studios in Chicago. “The records of Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson,” Ramsey begins, “that’s the music that moved me to play — to seriously play. And that’s the music that continues to move me.”
The reverb-laden Chess sound shapes the overall tone of In The Weeds, which came out locally this fall on Trailer Records (a label Ramsey co-owns) and is due for a national release in February on Red House Records. It’s there in the fidgety guitar obligato of “Precious”, in the John Lee Hooker-inspired “Sidetrack Lounge”, and in the haunting “Big Bill”. Set in the dead of night, the last of these finds Ramsey, his vocals preternaturally deep, conjuring the ghost of Big Bill Broonzy from some forsaken radio.
As a songwriter, Ramsey’s primary focus has always been rhythmic rather than verbal. “Writing lyrics is something I’ve just kind of hacked away at,” he admits, citing fellow Iowan Greg Brown, for whom he works as a guitarist and co-producer, as a major influence. “Greg Brown is a songwriter — natural-born,” Ramsey continues. “I’m not that way. After listening to Greg, and to people like Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, I have a tremendous appreciation for the power of the word.”
This fascination with language, especially its grooveful possibilities, is evident in the following passage from “Precious”: “All them nights on the waterfront shakin’ it down/Ride the pink pony close to the ground/You dig down deep, you really go, go, go/Like Mr. J.B. on The T.A.M.I. Show.”
Ramsey also counts Lucinda Williams, who in 1994 invited him on a solo acoustic tour that also featured Steve Young and R.B. Morris, as a key songwriting influence. “Sitting at the kitchen table writing with Lucinda,” Ramsey says, “trying to co-write…it was just an amazing experience. The attention to detail. Being so totally committed to each word.” Ramsey pays tribute to Williams on “Desert Flower”, one of the more wistful tracks on In The Weeds. “Your words and ways they add brilliant color to this big wasted wall,” he sings, with Williams lending harmony vocals to the song’s willowy chorus.
Listening to “Desert Flower”, one can’t help wondering why Ramsey, gifted as he is, pursues his vocation from a trailer in an Iowa cornfield, rather than from nearby Minneapolis or Chicago, where he already has strong followings and would doubtless get more exposure. “This is my home,” Ramsey says. “I’ve got kids. I’ve always believed in not letting the business get out in front of that. And I’ve always believed in building a foundation. I’ve spent a lot of years cultivating this area,” he adds, referring to the farm and factory towns of Eastern Iowa he’s played for the past two decades. “This is a place where I’ve been able to work and make a living at it, and that means a lot to me.
“The industry towns are nice places to visit,” he observes, referring to such music cities as Austin and Nashville. “But they get to be a bit much for me. I really like Nashville, and there for a while I seriously considered moving there. But it was because of the lay of the land and the people there.”
In The Weeds further explores these themes of situatedness and place. Its opening and closing songs even suggest why he lives in the weeds of Eastern Iowa: It’s there that he’s found a rhythm — a groove — that nourishes his music and his spirit. He lays it plain on “Living In A Cornfield”, the album’s concluding track: “I put my hand in the dirt/Beneath my cover of green/And feel something growing/Inside of me.”