Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene In the Groove

By Bill Friskics-Warren

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  Seated deep within the body is a language of untold mystery and power. Women feel it in the pull of tides, dancers in the pulse of drum and bass. Hardly as celebrated as the tongues of the head (logic) and the heart (poetry), this unspoken language can move us far more profoundly.

Judging by the vamping guitar and the incantatory vocals on his new album, Bo Ramsey knows the language of the body. Fingering a blue note as if he were scratching an itch, reciting phrases as if they were mantras, Ramsey abandons himself to a groove as elemental as life itself. "The groove is the source," observes the Iowa singer-guitarist, his voice calm and uncommonly deep. "Without it, music doesn't move; it doesn't live. The groove is a vast, beautiful, mysterious place. And if you find yourself tapping into it, it can be very powerful. You become a part of it."

Ramsey first encountered this power in the stark, brooding blues recorded by Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson at Chess Studios in Chicago during the 1950s. "That stuff drives me up the wall," he says. "It just knocks me out. You can put it on today, and it still sounds incredible. They recorded in huge rooms, so it was all natural reverb. That's the music that moved me to play--to seriously play. And that's the music that continues to move me."

The influence of the Chess legacy, as well as that of swamp bluesmen Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester, pervades In the Weeds, Ramsey's third album in six years. It's particularly evident, however, on "Sidetrack Lounge," a noir-ish portrait of a nightspot that brings to mind Henry's Swing Club, the Detroit juke joint immortalized in John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun."

"The way she stares through faces from between her legs," Ramsey declaims, not so much singing as putting listeners on notice, "The man at the door is wearin' a wig/A platinum blonde is servin' neon drinks/To a black and blue room, and the music stinks/I'm goin' down, I'm goin' down...to the Sidetrack Lounge."

In the Weeds may have its share of dark, portentous blues, but Ramsey's songs just as often assume a singer-songwriterly cast, at times recalling Bob Dylan ("Ain't It Hard," "King of Clubs"), as well as fellow Iowan Greg Brown, for whom Ramsey works as a guitarist and coproducer. Ramsey's solo acoustic performances in 1994 as part of a touring "guitar pull" with Lucinda Williams, R.B. Morris, and Steve Young likewise found him working in the troubadour mode.

Even so, Ramsey admits that he only recently began focusing on lyrics as much as music. "Working with other songwriters has opened my eyes to poetry and things," he says. "I've learned a lot from Greg Brown especially, because I'm so close to him. But from Lucinda too. Sitting at the kitchen table writing with her--trying to cowrite--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 his new album's loveliest tracks. "Your words and ways add brilliant color to a big wasted wall," he sings, with Williams lending harmony vocals on the song's willowy chorus. Ramsey may not be the wordsmith that his friend is--not yet anyway; but listening to the hypnotic vocals and guitar on his new album, it's obvious that his musical vocabulary issues from a source no less profound.


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