It’s been about 45 years since Bo Ramsey first strapped on a guitar and stepped up to a microphone with a band, and he was in good company in his first combo. Besides Ramsey, the Mother Blues Band also included Joe Price, which means this one little band had two young men who both went on to become masterful guitarists.
This love affair with music started early for Ramsey, who performs Feb. 24 at The Root Note in downtown La Crosse. Growing up in Burlington, Iowa, he has childhood memories of his father, Robert, playing piano every night after dinner. Songs on the radio cast a spell on him, particularly Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, with the work of Cash guitarist Luther Perkins a particular inspiration.
“When I was growing up I remember in the summer time swimming at the swimming pool and they had big speakers on poles. I remember being affected by the music I was hearing. And, of course, I remember when the Beatles arrived,” Ramsey said. “It’s kind of magical, music is. Magic is one of the many things music contains.”
Music has taken Ramsey on quite a ride in the intervening years since the Mother Blues Band, including playing guitar with Elvis Costello and jamming with Bob Dylan. In addition to writing and recording his own rootsy rock/blues/folk songs, he’s added his signature guitar sound to recordings by Greg Brown, Iris DeMent, Pieta Brown, Calexico, Larry Long, Jeffrey Foucault, Ani DiFranco and, perhaps most notably, two albums by Lucinda Williams — her 1998 Grammy-winning masterpiece “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” and her 2001Grammy nominated album “Essence” which Bo coproduced.
Ramsey also has served as record producer for an impressive array of artists, working in the studio on many albums with Greg Brown, starting in 1989 with Brown’s “One Big Town.”
“When I met Greg and started playing music with him, it was a pretty powerful time,” Ramsey said. “I don’t know if I am (a producer) or ever was or ever will be, to be honest with you. … I was just really intrigued by the process of making records.”
Whether he considers himself a producer or not, there’s no denying he’s helped a lot of other artists besides Brown create albums, including De Ment, Foucault, Kevin Gordon, Dave Moore, Teddy Morgan, Chad Elliot, Mason Jennings, Charlie Parr and a couple artists near and dear to Ramsey — Pieta Brown, and The Pines, a band that includes his sons, Benson and Alex Ramsey.
“There was a point in my career when I kind of veered off from pursuing my own music. I’d done that for a while and I got interested in the idea of trying to work on records which included working with other artists/songwriters,” Ramsey said, adding that he owes a lot of the credit for his success as a producer to the late Tom Tucker, a Twin Cities-based engineer. “Tom was a world class engineer and we had great rapport in the studio which made for a good production team.”
In 2016, when the time was right for Ramsey to work on some music of his own, he decided to do something he’d not done before in his long musical career. He made an album of instrumentals.
“I’ve always enjoyed a good instrumental, whether it’s Wayne Shorter or Jimmie Vaughan,” Ramsey said. “I’ve always kind of wanted to make an instrumental record.”
“Wildwood Calling,” Ramsey’s ninth solo album, was recorded in two days in his kitchen, but thanks to modern technology and ace sound engineering help, you’d never know it. The album highlights Ramsey’s spare, soulful and atmospheric guitar style on songs that range from straight-up blues to rollicking rockabilly.
Although his modest way wouldn’t let him say it plainly or loudly, it seemed clear that Ramsey was pretty happy with the way “Wildwood Calling” came out. “It’s kind of a unique little piece. It came really quick. It came so fast I was only able to capture so much because I only had a short amount of time to do it in,” he said.
Others weren’t as tentative in their praise for the album, such as Michael Roeder writing in Little Village: “Waving fields of corn, the dust off a country road, the respite that cicada-filled nights bring from muggy summer days: All of these have always been set to the tone of Bo Ramsey’s hands, whether on his own albums or when he plays as a sideman. In this way, Wildwood Calling is another new soundtrack for an imaginary film set in Iowa.”
Ramsey will play some tunes from “Wildwood Calling” when he performs at The Root Note with guitarist Randall Davis and keyboardist Alex Ramsey. He offered assurances that he has not given up singing by any means. The show will be his first of 2018, a year that holds still unfolding possibilities for him.
“I’m just looking forward to going where the music takes me, wherever that is,” he said.