The much-anticipated (at least as far as I’m concerned) new Bo Ramsey album Stranger Blues has been out since July 18th and I ordered it as soon as the fine folks at CDBaby sent me an e-mail telling me it was available. I’ve been listening to it on and off since I got it. Stranger Blues is the mark of a seasoned performer– a consistent, balanced recording — a calling card showing why so many artists have asked Bo to contribute to their albums.
Bo’s last album In The Weeds was released in 1997, so it’s been nine years since we last heard him solo. It isn’t like Bo has been kickin back with his boots on the porch rail with his signature straw hat pushed down on his nose taking a nap, though. He spent this time in the studio contributing the signature Bo Ramsey sound for what looks like over twenty records for artists like Greg Brown, Lucinda Williams, Joan Baez and the Trailer Records regulars like The Pines, Kevin Gordon and Dave Zollo. He contributed to Pieta Brown’s last records and has spent most of the last two or three years touring with her.
My first live show at a bar was in the mid-Eighties at the bar at the then-newly-renovated Potter’s Mill in Bellevue, Iowa with Bo Ramsey and the Sliders which included Radoslav Lorkovic. I was hooked. Over the years I had seen Bo many times at all kinds of bars in Eastern Iowa– some still around, some not. The Corner Tap in Cascade, The Silver Dollar in Dubuque, Jimmy B’z in Dubuque, Fife’s in Maquoketa, Goose Island Tap, and in Cassville, Wisconsin opening for the remainders of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils (I think only the drummer was an original member).
When I moved back to the Eastern Iowa area in 1997 after over two years in the Twin Cities, one of the things I was looking forward to was seeing Bo play live. I managed to get about six or so shows in before he switched to primarily being a sideman for the Brown Family, including a couple of real barnburners– one of the last ones I saw was billed as “Bo Ramsey and the Body Electric” at the former Green Room (R.I.P.) in Iowa City. This was Bo fronting Dave Zollo’s band. I brought my wife’s aunt and uncle from Minneapolis down for that show and they loved it. Sometimes when the mood is right, Bo moves into this space and plays these blistering guitar solos and that night had couple of those great moments. The last Bo show I got in was at the Mill where he did a largely acoustic set in a three piece band that was completely different than I was used to. In retrospect, this show was the precursor to Stranger Blues as it was largely old blues covers, which is where Bo’s heart is.
Stranger Blues is an album of blues songs interpreted by Bo in his distinctive style. Most of the songs are delivered in a slow deliberate almost smokey way. Bo seems to be mellowing like fine scotch as the years go on. When I compare the songs on Blues with the songs on Bo’s 1988 more-rocking release Either Way you can hear the passing of time between the two releases– maybe wisdom or maybe reflection? This is a record, after all, of his influences that says “this is how I got here.” One of the things I find most interesting about this release is that while these are blues songs originally performed by such greats as Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Willie Dixon and Howling Wolf, he didn’t pick the obvious songs– these are deep catalog choices picked by someone who is well-educated in blues history.
How Bo manages to be so connected and respected by the music community and not become more widely known is beyond me. I know he prefers to stay out of the limelight and it seems his career is exactly how he wants it.
Here are some samples from Stranger Blues thanks to CDBaby (you can listen to more samples here):
My favorite track from In The Weeds is Forget You cowritten by Greg Brown.
In the Weeds from In The Weeds
A great track from his Trailer Records release Live is Sidetrack Lounge
555 x 2 from Down to Bastrop
Bo will be doing some live shows in support of Stranger Blues. The first one will be on 9/22 at River Roots Live. Then, on 10/5 he will be doing a live show at the Reverb in Cedar Falls sponsored by KUNI. I don’t know if they will be broadcasting this– but it is conveniently taking place during the timeslot for “Down on the Corner” which is a show about regional music. This will be followed by a show at the Mill in Iowa City on 10/6. I sincerely hope we will get more solo dates! More news as I get it.
Update: I just heard back from KUNI and they said that they don’t currently have plans to broadcast the 10/5 show at the Reverb. If they do decide to tape it, it will be for later broadcast and not a live broadcast.