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Bo Ramsey (photo by Sandy Dyas)


You may familiar with the name from his guitar and production work with Lucinda Williams, Greg Brown, and Pieta Brown. If you are one of the lucky few, you may even have sought out his terrific solo releases on Trailer Records, like Down to Bastrop and In The Weeds. Those touched by the talent of Robert Franklin "Bo" Ramsey are aware that he brings an air of minimalist mystery to everything he does. His guitar playing relies on the perfect evocative tone, rather than flurries of notes, to get the point across, while his production surrounds songs in such a way as to focus attention on them, rather than on their envelope. Both playing and production are at once rooted and modern, like a hand-woven quilt with needlepoint pictures of the Manhattan skyline.

From the evidence here, this timeless musicality comes from Ramsey's blues beginnings. Many roots musicians have schooled in the blues but Bo knows blues. Stranger Blues is Ramsey's tribute to the music that is part of his DNA. A stunning collection of tunes by classic blues artists, it combines a few oft-recorded chestnuts ("Sitting On Top Of The World," "Freight Train") with obscure songs by legends like Chester Burnett--aka Howling Wolf--Willie Dixon, Elmore James, Walter Jacobs, and Sonny Boy Williamson. Too many blues revivalists use these songs as mere excuses for extended solos, or boogie breakdowns. Ramsey treats them as if they are his own, and as if this is a singer/songwriter project. His time-weathered voice doesn't just sing the lyrics, it inhabits them, highlighting the fact that the man who says that he is "sitting on top of the world" is doing no such thing ("It was in the rain / one summer day / that's when she left me / now she's gone to stay").

Not to say that Stranger Blues is guitar deficient. There is plenty of that unmistakable Ramsey picking, where every stinging note seems to come from well below bone and sinew, from some dark mysterious place of the spirit. This makes him the perfect candidate to revive not just the music of the blues but their essence. On Jimmy Reed's "You Got Me Dizzy," Bo reveals that he too can do letter-perfect readings of the classics. But here, and even more so on the rest of the tunes, he also demonstrates that the genre's hypnotic grooves, laid-back feel, and stripped-down soul, are the building blocks of his deeply personal and profoundly moving sound, a sound that infuses both his sideman and his solo work. 
•  Michael Ross

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