Singer-Songwriter Tony Ramey
A quick quiz for music fans: what’s the common link among these country songs aside from the fact that all four earned gold records:
George Strait’s “Hot Grease and Zydeco;”
Alabama’s “That’s how I was Raised;”
Trisha Yearwood’s “Second Chance;” and,
John Michael Montgomery’s “I Don’t Want This Song to End;”
The man who wrote all four songs was raised in Appalachia, earned a master’s degree in English literature with focuses on romanticism and medieval literature, and, after a long stretch in Nashville, now lives with his family in Greenville. His name is Tony Ramey.
Like many good musicians, he’s been doing this music thing for a long time without becoming a household name the way George Strait, Alabama, Trisha Yearwood, John Michael Montgomery, and some of the others have.
Which is okay with Ramey. He feels appreciated and he’s done what he wants to do for more than 20 years now, including the release of a new country album of his own with some soul, blues, and contemporary folk elements mixed in.
“I started playing for money when I was in college to pay for books and sorta worked my way into forming a pretty good following up in the Appalachian region, the Ohio Valley,” he said. “I had no ambitions of Nashville. It was just sorta fun and I made pretty good money at it.”
His Nashville career began when noted producer Buddy Cannon heard Ramey’s first album, saw a couple of his shows, and offered him a contract just as the music industry went into the flux of corporate buyouts and the changing face of commercial music.
Ramey’s music has evolved a bit but his style hasn’t changed much.
“I’ve kinda gotten closer to the songwriter now than I was when I was in the thick of major market commercial production,” he said. “I started out loving all kinds of music from Merle Haggard to Elvis to Bill Withers. Country music to me is kinda like white soul music; it’s very lyrically driven and deals with real life things and real people and hardship and beauty, landscape and loss, all of that stuff.
“Everybody thinks of Haggard as a country artist, and I can’t disagree with that, but there’s nothing swampier or more R&B than the horn section on Haggard’s ‘Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,’” Ramey said. American music “isn’t confined to a certain production, theme, type of voice, etc.; rather, it is an organic, constantly-morphing phenomenon that resists mass market, trendy merchandising, and influence from corporations always vying for shelf space at a local retailer or ‘sounds-like’ lists of artists on a digital download store.”
Ramey removed himself from that Nashville industrial bubble with his relocation to Greenville.
“I’ve gotten more back to who I am than who publishers need you to be. Even when I was writing in Nashville I couldn’t make the ultimate compromise for the sake of writing for somebody else. I never could write for anybody except myself but it so happened that people recorded songs I wrote for me.”
Ramey said he got to a point where he couldn’t really understand what was happening in Nashville, or just didn’t want to. He had the discipline to write with others two or three times a day; his success is obvious. But he left Nashville after 17 or so years, settling into Greenville, where he would stay with family when he played Texas dates, a couple of years ago to make his own music again. He and his wife have two children: a 15-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son.
He’s played plenty of honky-tonks – and still does – but he’s gravitating toward theaters where people come to listen to the storyteller.
“I want people to dance and have a good time, but there’s a romantic part of me that wants to believe it’s all derived from an honesty and passion in music that has substance and meaning, not just a loop or hip-hop beat and words that rhyme.”
One of Ramey’s stock answers to the question about what makes a good song is the idea that the first line is the most important one. Not the oft-perceived “hook line” in the chorus, but the very first words out of the singer’s mouth.
“I always thought the first line is pretty much the most important part of a song. If you can catch the listener with that, you’re off to a good start. The second most important part is the second line,” he says, laughing, “and so on and so forth. When I do these retreats (for songwriters), it’s always the same question. I tell them if listeners don’t make it through the first line, they won’t make it to the hook. Every part is important.”
One of Ramey’s early mentors in Nashville was John Schweers, who wrote dozens of country hits including Charley Pride’s “Amazing Love” and “She’s Just an Old Love Turned Memory,” “Golden Tears” for Dave and Sugar, “Your Memory” for Steve Wariner, and more.
“John told me a great song holds simple imagery of what you feel inside. His example was ‘A Good Year for the Roses.’ All of the images in that song are so simple, so powerful. If you can pull that off without having to explain it, people are struck by the feeling, by something that’s going to last.”
Ramey said he chose music as a career because music chose him, almost a byproduct of growing up in the Virginia, western Kentucky, and Ohio region.
“It was a hotbed for growing up in an insular community, not having much to do except letting your imagination run wild. I chose to play music rather than video games or whatever.”
After he earned his English literature degree at Marshall University, he was working on his doctorate and teaching at Middle Tennessee State when he quit because he was spending so much time writing and on the road.
Ramey’s new album – his eighth – is “Soul Survivor” featuring 18 of his own songs including a duet with Willie Nelson on “The Bible, the Bottle, and the Gun.” He calls the album an organic production with very little tinkering.
“We fixed a line or two here or there, but we didn’t use any tuners or compressors or exciters or anything like that,” he said. “It’s just kinda who I am, not the wall of sound that pinches your ear. It’s real music with real mistakes. That’s what makes it human, gives it that human element. The only thing we have to hold onto is the mistakes that give it character, make it different, distinctive.”
One of Ramey’s goals this year is to double or triple the number of live performances he does.
“Last year, we didn’t start touring heavily until the end of May and we got in about 43-44 shows. We’re trying to ramp up this year in Texas, the Appalachians, the Ohio Valley, Cleveland, Chicago, the Midwest, and nationally,” he said. “I’m taking my guitar and hitting the road running to theaters and listening rooms, mostly solo acoustic and some band shows and some corporate shows.”
One of those shows is May 3 at The Old Firehouse listening room in Edom.
“I’m trying to reach as many people as possible with live music, with the album available to as many people as I can bring into the room playing music for them,” he said. “Long term, I want to build a good business as a troubadour, as an artist to continue to be able to do it as a living. In my mind, I’ve already ‘made it’ because I’m doing what I want to do for a living. I just continue to write songs and make music.”