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Vinyl Cave: Stu Ramsay Loves Dobro, Banjo, Guitar and Harmonica by Stu Ramsay

I have a definite weakness for 1950s and '60s folk music -- both pop and strict traditionalists -- and out of curiosity I tend to buy about anything from the era I see and don't know, provided it's a buck or two. That's how I first discovered Koerner, Ray and Glover as a kid in the '80s, and in those pre-Internet days of yore, searched for information about them for many years before eventually discovering they were still active and not really that obscure at all in folk circles.

In the intervening decades there has been much folly -- such as buying Kingston Trio albums multiple times trying to find those elusive copies that are not all jacked up and noisy -- but also occasionally the unearthing of some real gems that seem to have been buried in the sands of time. I'm talking the sort of album that makes one sit up and take notice, rising above traditionalist guitar and banjo plonking and/or college-friendly harmonies. The most recent of these is by Stu Ramsay.

Featuring the musician in the role of graffiti artist, the cover shot of this one alone essentially ensured I had to pick it up. Liner notes by Chad Mitchell were a further inducement. Even more intriguing was the discussion of how the disc was made; Ramsay, then a 19-year-old Illinois high school student, overdubbed extra lead parts on various instruments, a fairly unusual situation on an instrumental folk record in 1963. Sold!

Thankfully, the music itself doesn't fold under this curiosity buildup. Stu Ramsay Loves Dobro, Banjo, Guitar and Harmonica should be tracked down by fans of '60s iconoclasts such as John Fahey, Sandy Bull, or Leo Kottke. There's nothing here going on that's as intricate, as oddly structured or as technically dazzling as what any of those guitarists got up to. But taken as a whole, Ramsay's album definitely works the same ground of mixing and matching traditional genres in a unique stylistic way.

Judging by Mitchell's notes, they were sort of aiming this record at the bluegrass market, but it's a tenuous description at best since there's nearly as many blues numbers here as there are bluegrass. It's also split about half and half between originals and traditionals adapted to Ramsay's freewheeling style. It's an impressive debut for a then-high school student.

So, who is Stu Ramsay? Online searches bring up little to no information; the best (and about the only) info is a discography on Doug Henkle's excellent Folk Library Index site, which indicates that Ramsay is still playing music as Wilson Ramsay. Under that name, a number of fairly recent performances can be found on YouTube. Also revealed is that there was one more album back in the '60s for Capitol, Scufflin' with Stu Ramsay and Chicago Slim, which looks to be more of a straight blues outing. I'll be keeping an eye out for that one. (Mercury MG 20775, 1963)

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