“I’ve had enough of being a backup musician,” declared Tyler Ramsey — everyone’s favorite backup musician — during a recent interview.
Which is not to say that the award-winning multi-instrumentalist won’t still sit in with friends or jump on board a promising project. But these days, Ramsey is ready to make his own material a priority.
“My solo work has always been an underlying thing,” he admits. “Even when I was playing in someone else’s band.”
Since landing in Western North Carolina more than a decade ago, Ramsey has had a hand in numerous high-profile local groups. There was his own band, the jazz-influenced Tyler Ramsey Trio, which opened for the late Ray Charles in Greenville; alt-country-flavored Wayne Robbins and The Hellsayers; dub-improv trio Robot; and, most recently, post-grunge quartet DrugMoney.
Then there are Ramsey’s contributions to local acts Hollywood Red (fronted by the Blue Rags’ Aaron “Woody” Wood) and art-rock ensemble Junior James and The Late Guitar.
But none of these bands sounds like the shy player’s newly released, self-titled solo album. The 11-song collection is moody, fluid, almost melancholy. It evokes the sad sunshine that haunts crisp autumn days, the echo of loves lost — and it’s a far cry from the hard-hitting offerings of DrugMoney or the manic energy of Hollywood Red.
Which, of course, begs the question: Who exactly is Tyler Ramsey?
A man of few words
“I used to live [downtown],” the musician notes. “I was out and about a lot. Now I’m out in Swannanoa, so I’m more low-profile.”
“Low-profile” is maybe an understatement. Ramsey is downright bashful, and far from eager to talk about himself. He’s not one to spread juicy gossip or speculate on the doings of those he’s played with, though he’s performed with some of Asheville’s most prolific — and notorious — artists.
What he does want to talk about is his upcoming CD-release party.
“It feels like a big deal,” he allows, then characteristically amends himself: “It’s not the biggest deal in the world …
“But [it is] the first show where I’ll have CDs available for sale.”
He then thinks for a moment, crafting his next utterance carefully. “When it’s something you’ve put a lot of time and effort into, it’s nice to share that.”
Ramsey is quick to admit that being in front of a receptive audience is way up on his top-10 list. Holing up in a studio, though, is truly one of his favorite things. “Being in that little environment where you can do anything is a blast,” he enthuses.
In fact, he used his recording time at Six Foot Seven Studios to test his own artistic prowess. “Originally, I intended to play all the instruments — I thought it would be a fun change.”
And he did, almost.
Brian Landrum of Black Eyed Dog handled drums — “Because I’m not a drummer,” Ramsey confesses. He is, however, a noted whiz on keyboards and a talented finger-style guitarist whose playing most immediately calls to mind John Fahey.
The new album itself is an accomplished collection of songs, some dating back a number of years. These are tunes that, despite ethereal melody lines and lulling vocals, demand attention. Simple at first listen, each piece is a sonic montage of palpable longing and nostalgia.
Ramsey moves fluidly from wistful lyrical numbers — “Where have all the lost girls gone/ Girls I used to see?/ Wasting time on nothing in particular/ Wasting time on me,” he sings on the first track — to (slightly) more upbeat instrumentals.
You might expect that Ramsey’s work would be heavily influenced by the various company he keeps, considering his countless musical associations, not to mention his day job at downtown record store Almost Blue. But he refuses to let any one sound sway him.
“I listen to everything from Thelonious Monk to the Meat Puppets,” he says. “I try to keep it on random.”
From beginning to end, the new album bears the weight of a work long in its coming. Each song is fully, and extremely thoughtfully, realized.
“Recording stuff feels really final,” Ramsey points out. “The longer you can sit on [a piece of music], the more it evolves.”
“This is the first thing I’ve had total control over. It makes it feel like I’m going out on a limb a bit. In all the bands I’ve played in, certain people were writing the songs. In those situations, [I] have to do [my] part to fit into their form.”
During a break from the much-hyped DrugMoney, Ramsey decided to see how far he could get with his own music. Now, as his former band heads back to the stage, the guitarist finds himself with a completed CD and his own lineup of shows.
And the material just keeps coming.
“I try to play at least every day,” Ramsey reports. “Whether that means I come up with something new or go over old tunes — I try to keep moving forward.”