Ramsay Midwood,
Popular Delusions &
the Madness of Cows

(Farmwire, 2006)

When he seems not to be making a whole lot of sense, Ramsay Midwood may bring to mind a drunk, disheveled, way-down-on-his-luck carnie whom, as you pass at the county fair, you overhear muttering to himself. He's saying things like "Jesus is number one/I'm number two/The rest of you is number three." Perplexed and unnerved by your own faintly creepy curiosity, you lean forward to catch more of the words, unsure whether they amount to inspiration or derangement. Or just some very private joke.

Or sometimes, in relatively more spiffed-up moments, Midwood recalls a downhome blues musician who is making it up as he goes along, improvising rhymes and not caring much about narrative coherence, quoting snatches of old songs when his imagination can't dredge up anything else. Often the sound that comes from the guitar and other instruments (including lap steel, banjo, mandolin, horns, keyboards and percussion) is more groove than melody, more bones than flesh. From the Mississippi juke-joint (or, alternately, front-porch) cacophony, one anticipates raunchiness but is handed a curiously desexualized blues. Still, there is no mistaking the smell of cheap whiskey on the singer's breath.

Yes, Midwood isn't for everybody. For a few moments after hearing his earlier album, Shoot Out at the OK Chinese Restaurant (Vanguard, 2002), however, I wondered if he might somehow attract more than a cult following. Well, it didn't turn out that way. He sticks close to Austin, Texas, where he lives these days, and Farmwire is his own imprint.

If he reminds me of any other singer-songwriter, it's Michael Hurley, another folk eccentric whom either you get or you don't. It should be noted that Hurley's songs are melodically richer, and they are more readily accessible than are Midwood's. But both men boast rich, easy wits and mellow, unforced creativity. They also have in common a devotion to old blues and folk songs. Midwood offers up a couple of traditional pieces ("Rattlesnake," aka "Muskrat," and "When God Dips His Pen") amid the disc's 10 cuts and 33 minutes' worth of tunes. Even the stranger numbers feel unexpectedly, and actually rather cozily, rooted.

Speaking for myself -- I cannot, naturally, speak for you -- I take pleasure in Midwood's music. I can't imagine that anybody, even someone who isn't deeply drawn to his idiosyncratic approach, would find it truly off-putting. If you care enough to pay close attention, it eventually transforms into something generally recognizable. It will come to you, for instance, that "Planet Nixon" evokes the lazy, hedonistic dreams of "Big Rock Candy Mountain," and that "Withered Rose" is about religious longing. If you have the patience to hear them out, Midwood's songs will finally reward you.

As some of you will recognize, Popular Delusions & the Madness of Cows parodies the title of Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds, first published in 1841 and still read. Even so, that's a rhino, not a cow, on the cover. I'm sure Midwood would have it no other way.

by Jerome Clark
12 May 2007

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