Fragile is Bo Ramsey's first record of original compositions in over a decade, so I won't make you wait another minute to learn that it was well worth the wait. He hasn't been exactly taking a vacation since 1997's brilliant In The Weeds, having contributed his unique guitar and/or production to records by Lucinda Williams, Greg and Pieta Brown, Iris DeMent, Joan Baez, and Ani DiFranco. Ramsey also released a magnificent, singular take on a sorely abused genre, last year's Stranger Blues.
It would be easy to categorize Fragile as a move toward mellow maturity. Tempos favor the languid, and lyrics lament life's disappointments ("Do you remember at what point you sold out / We gave it all up but you did not hold out" and "You thought you had it, had your gold / Chump change for what you sold"). Too, Fragile contains no flat out rockers like In The Weeds' "Everything's Coming Down"--it is interesting that the closest thing to rock and roll here is the delicately named title tune, which could be an outtake from the Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request.
But what some might call mellow, I prefer to think of as refined; Fragile strips the music down to its essentials. The record's title might well refer to the artist's songs and production, both deftly negotiating a fine line between spare and unfinished--coming down on the right side every time. As he revealed on Stranger Blues (and for that matter everything that bears his musical stamp), Ramsey doesn't need to be fast and loud to make a strong statement; in their own way, his downtempo grooves pack as much punch as any speed metal.
Nor does he need words. Fragile's two instrumentals, "Away" and "In The Woods," amply demonstrate the tremolo titan's mastery over the emotion of sound. When he adds words, as in "Dreamland," the music wraps itself around the lyrics, amplifying and clarifying their intent. No doubt this is why the Browns, DeMents, and DiFrancos of this world call Bo Ramsey when they want their babies draped in the finest swaddling clothes.
As crucial as he has been to some of the great recordings of the decade (Willams' Car Wheels On A Gravel Road and Essence, Greg Brown's Slant 6 Mind, Pieta Brown's In The Cool), it is past time for the world to recognize Bo Ramsey as an artist in his own right. Fragile may be a mature work but it cuts like a knife, with a seductive blade that slips in like Mata Hari's dirk rather than the assault of a dragoon's bayonet. • Michael Ross
top photo: Sandy Dyas (heck yes!)