Vince Wilcox: Our guest today is arranger, friend, and fellow border collie enthusiast, Wes Ramsay.
Discover Worship is honored to feature a number of your arrangements in our catalog. Just a little bit about you for those who may not know: you're an alumnus of the University of Louisville, the Aspen Music Festival, and the New College Music Festival. You serve as representative of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and as adjunct faculty at the Middle Tennessee State University School of Music. You’re an active member of the American Choral Directors Association, the American Guild of Organists, the International Trombone Association, the American Federation of Musicians, and you have two publishing companies: August Press and Hidebound Music. But this is one of my favorite things about you: I'm always impressed by men who speak highly of their wives – who are their wives’ biggest fans. In your bio it says, “Working from his desk on a farm in Burns, Tennessee, a short drive from his Golf Club, Wes enjoys his life married to renowned harpist/composer/recording artist/conductor Carol McClure whose virtues and accomplishments make her husband's pale by comparison.” I think it's delightful when a husband speaks that fondly of his wife. So, welcome to our Discover Worship interview today.
Wes Ramsay: It’s an honor to be here, it really is. Thank you so much.
Vince: Well, let's begin with how you got your start as a church music arranger.
Wes: I was thinking about that when we were discussing doing this…I realized I started when I was in high school. I grew up in Nashville. I was a “church rat.” The church transition I made was around the age of 12 when our family joined Immanuel Baptist Church in West Nashville. There was a music director there named Beryl Vick who saw that I was a bright kid and introduced me to—among other things—jazz music. It was at his house that I first heard Stan Getz and Miles Davis and all those and began a lifelong love of that genre. I sang in youth choir with him and was also involved in other churches around the area that were doing youth choir programs. I began writing and orchestrating—arranging for them—somewhere around my sophomore year in high school. I just loved doing that and had some grand experiences.
No one told me “no.” No one told me I shouldn't be doing it. Nobody told me it was hard. I just kind of jumped in and started doing it. At the same time, I was studying intensive classical music through Blair School of Music, back in its glory days on 18th Avenue in the old house where we were all elbow to elbow and a bunch of really bright, geeky kids. And again, the attitude there was no one told us it was hard. No one told us there was anything we couldn’t do. So, I just went out and did that, and I’ve always retained that interest in church music from that early age and always felt the church was a very important, worthy part of the culture that really deserves our attention.
Vince: So who were some of your musical influences and heroes?
Wes: Oh my heavens, influences and heroes… In church music, I especially remember the work of Kurt Kaiser. There's such polish and class to his work — everything he did. I remember singing an anthem by Charles Brown and subsequently learning who Charles Brown actually was. The work of Randall Thompson, the work of the American composers like John Ness Beck... all of these. At Immanuel, it was a traditional program for the most part, and we sang Bach, and Bach was played for the preludes.
We were also very much influenced by hymnody at Immanuel Baptist Church. It was a hymns-based program. One of the great influences of my life was B. B. McKinney, although of course I never met him as he died in the early ‘40s. I don't know if many people know that name anymore. He edited the classic Broadman Hymnal. I go back from time to time to look through that hymnal. There are the great hymns of the church from earliest ones going forward. There are the great gospel songs (Fanny Crosby and company) and if you look in the back, there's an arrangement for the congregation of "The Hallelujah Chorus." McKinney had a vision for church music for the Protestant “Chapel” (for lack of a better term) that was inclusive. He thought that everything should be brought forward in addition to new things that were being created, and McKinney created a great deal of music himself. He was a real visionary, and in my generation, he was so formative to what church music was and could be. If you go to First Baptist Church in Nashville today, (unless they've moved it or sold it) I think that McKinney's piano still sits in their music offices.
So, McKinney was a huge influence. Ralph Vaughan Williams was a huge influence. Benjamin Britten was a huge influence. I'm trying to think of other names that immediately popped up…
Vince: Well, this gives us a context for where your heart is and mind is in terms of arranging. So, how did you eventually begin to make a living as an arranger?
Wes: I had a job in high school that continued in college with a little academic publisher called The Brass Press. Steve Glover owned and ran it, and he was doing scholarly editions of early music especially for brass instruments. Of course, the market for that wasn't enormous, and so he supplemented his business by providing engraving services for John T. Benson Publishing. He taught me how to use that dreadful music typewriter (the only device available to us at the time), and I began seeing material come across my eyes: pieces by W. Elmo Mercer... I'm trying to think of others, but my memory has faded a little bit. But I began to get a sense of what music publishing was.
When I came back to Nashville after college, my first job was—by happenstance—at The Benson Company. I was visiting a teacher, the phone rings, he says, “Here, this call’s for you.” It was Don Hart from Benson on the other end of the line: “We need someone to edit the orchestrations and run that part of our operations. Can you do this?” I was 21 years old, so I said “Of course I can do that!”
Vince: What year was that?
Wes: 1977. I jumped in at that point. It was an incredible education because I was listening to the actual studio mixes coming back through and comparing them to the original scores and parts that were being dumped on my desk. It was a graduate education in writing for publication. I learned a lot of what NOT to do. I also saw which arrangers had up to 60% of what they’d written mixed out because they were over-writing so badly. With others, everything survived. Ron Huff was an arranger where everything survived. He never over-wrote.
In my early twenties, my goal was not to be a public person. Rather, I was going to be the guy sitting quietly in the back of the studio or maybe at the mixing board. I'd do my work, do my craft, and go home. I never thought of myself as being a public person doing this. I began copying for the other arrangers because — with all my training – I could take what they put down on their scores and translate them into parts that players could actually play. I could work out the contradictions. I could spot the "clams.” I could do all the transpositions, all those things. My reputation grew. And from that, I began to move toward the life of an arranger.
Vince: So, for over 40 years you've been doing that. Looking back on your career, what are some of the things you've done that you consider career highlights; the more successful, higher profile things?
Wes: I'm again looking back at it with this was perspective of time. I worked for a period in the 1980’s with Jimmy Bowen, the country producer, and his arranger. His name was Al De Lory. Al's name isn't much known anymore. Al produced Glen Campbell's “Wichita Lineman,” among others. He was the producer of the first big Glen Campbell hit records, and I worked hand-in-glove with Al. Bowen would do the tracking sessions and scratch vocals for artists like Conway Twitty – again a name not much in the air anymore – and Al would hand me a cassette tape, and I would transcribe the results of the entire session. Here's the bass line. Here's where the guitar fill is, yada yada, and I would make notes, and I would lay them out onto our string scores. Al would write the string arrangements, and I would translate Al’s string arrangements into something the players could play. Al was a genius at the idea. He did not, at points, have the tools to put things down on paper. I learned to read his mind. And so I was very proud of that work because there were some great hit records produced, and I was quietly a part of that. And again, that was my goal at that time: to just be that guy. I've always felt as an arranger and composer (which are two different roles, arranger/producer/composer, those different roles I play), if I really succeed, nobody thinks, “Man, Wes Ramsey wrote a great arrangement.” What really happens is the listener thinks, “What an incredible moment of beauty,” or “What an incredible piece of music." ...That moment of transcendence for the folks in the audience or the pews, and I kind of disappear.
Vince: You were the servant.
Wes: I served it and then I kind of disappear. When I work with recording engineers, I say, “If we really succeed, no one ever knew we were here,” and engineers smile and say, “I got you on that.” Sure enough, if we really succeed, no one really knows our part. What matters in the end is theology that's being presented. Is it accurate and true? And does it point a way up from us to the right destination of our worship and our attention? It's not about us. And the audience is not the people in the pews or the men and women in the audience; that's not the final audience. And so, the theology has to be there before anything because it’s the Truth that transforms, and also musically it has to be in — for lack of a better term — an authentic voice.
Vince: So, let's talk about that. When you arrange for a choir, what's in your head? What are your priorities?
Wes: The text! Technically, a hymn is a poem. The tune is the tune, and hymns can be set to different tunes based on the meter. Some tunes are more appropriate for hymn texts than others. If it’s an original text, still the text is the thing that matters. Let me break it down into the different roles. If I'm arranging someone else’s material, then the text is there and the melody is set. I have these parameters to work within. And so what I really try to do is listen to the voice of the text and listen to the voice of the composer. And then my role as an arranger is to enhance that but make sure I'm still speaking in the voice of the composer, not in my voice. I've done everything from baroque music to hip-hop, but what's the voice of the composer? And what’s the voice of the text? That determines the musical choices for me. I have been so blessed with such great teaching over the years, I have enough technique to do anything. I really do, and that's not bragging, it’s one of the things I had to come to grips with. I could basically do anything. I've had that great an education.
Vince: But when you serve the song…
Wes: I have to serve the song. It's not about me. It's about the song.
Vince: As you and I both look toward what our legacy will be, we want it to be what we have created, not what we've just kind of stamped out.
Vince: And we can leave something meaningful and significant.
Wes: Right! And in the music industry, in every aspect of it and every genre, the tendency is to stamp things out.
Vince: This worked before…let’s do it again.
Wes: Let's do it again and again and again until it stops working. And then let's go find something else that's working and go imitate it and stamp it out again and again and again. And I think it's a very cynical approach to business.
Vince: It’s a really cynical approach to creativity as well.
Wes: You sort of hit a nerve because I think it’s an extremely cynical approach to the church. And to the folks in the pews. And to the musicians of the church. I've had reputable publishing exec tell me, “We work toward the lowest common denominator, just enough to make it over the bar to be marketable. I took that in and was thinking this guy's really terribly cynical. I was at his retirement party. And all the great and good were there, and we were sitting around talking with him, and he kind of stopped and mused and said, “You know, I've spent my life promoting music that I would not walk across the street to hear.” And I realized, I don't want to be that guy. He retired rich — great for him. But I don't want to be that guy, and I certainly don't want to have the legacy of foisting that upon the church. That's serious business
Vince: It is! So, let's kind of turn the corner here in our closing moments. This sounds like a word of encouragement to the church musicians, to choir directors, to people who are creating and delivering music to today's congregations. What word of encouragement would you have for them?
Wes: Number one, thank you. You're doing great service, even when it feels really awful. There are a lot of church musicians who did everything they could, but now they're off on other businesses, and they have tales to tell. But you're doing incredible, valuable work. And you don't see the results of that work often times for years out in the lives of the people you nurtured. You are a minister of music. And so, the music is to minister to the congregation, but you're also a minister to the musicians. I think that role is not emphasized enough. You're the minister, you're pastoring the musicians both in your choir and within your program. Hopefully you are phoning and encouraging and doing everything you can for the children of the church to be learning music and to be learning the hymnody and to be learning how to function musically and theologically. But all the way through, every adult you encounter in the choir, every musician you hire from the outside, has their own story. They are so accustomed to being “rode hard and hung up wet.” People really respond if someone takes a pastoral approach to them.
So, you have a pastoral role as a church musician. The Lutherans do a good job at this. They view the organist of the parish as a pastoral role. It's not a performance role, it’s a pastoral role, and the most successful and impactful church musicians I see from small county seat churches all the way through music directors of cathedrals in England, the common thread is their pastoral approach to church music. So, I would say that.
I would say also….well, let’s put it this way, always be listening and improving your skills. Always, always…
Vince: My friend calls this, “CANI” — constant and never-ending improvement.
Wes: Exactly. I would encourage every person involved in church music to try doing some writing yourself. And not for publication, but perhaps the children's choir needs to learn how to sing the descending minor third, so set a couple of song verses using descending minor third. Or they need to learn how to sing ascending perfect fourth; do something like that. As you all know, only the barest tiny sliver of music that's ever created ever reaches publication — nor should it. The vast majority never should, and so there's only a little tiny sliver that becomes published in a product. That should not prevent you from writing. We have boxes full of wonderful stuff that may or may not see the light of day as a publication, but I'm really glad it got written in our household.
Vince: Because the audience isn't the commercial marketplace, it’s the audience of one.
Wes: Right. And especially working with all ages, it's the impact that a piece of composition might have on part of life. I've watched some real miracles happen very quietly — slow-motion in lives of kids because of the pastoral approach to teaching in church music and bearing fruit in their lives later on. But it's a slow-motion miracle.
Vince: And that's probably the miracle in both of our lives having been brought up in the church with music, and that has transformed our lives and allows us to be part of transforming other people’s lives.
Wes: Absolutely! It's a privilege!
Vince: This is actually been really exciting for me to hear your story up to now, and it'll be fun to watch your story going forward. If people are interested again in contacting you, they can email you at email@example.com.
Wes: And I have a Facebook page, and I tend to speak of cheerful things there. I've deliberately not put a website up yet, but I'm gonna have to because finally I'm above the radar and gotta do it. But I've generally tried to stay a bit below the event horizon because I just want to get my work done. But Facebook is wonderful, email is wonderful, firstname.lastname@example.org — and I'll correspond with you, absolutely!
Vince: And he'll show you pictures of his awesome border collies.
Wes: I've got these four crazy border collies, and they're the latest pack. I think we've had about 10 over the course of years. And one of them I still miss daily who came to the end. It's a wonderful life that I've been given, and I realize I've been given it by grace and not anything I deserve.
Vince: Well, we appreciate you sharing your gifts with Discover Worship, for the songs that we have in our catalog. We want to encourage our members to scope them out. Find them, play them, listen to them, consider using them in worship at your churches. Wes, thank you so much. I look forward to the years to come.
--Wes Ramsay is a versatile, eclectic, and studied sacred music writer, arranger, and producer who lives in Burns, TN with his wife, fellow musician Carol McClure, and their beloved corder collies. He is an alumnus of the University of Louisville, the Aspen Music Festival, and the New College Music Festival. He serves as Representative of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) and as adjunct faculty at Middle Tennessee State University's School of Music. Wes is an active member of ACDA, AGO, International Trombone Association, the American Federation of Musicians, and serves as publisher for August Press (ASCAP) and Hidebound Music (BMI). His most recent work, "High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass," may be enjoyed on SoundCloud as well as on YouTube. For more information about his music, contact him at email@example.com.