You hear Ramsay Midwood and you think he has to be about 60 years old, with a lot of miles under his belt, and a clutch of unrecorded songs too depressing for most mortal folk to bear. Well, I don’t know about the last part, but Midwood still looks reasonably young, and by his own admission has done his share of travelling. As for the songs on Shootout At The OK Chinese Restaurant, they’re a mixture of sad, defiant, sardonic, and mainly fun (even if they are drenched in death and loss). Musically seeming to borrow in equal portions from swamp-rockers like Tony Joe White and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and with a feel-laden vocal style on the mild side of Captain Beefheart or Mule Variations-era Tom Waits, Midwood crafts a rootsy album that offers one small pleasure after another. Available in Europe for a couple of years, Shootout At The OK Chinese Restaurant finally gets a stateside release, although with a slightly different set of songs that makes it feel like a different album.
Midwood’s getting some radio play right now with “Monster Truck”, a wry tune that follows confused lyrics about trying to fit in and not be bothered by the rest of society with succinct frustration: “I think I’ll go out and eat a cow and if you don’t like it you can kiss my ass ‘cause I drive a monster truck”. It’s reasonably humorous and fun to listen to, but it might give you the mistaken impression that Midwood’s only a middling satirist. Instead, he seems to be a serious proponent of rootsy music in general, as evidenced by the disc’s leadoff cut, “Chicago”. He sings “you jump down turn around pick a bale of cotton” and “now the blood don’t go where the mind used to flow” with such a weary, time-worn demeanor that it halfway sounds like some old sharecropper ended up in the studio. Likewise for a cut like “Esther”, which betrays a wobbly saloon melody with the revelation, “And in my dying hour as my light begins to fade remember / That I loved you, not the promises you made”.
Tracks such as these cut to the heart of Midwood’s appeal. It sounds like a genuine voice, seemingly acquired through hard living in much the same way that Waits’ once-smooth pipes took on the graininess of cigarettes and drink. These songs speak real sentiments and evoke real response. Still, there’s something in the modern mindset that suspects Shootout At The OK Restaurant, suspects Ramsay Midwood of playing a persona, and of taking us for a ride. However, as much as the quality of her music led us to accept the fact that Gillian Welch is from California and not Appalachia—and that it matters not a bit—we have to accept the fact that this son of a tuba-playing father and museum-volunteering mother has made a record that often evokes times older than any Midwood could have seen with his own eyes. I guess some things—and themes—are eternal. Midwood seems to address the issue head on in the Dylan reference of “Waynesboro”: “I too know of the dead / And where they go when they are gone / They just get deader and deader / Never will come home / And yes mister Zimmerman / The times are already changing / And nothing ever seems right”.
It’s not all death and dying, though—or if it is, Midwood shows he can approach life’s darker side with a bit of black humor. “Spinnin’ on This Rock” tells the tale of a dock worker’s revenge fantasy: “I’ll go and grab my big ol’ gun / Shoot at my friends and I’ll watch them run / I won’t shoot any of them in the head / I’d hate to see any of my good friends dead / Well maybe one or two I wouldn’t mind / Shooting in the shoulder or shooting in the spine / Then I’d go to church and feel me up a nurse”. All of this stems from the fact that the guy’s late for his job and hoping he doesn’t get fired—a bit of power reacquired, even if it’s all in his head and all he really wants to do is retire.
In much the same way, Midwood takes a seemingly common death lament, “Heaven’s Toll”, and gives it his own spin: “When I go / Place a quarter in my mouth / Twenty-five cents might save my soul / From what I gather now / Even heaven’s got a toll”. Death seems to figure prominently in Midwood’s music. The album’s closing track, “Fisherman’s Friend”, takes the disc’s tales of woe to their logical extreme: “A drunk dream of a / Nickel you’re owed and a seed that never will be sowed / All along your unforgiven river of wrong / You’re just a dying man singing a dying man’s song”. The song then kicks into a spry, bluesy shuffle mildly evoking Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t be Satisfied”.
When he lived in Chicago, Midwood acted as an understudy to Gary Sinise for a production of The Grapes of Wrath. He played both Al Joad and Floyd Knowles, and maybe that’s where he learned to accurately speak from the mind of the dispossessed and down-on-their-luck. Or maybe he’s always been able to do it. Whatever the case, Midwood’s crafted an album that’s well worth a listen.