For 15 years, fiddler Betse Ellis helped lead and shape the Wilders, an internationally-known old-time country quartet which, for years, toured the US and Europe.
But in December of 2011, the Wilders announced they were going on an indefinite hiatus. Ellis, however, is still going as strongly as ever. She stopped by KCUR this week to talk about her solo career, her new CD, and give us a live, in-studio performance.
After the Wilders announced their hiatus, Betse Ellis was at a crossroads. She’d been working as a professional musician for 12 years, but was now considering turning away from performing. After a lot of soul searching, Ellis ultimately decided to return to the road, not with a band, but as a traveling fiddler performing solo.
"I can play a whole evening - two sets of solo material," says Ellis. "I travel around with two fiddles, and then I play my tenor guitar and sing - sing with the fiddle as well. Between that and storytelling, a night goes by pretty quickly."
For the last year and a half, Betse Ellis has spent a lot of time behind the wheel of her Chevy Malibu on the way to gigs and workshops around the Midwest and Rockies. Being a lone wolf frequently means taking chances. In addition to the solo shows, Ellis does a lot of jamming and playing with pickup groups, often playing with people she barely knows. But she says taking these kinds of musical risks keeps things interesting.
"There's that fear factor of doing things that I'm not sure if its gonna work out, but it's kind of important to me on an ongoing basis to put myself in a place where I'm not quite sure," Ellis explains. "And that type of challenge - maybe that's a bit addicting, I think. So, most of the time it works out great, and that's the other thing about live music, too: if it doesn't work out great, it's OK, it's just a moment. It's past. It's gone."
This summer, Betse Ellis will spend two or three weeks a month on the road, and she’ll be doing her first solo East coast tour. She hopes to return to touring in Europe soon. Ellis says that these days, the folk and old-time music of the American South and Ozarks has devotees almost everywhere. And for the most part, the music is no longer unique to the areas it came from. But as Betse Ellis discovered while touring with the Wilders, her Arkansas heritage is still seen as a kind of pedigree to audiences she meets in Europe.
"That's when I get to be exotic," Ellis says with a laugh. "When the Wilders - when we'd go to Scotland or we toured Germany, too, and, boy, they would just think we were out riding horses everyday and singing cowboy songs and all of that."
In November of last year, between road tours, Betse Ellis started recording a new solo CD entitled High Moon Order. Some tracks sound almost straight out of the ‘30s, while others are modern lo-fi country rock. From just the first few songs titles - "The Traveler," "Golden Road" and "Long Time to Get There" – it’s clear that traveling is never far from her mind, even in the studio.
One song, "The Collector," is about hearing the love stories of people she meets on the road and turning them into music. Ellis says this songwriting method was inspired by the founder of the patriarch of the legendary Carter Family band.
"That's what A.P. Carter did," Betse Ellis explains. "He drove the mountains there in Virginia and surrounding states, just in his region, and met with people and collected songs from them. And then turned them into the songs that the Carter Family recorded and so many people throughout this country and beyond just absolutely loved."
While Betse Ellis grew up in Arkansas, she didn’t start playing Ozark music until she was an adult. Ellis grew up listening to a lot of rock and punk bands, and parts of her new CD attempt to link these two different musical worlds. On one track, Ellis re-imagines the Clash song “Straight to Hell” as something like a folk tune.
"Clash and Talking Heads are two of the bands that I consider - now I refer to that as my own personal folk music. It's like the music that - during my developmental years - that I grew up with. It was a few years ago, I felt compelled to attempt to learn a way to present that song, 'Straight To Hell,' with just me and a fiddle. And now I've played it - I've probably played it just as many times as some of the Ozark fiddle tunes that I've know for the last 15 years. I play it almost every performance."
Ellis jumps into folk-punk with both feet on the song “The Complainer.” She says that, after writing the song, she realized how much the cathartic lyrics of ‘70s punk and Great Depression-era music have in common.
"Mike West, my producer, he maintains, too, that, subject-wise, it's very much like the songs of the '20s. Just the Depression-era, string-band songs. So, it's something to get out, you know, it was something to get out of me. and hopefully, there's recovery after that, but it's probably the shocker track on the album, I'm guessing."
The rock songs are broken up with tracks of traditional music and tributes to old-time music legends, like this tribute to late fiddler Art Stamper. Ellis says that paying tribute to her inspirations in both the old-time music and rock world motivate her to keep playing.
"What I've learned from old-time music, is that the reason it continues and the means that it continues is, in essence, itself a tribute. And I feel really, really fortunate that I get to do that both in a live way and a recorded way, and that it one of the things that keeps me going."
Betse Ellis’s new recording is called High Moon Order. Her CD release party is Friday, June 14th at the Brick, 1727 McGee, in downtown Kansas City, MO. The Brick is also currently exhibiting a collection of Ellis’s photos from her musical travels.