Kansas City Duo Betse & Clarke's Journey Is Underway And They're Not Looking Back

Sep 16, 2016

Credit Clarke Wyatt

Musicians Betse Ellis and Clarke Wyatt started playing as Betse & Clarke, a fiddle and banjo duo, in late 2014. Their latest album is called River Still Rise.

Wyatt told Fish Fry host Chuck Haddix that, despite each performing in the Kansas City music scene for nearly two decades with bands like The Wilders and Mr. Marco's V-7, their first musical connection was just a few years ago at the Walnut Valley Music Festival in Winfield, Kansas. 

"The first time we really played together, and had a thought that, 'Wow, this could really be something,' was at Winfield, sitting around a campfire at 2:30 in the morning," Wyatt recalls. "And everybody else had sort of just drifted off and we were playing quiet duets at the campfire, and it was pretty magical." 

HADDIX: "How did River Still Rise come about?"

ELLIS: "We spent a great part of this past winter, [and] well into the spring, working on the recording. When it came to the title of it, it's a little bit of an enigmatic phrase: River Still Rise. From the beginning of our duo, we realized, hey, if we're going to call ourselves Betse & Clarke, we resonate with the journeys and adventures, of course, of Lewis and Clark. So it's a little bit of a play on words to begin with.

"And when it came time to title the album, I was starting to look around at the early journaling of Meriwether Lewis, in fact, when they were preparing to take off from St. Louis ... he's looking at the weather, making notes about the weather, and then making notes about the level of the river. And sometimes it was low. And then one day, he was talking about the river rising ... and then one day it said, 'river Still rise' in his journal.

"And I just love the way that phrase sounds, and I also like what it represents. Getting ready for that big journey, and feeling like it's about time to take off. And even though the adventure's already started, there's more to come. And I think that represents what we're doing."

WYATT: "And my Mom is a geographer and a cartographer. So I grew up learning how to make maps the old way. And just having the name Clarke and growing up on the Lewis and Clark trail, I've always been fascinated with their journey." 

HADDIX: "Well, you know, [Betse],  you're very much rooted in the Missouri fiddler tradition. How did you first pick up the violin? How did you first hear that fiddle tune that inspired you to pick up that fiddle and start sawing away?" 

ELLIS: "Well, when I first picked it up, I didn't like the word 'fiddle' at all [laughs]. I was six years old and I was living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, of course, you know, right in the middle of the Arkansas Ozarks. And I had an opportunity to start learning how to play the violin, thanks to my mom, seeing an ad in the paper. I took right to it, and I'm so glad my first teacher encouraged my ear training at such a young age."

Related: Betse Ellis Grew Up in Arkansas But She Didn't Start Playing Ozark Music Until She Was An Adult

HADDIX: "Clarke — and you play a wide variety of music — but when did you first pick up the banjo?"

WYATT: "With the banjo, we're going to have to go all the way back to 2000 and something, 7 or 8 years ago. In a previous life, I was a touring musician, very busy, keyboard player, rock and roll, jazz, avant, improv stuff. I think I wasn't emotionally mature enough to be a musician, which is saying something. 

"I gave up music. I was just trying to live my life without music, and I'm not sure why I thought that was a good idea. 

"One day I was living out in Wimberley [Texas], out in the country by myself. And I woke up, and normally when I wake up in the morning, I say, 'Coffee.' But this particular morning, when I woke up, I sat straight up in bed, and I said, 'I'm going to buy a banjo today.' [Betse laughs] And that's what I did, I got in my car, drove into Austin, went to South Austin Music, and bought a banjo and a couple of books. Then went over to the record store and bought a bunch of recordings, and went home, and dove in headfirst and never looked back."  

Fish Fry host Chuck Haddix's extended interview with Betse & Clark is archived in the first hour of the July 30, 2016 episode of the Fish Fry.  

Betse & Clarke perform Saturday, September 24, at noon at Bluegrass Battles Hunger, N. 7th and E. Felix Street, in St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sunday, September 25, at 3:30 pm at The Rice-Tremonti Home in Raytown, Missouri. For more information about upcoming performances, check their website

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.