A closer look: Betse Ellis – High Moon Order
Tom McDPOSTED ON SEPTEMBER 14, 2013
If you follow Roots music in the Old Time Country arena, then you’ve surely heard of Rural Grits Records and the Wilders. The Wilders hailed from Kansas City for 15 years, touring the country and the world, creating a loyal, dedicated and wild, loving fan-base. In 2011 the Wilders won the Independent Music Award for Best Country album for “The Wilders” (Free Dirt, 2011) The awards and nationally acclaimed appearances this band garnered are far too many to mention here. In 2011, Ike Shelton announced at the website newsletter that the band was taking a well deserved hiatus. At the Walnut Valley Festival, held each September in Winfield Kansas, where I first saw the Wilders, and word got out that the Wilders were taking a break, one would have thought you were witnessing “the day the music died.” It was hard to believe. The Wilders are loved worldwide.
This band, Ike Shelton, Nate Gawron, Phil Wade, and Betse Ellis would close down the main stage to thousands of dancing, singing, screaming fans, then, an hour or so later, they’d appear down in the depths of the legendary Pecan Grove Stage 5, the open mic campground stage where things are a little Wilder.
So it came as a shock, especially after hearing the band’s latest success with their IMA award, that they were taking a break, which to the ears of many simply meant that the Wilders would be no more. Word like that spreads faster than a California wild fire. In a follow up website newsletter, Betse explained that each band member was taking time off to explore interests. She also announced “Betse Ellis Solo” with a separate email list and website, www.fiddlebetse.com.
The Wilders are not completely over. They’ve played some dates including the 2013 Calgary Folk Festival, and have stated that they are open to play a festival here and there. You’ve heard a ‘rolling stone gathers no moss’ and the last time I saw Betse, there was definitely no moss. She is a rolling stone and she is rolling! This Wilders’ hiatus reminds me of the whole cocoon to butterfly analogy, only take the energy of mad hornet and infuse it into a butterfly and you get a pretty good picture of Betse Ellis a.k.a. Beastie Hellis, 2013 A.D. You can read all about Betse and her Ozark roots, learn her tour schedule, watch some videos, even take lessons from her, at her www.fiddlebetse.com website and of course, she’s all over Youtube.
Having been a Betse fan since that first Winfield Wilders gig, I’ve gotten to know her a little here and there, and to see her progress, slowly at first, like a Mack Truck pulling a steep grade to a cruising confident sports car going whatever speed the occasion calls for with ease, is pretty amazing. It’s not like Betse Ellis is the world’s only solo fiddler. It’s not like she isn’t surrounded with excellent competition. I don’t think she even considers all the other musicians as competition. She explained to me that this solo trip is something Betse is doing for Betse. A test to see how she can entertain as THE front person and she’s pulling it off in grand fashion. Betse Ellis has uncanny comic timing, uncanny talent, uncanny spontaneity. Betse Ellis is so much more now than she was as a Wilder, and she, like the band, was and is a force to be reckoned with. She has taken her love for music, all music, and re-defined herself.
“I am committed to my current question to myself, which is this: Can I bring people enjoyment with a solo show, and can I learn from these experiences? So far it seems the answer is mostly yes… I am just starting to build as a solo artist, so there is a lot of proving to do. Being a Show-Me Stater (MO is the Show Me State), I enjoy that challenge.” High Moon Order on Free Dirt Records, is Betse’s newest solo album, released June, 18th, 2013. nodepression.com’s Kim Ruehl gave High Moon Order a first spin just before the release date. (www.nodepression.com/…/exclusive-nd-first-spin-betse-ellis-high-moon)
I’ve given it a hundred spins since getting my hands on it. I listen for lots of reasons: from a songwriter’s standpoint, from a fiddler’s standpoint, and finally from a Roots musician/fan standpoint. Start with beautifully cool watercolor of a night view, ring around the full moon and eight night birds within the moon, dancing just above a treetop. I asked Betse where she got the title. “This was part of a larger phrase that came to me in a dream. It was last summer when I was starting to get ready for the recording. I had a feeling it was an album title but not sure why. As I got closer to being finished with the album, I considered the elements of this phrase and came to realize the High Moon was about a time in the moon’s phase, and more specifically, the Spring Equinox, a time of growth, rebirth… The Order part is about a gathering, of like minds or goals, or a system, community, gathering… So all together, it’s like a community or gathering of ideas or even people, and finding oneself and one’s place in the world. Then, the subject matters covered in the album relate to this through travel and movement and seeking, searching…”
That’s one layer of Betse’s texture uncovered. She’s taken an approach with High Moon Order that to me is a transition album. The late John Hartford, one of Betse’s influences (Betse is a John Hartford Memorial Festival veteran and will be back in 2014, don’t tell anyone just yet!) was a trend setter and a trend breaker. Betse Ellis is a current example of that spirit, not letting herself be tied up, bound and labeled to any genre. With High Moon Order, Betse exposes and masterfully bridges the gap between old time fiddle tunes, heartfelt originals written in the old time way, as well as writing folk rock ballads and punk. High Moon Order was recorded, mixed and mastered by Mike West at 9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor in Lawrence, KS. It was produced by Betse and Mike West. I notice that many recordings, from start to finish, travel all over the country, recorded here, mixed there, mastered elsewhere… mind boggling and expensive. Betse and Mike have proven that you don’t have to travel too far from home to come up with an excellent recording. I suggest you go to the website and download the complete track-by-track song info, including bios on all of the musicians, and notes about each song.
High Moon Order starts out with an original, “The Traveler”, which is sung softly and reflects her life on the road, “Mile after mile, bound to look the same after a while”. “The Traveler” is a folk rock ballad. I hear Betse telling the listener that the road will wear you down. Betse displays her knack for the craft perfectly with every melody line being just a little different. She also opens up this album with her (previously unknown to me) ability to orchestrate and arrange in the studio. The strings you hear are not from any keyboard sampler. Here’s the credit as it appears on the bonus notes from the website: BE(Betse): vocals, tenor guitar, 16 piece string ensemble [recorded individually, 1st and 2nd violin parts, viola, cello – each played four times]; RA (Roy Andrade): banjo; JB (Jason Beers): electric bass; JK (Jonathan Knight): drums and percussion; MS(Mike Stover): acoustic guitar. But, SIXTEEN PIECE STRING ENSEMBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!! played individually, each four times! That’s a lot of dubbing and a heckuva lot of mixing and it sounds incredible. All by Betse! Listen to it, read the above info again, and listen again. Okay, I know I am not supposed to use words like “stellar” and “masterpiece” due to blog lingo catch-phrase overkill, but, hey, this song starts the album and stands alone as a “stellar masterpiece”.
She follows this up with “Golden Road”, another original lyrical song which brings to mind the Stanley Brothers bluegrass gospel music, not copied, but you can hear the influence that comes from her near constant exposure to rich mountain music. Betse says “Golden Road” is not about herself, but could be about several folks at once. As a listener, outside of Betse’s head, I see she’s walked this road and she’s walking it now. I asked Betse about her approach to songwriting. This topic is important to me because today there are so many songwriters and I’ve heard some folks mention to me that they use an approach taught in some workshops, “hear a tune, study it, pick it apart, and make it your own.” This is common and I guess accepted by some, but not by me. Could this be why so much Industry pushed music sounds alike? Not to drift too far from Betse here, but I will state this and re-state it again and again, I write songs too and I use the cosmic approach. I believe every note you’ve ever heard bounces around in your head and comes out when the time is optimum. With me, it’s the moon phases which is another reason Betse’s album title reached out and grabbed me. If a tune comes out of me that is similar to something else, it’s purely incidental. I do not believe in copying and changing, and claiming. Might as well buy yourself a print of the Mona Lisa, paint a mustache on her face and call yourself an artist, (at least Warhol had the ethical gumption to leave the Campbell’s Soup logo on his famous giant soup can) so, I was relieved at Betse’s answer to my question about her method, “I’ve been writing for years and years, though I’m not prolific. The first inspirations that get to me are melodic or structural. Lyrical content comes to me less often. During the time of The Wilders’ active years (15 years), I wrote occasionally but usually I wrote fiddle tunes. The songs I wrote were not a good fit for the band. So in the last year or few, when songs have come to me, I knew they were mostly for another purpose. But when it comes to lyrical songs, often the words and music at least get started together. I just write what I know. I am confessional rather than telling someone else’s story in song.” I repeat, “When songs have come to me…” Thank you, Betse…
Mastering. I always wonder about the process an artist goes through to arrange the order of the songs on the album. Beste follows up “Golden Road” with two fiddle tunes, her own “Long Time to Get There”, which is a musical collaboration with Roy Andrade of the defunct “Reeltime Travelers”, a tune that puts this funky pioneer adventurous trekky mood in my mind, and follows that up with a traditional fiddle tune “Dry and Dusty”. So far, sort of what I’d expect from solo Betse, then an eclectic fiddle riff starts up and, well, Betse said she was listening to Joe Strummer, “before I started calling the violin a fiddle”. “Go Straight to Hell” pops up. It’s faster than the original. It’s solo fiddle to start, then a drum joins in, then the band, and back to Betse. It’s powerful. Also, how in the heck can anyone sing “poppa poppa poppa” that fast without wrapping your tongue around your incisors!
“Twilight is Stealing”, a tune Betse learned from her dear friend and fiddle luthier/player and real legend from the Ozarks, Ms. Violet Hensley. I love this song, soft vocals, heartfelt lyrics in the Carter tradition. Mastering. Suddenly my eyes are jolted wide open like I’ve been jabbed with a syringe full of double espresso with Betse’s original punk thrash art rocker, “The Complainer”, which is driving, should be turned way up, and those lyrics are some real solid advice from someone who observes. Another layer of what lies beneath Betse Ellis’ skin- Dr. Jekyl and Ms. Hyde, a.k.a., Beastie Hellis. (refer to the above photo of Beastie). I asked Betse about this alter-ego. “Beastie Hellis is a persona I felt compelled to embrace- also, it’s been a part of me since high school years. My formative years were highly influenced by punk rock and art bands. My very early years were full of classical music, Broadway musical albums, and classic rock. In my mid-20s, I fell in love with traditional music after a few years of fascination with east Indian music and world music, and jazz and blues too through college years. It’s safe to say that I still love all of this. I am moved by a lot of different music, and I want to be a vehicle for many forms of expression. Whatever comes in the future is determined by whatever moves me in the future.”
“When Sorrows Encompass Me Around”, a mountain gospel song I first heard sung by my Grandma Daisy, and later on an album by Tommy Jarrell. When this song came up, I listened and immediately went to the credits. Betse liberally applied her art to this timeless and haunting song. She re-arranged it and put her soul out there. My mind sees an illuminated face shrouded in darkness, hands up, palms out, pushing the void and searching. This is theatre in music, solo fiddle, intense, simply pure art. Track 10, “The Collector”, another original ballad, an introspective revealing? Here’s what Betse says about this song, followed by some of the lyrics. “This came to me while traveling (surprise), and I had to be patient with inspiration to find its finish. Inspiration doesn’t exactly come just because you call it… you just have to be ready for it to appear on its own schedule. Also, there’s much that can be learned by observing others in their natural habitats…”
“I was going to tell the story of love, gathered ideas of what it was.
For some it’s a feeling, for others it’s a plan. What kind of love do you think I am?
Collecting love stories like a musical scholar – W. McNeil or A.P. Carter –
in the mountains, in the plains, there is romance, there is pain.
Some of us find they are one and the same.”
Click the link to hear the song.
You decide what Betse is saying here. The last song on High Moon Order is another Betse original soft rocker ballad, “Question to Lay Your Burden Down.” A great summary song but here I refer to the liner notes to answer my own questions about it. “This song exists because Mark Smeltzer wrote a song many years ago, called Lay Your Burden Down, which he recorded for a “Trouble in Mind” album (that was the band which started the whole Rural Grit movement here in town: https://www.facebook.com/rural.grit) – so, Mark’s song always hits me in my core. One day a few years ago, I was listening to his recording, and realized that his song provided an answer to some questions and life struggles I was facing. Well, I still face these struggles all the time. I think many of us do. So my song, written as a question to the song which was an answer years before, is my version of the classic country response song. Except it’s a question.” So this album is an odyssey. Betse told me that she really had no plan of particular balance, it’s just what felt right.. “Yes I arranged and orchestrated all. In the case of the electric band, I entrusted each player to use their own ideas, and sometimes made suggestions. I planned for certain moments when I knew I’d come back in on other instruments (like the strings in ‘The Traveler” or the piano and strings in The Collector, for examples). I do love what happens when talented musicians add their own stamp on a song, and I was more than pleased with what this band created.”
Am I trying, in this blog, to sell Betse Ellis to the unknowing? Not at all. I’ve seen Betse perform for years and even in the rare visits I’ve had with her, I’ve only been able to coax just a little of that inner soul from her in conversation. She’s revealing herself now, whether she intended to or not. I believe High Moon Order has told me a whole lot. There is so much more to Betse Ellis. “Now that I am able to see my album out in the world, well that also means that the time period, the moments of creation, are completed. For this project. My style is more direct and open in song more than it is in verbal communication, other than with those closest to me. I guess that’s likely a common contrast for a writer to experience. Maybe? My intent was to explore the place where I was and maybe how I got there, and to embrace the journey that I was on at the time. I am still on a journey. I don’t know where it is taking me, and that really doesn’t matter, as long as I’m learning. What I present to people with my music is hopefully a thing that resonates with many, offers some challenges, and opens some emotional doors. Honestly it doesn’t matter what listeners will come to think about me because of the album. A musical project is one aspect of a person’s soul. A recorded project offers opportunity to consider forms of expression and either make a statement, or a stance, or ask a question, or open up. Maybe that is what I am always trying to do with my music.”
Sometimes one emerges from this whopping big mix of singers, songwriters and musicians; one, whether intentionally or not, rises above and is seen, observed, and not seen. Betse Ellis has been seen and heard, but not really. High Moon Order says Now is the time. High Moon Order is the channel to view. I believe Betse Ellis will be one of those rare ones I blogged about in the story of John Hartford’s legacy. Her music will be considered timeless. Take a closer look.