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Tony Ellis started at the top. His earliest musical memory is playing with America's Number One Cowboy. "When I was a little bitty kid, we had an old guitar, and I would sit by the radio and hold that guitar and listen to Gene Autry. And once in a while I would hit a note that was in tune with him and it just thrilled me to death. I was in tune with Gene Autry!"
Since then, the internationally acclaimed banjo player and fiddler has been "in tune" with many of the greatest icons of American old-timey and bluegrass music, including Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Lester Woodie, Tommy Jarrell and George Pegram. He has personally taught hundreds of musicians and inspired countless more through recordings, television appearances and concerts, including several recent performances with longtime fan Steve Martin, who recently interviewed Tony for Banjo Newsletter. Among his many awards is the very first Ohio Heritage Fellowship, the state’s highest honor for traditional performing artists.
Tony spent his early years in Sylva, North Carolina. Along with the radio, there was live music in the Ellis household. Paternal grandfather Charlie Ellis was a fiddler, and maternal grandmother, Alice Neergaard, played Tony to sleep with clawhammer and classical banjo. He still plays her tunes, including "Stand, Boy, Stand." He learned cornet and trumpet in first grade, but changed his mind at thirteen, while he and his family were living in Lynchburg, Virginia. "I heard Earl Scruggs on the radio and I knew right then, that was it." He traded his trumpet for a banjo, and grandma Alice taught him her old tunes, as did one of his father's hired hands.
"An old black fella, James Jones, worked on the farm on the weekends with us, and he played guitar and banjo, tunes like 'Georgia Buck.' It was a different style of playing. He had a little more of a blues influence, real lonesome."
Tony also befriended bluegrass banjo pioneer Don Reno, who lived outside Roanoke, while his interest in fiddle, which began with his grandfather, was piqued when his sister started violin lessons. "I would sneak her fiddle out of the case when nobody was around and play around with it." Swapping for "an old, busted-up fiddle," he got help from local fiddler Lester Woodie, who'd played the beautiful fiddle part on the Stanley Brothers' first recording of "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow."
By the time Tony graduated high school, Reno arranged a banjo audition for him with Bill Monroe. Tony got the job and became a regular on the Grand Ole Opry, playing on many Blue Grass Boys recordings, including the banjo showpiece "John Henry." Tony also played with Mac Wiseman, including a Carnegie Hall concert headlined by Johnny Cash.
Tony had promised his dad he'd go to college, so he quit the road, studied engineering, and got a job with a paper company, relocating to Kingsport, Tennessee. But music stayed in his blood. He played fiddle with old-time banjo player George Pegram and banjo with famed old-time fiddler Tommy Jarrell. It was with Jarrell that Tony came up with his signature banjo style, combining his grandmother’s old-time tunings with modern right-hand picking techniques.
A turning point came in 1977, when the paper company transferred Tony and his family from Tennessee to the musical hinterlands of Chillicothe, Ohio. "When I didn’t find any players to play with, I'd just sit in the kitchen with the coffeepot and the banjo, noodling around with those old tunings and these little melodies kind of crept in. I found that using these old tunings prevented you from using the habits you develop playing bluegrass in G (tuning). It just opened the door to writing melodies that had a different aspect to them."
Tony also played traditional bluegrass in nearby Columbus with local greats Sid Campbell and Tom Ewing, and he began playing with his son, guitarist William Lee Ellis, who began performing pre-war blues while earning a Master’s degree in classical guitar — he recently got his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, writing his dissertation on the music of Reverend Gary Davis.
For more than 30 years and four acclaimed albums, the combination of Tony's original banjo tunes and William's fingerpicked counterpoint has resulted in a new sound fusing many American musical traditions. The group is filled out by Tony's wife, Louise Adkins, on portable pump organ — a unique texture for Tony's waltzes, airs and lullabies — and Larry Nager on bass, mandolin and triple washboard. In addition to two decades working with Tony and Bill, Nager has performed with bluegrass artists Red Allen, Frank Wakefield, and the Allen-Lilly Band, appearing with the last on Smithsonian-Folkways’ Classic Bluegrass Vol. 1.
Tony Ellis & the Musicians of Braeburn have performed in Cuba, Belarus and New Zealand. Most recently Tony Ellis debuted a suite of his compositions arranged for orchestra, performing with the Southeast Ohio Symphony. He and Louise make their home in Circleville, Ohio.
By Larry Nager
When not performing with Tony Ellis & the Musicians of Braeburn, Larry Nager is a musician, journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Nashville, Tennessee.
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.
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