The Latest 'Catastrophe'
Music critic crosses the line to create music from the heart.
By Mark Jordan
AUGUST 30, 1999: Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. And those who really aren't worth a damn, become critics.
Or at least that's what anyone who's ever been the subject of a bad review would have you believe. But for the past three years that complaint hasn't held much mustard over at the city's daily paper. Since arriving here in 1996, Commercial Appeal music critic Bill Ellis hasn't just assessed the local scene, he's joined it. Not content to sit behind his word processor writing about others, he has occasionally ventured out into area clubs himself, playing in bands such as his new group the Pleasure Kings, which indulges Ellis' newfound love for Northeast Mississippi boogie blues, or, more frequently, as a solo artist (Big Willie E. is one oft-used pseudonym).
And now with the release of The Full Catastrophe -- his second solo CD; his first since moving to Memphis -- Ellis is opening himself up even further to the jeers of those who might take exception to the opinions he expresses every day in the paper.
That those taunts have not yet come is testimony to Ellis' talent. The son of noted bluegrass and traditional musician Tony Ellis (onetime banjoist for Bill Monroe), Ellis, 36, grew up in eastern Tennessee and Ohio backing his father on guitar. When he went to college he discovered classical guitar, eventually earning a master's degree in classical performance from the University of Cincinnati
Ellis was back playing with his father in 1986, however, when he met two people who would change his musical and professional worlds. At a festival in northeastern Ohio Ellis met Andy Cohen who gave the young guitarist his first introduction to the blues.
"I heard Andy play Reverend Gary Davis and it was like the clouds opened up and I realized this is what I should be doing."
Cohen supplied Ellis with a pile of records to start him on his education. At about the same time, Ellis met a jug band enthusiast from New York named Larry Nager. With Dudley Radcliffe, the two formed the Midnight Steppers, a group whose career highlight was an appearance on the radio show Mountain Stage.
It was Nager who set Ellis on the most recent phase of his blues journey. Ellis was teaching English and writing music criticism in Japan when Nager quit his job as music critic for the CA. Nager recommended Ellis apply for the job. It was the perfect position for a writer and musician fascinated with the Delta blues. And to cement the synergy, just months before Ellis took the job, his mentor Cohen had also moved here.
Now Ellis is reunited on record with Nager and Cohen. Besides playing bass, washboard, and mandolin on the album, Nager produced The Full Catastrophe.
"My name is on the cover, but this is as much his record as it is mine," Ellis says of his close friend, who will join him on stage next month at the Cooper-Young Festival.
Meanwhile Cohen, the current president of the Beale Street Blues Society, is part of the illustrious roster of guests who appear on the album. Besides Cohen's dulceola work on "John Ate the Locust And The Honey," Jim Dickinson plays piano on "That Angel Trumpet's Sound," the Vance Ensemble mimic a locomotive on their vocal track for vocals on "'Til The Last Train Comes Along," and Reba Russell and Sun guitarist Paul Burlison give "Dark World Coming" a rockabilly kick.
"That was the great thing about this record, having all my heroes like Dickinson and Burlison appear on it," Ellis says.
One essential collaboration, however, came about almost as an afterthought. During the making of the record, Dickinson was listening to the collected tracks when he turned to Ellis and said, "You know, what's missing on this record is your father."
That comment led to the album's closing track "Trouble I Once Knew," which features the elder Ellis on fretless banjo.
As you might guess from the song titles, The Full Catastrophe is a dark album. It's a 12-track song cycle about death that runs as deep in the singer/songwriter vein as it does in the blues. In fact, while the overriding mood is undoubtedly bluesy, the record also has touches of folk and rock.
"I don't want to be a blues interpreter or a revivalist. I hate that word. I'm a singer/songwriter," Ellis says. "The whole idea of my writing in these antiquated styles is that this is what spoke to me when I was growing up playing in the '80s. I'm not doing it to be cool or hip. I'm too old to be looking around the corner for the next trend. This is what I do and I love it and hopefully it sounds like it comes from the heart."
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