Southern Mountain Soul

Southern Mountain Soul

Betse Ellis laughs at the suggestion, then says yes, perhaps she did go over to the dark side. “Fiddle” was certainly not an instrument she ever intended to play when she was learning violin as a youngster in Fayetteville.

“The word ‘fiddle’ brought up a horrible connotation,” she says, laughing. “Country music wasn’t cool.”

When she moved to Kansas City to study at the University of Missouri there, she began to play jazz, listen to eclectic Eastern music and finally got to join a rock ‘n’ roll band — but she still played “rock violin,” not fiddle. She calls singer-songwriter Alison Krauss her “gateway drug,” her introduction to bluegrass and fiddle, but then her boss at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art introduced her to “old-time music” — traditional Southern mountain music that she had never heard in her native Ozarks.

“Why’d I keep coming back to it? It’s the difference between being bowled over by someone’s virtuosity and hearing somebody play with soul,” Ellis says. “Old-time fiddle became my biggest focus. I never could have predicted that — and yet nothing makes more sense to me.”

Ellis spent 16 years with the band The Wilders, having “tremendous experiences” everywhere they played, but it was a gig at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., that really cemented her passion for fiddle. She met Violet Hensley, who had been playing traditional music at the theme park for most of its existence. “I call her my musical grandma,” Ellis says. “We’re not related by blood, but the music brings us together.”

Hensley, now 101, taught her the concept of “relativity of pitch” — that a note played in traditional mountain music might not sound the same as the same note played in modern music. “I’ve learned a lot of her repertoire and the way she plays it,” Ellis says. “That’s very important to me.”

When she plays with her partner in music and life, Clarke Wyatt, there’s “a great reverence for where the tunes came from, but we get to have fun balancing that with our creativity — our artistic treatment of the music,” she says. And, she says with another laugh, she brought Wyatt with her to the dark side. He’s a “brilliant keyboardist” now playing banjo to harmonize with her fiddle.

“It’s funny to say ‘dark side,’” she says. “This music is what gave my life true light.”



Betse & Clarke

WHEN — 7 p.m. Dec. 2

WHERE — A Pickin’ Post concert at Ozark Mountain Smokehouse in Fayetteville

COST — $15

INFO — 409-1224

BONUS — The Aching Hearts will also perform.

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