INTERVIEW WITH TONY ELLIS
Videotaped in September 2005, Upper West Side Manhattan, shortly before Tony was scheduled to rehearse with Earl Scruggs, Pete Wernick and Steve Martin for the New Yorker Festival's program, "The Great American Banjo: A Conversation with Music" hosted by Steve Martin.
Tony is a great storyteller and was very generous with his time. With the capable accompaniment of his son Bill on guitar, they also performed a lovely original called "Wind Chimes and Nursery Rhymes" from his CD, Farewell My Home.
MARC FIELDS: Tell us where you grew up, and how you got started playing the banjo.
TONY ELLIS: I grew up in a little mountain village of Silva, North Carolina, in the foot hills of the Smokey Mountains, during the second world war, when there was no television and very little radio reception because of the mountains. And the local musicians were the only entertainment that we had, there was an old lady played the banjo, and my grandmother played the banjo. Granny was my biggest, first influence. So I got it through family, and within the community.
MF: And so when you played music, when did you play it, and who did you play it for?
TE: I began playing music in school. I actually began playing the cornet in the school band and then switched to trumpet. And played trumpet on up through high school. And my musical hero at that time was Bobby Hackett. Great trumpet player that played with the Jackie Gleason Orchestra.
And I thought that the tone that he got and the whole approach that he had on the trumpet was so wonderful. It was very moving. And I really enjoyed his playing. And I got sick to tears of playing Sousa’s Marches in the school band, one day I turned on the radio and I heard Earl Scruggs. And I knew at that very moment that that was what I wanted to do. So I trade my trumpet at a pawn shop for a banjo. And I’ve never regretted that at all.
MF: So what do you think it was about Earl Scruggs sound that grabbed you so much?
TE: The expression, the tone, the syncopation with his right hand, the way he would push or pull a note with his left hand, it was just incredible. To me it sounded like “that’s the way a banjo is suppose to sound.” And I had heard other people play. Of course, my grandmother played old frailing style, and I loved that. But what Earl did was just an entire different world.
And, It was so exciting and so beautiful. And the tune I heard him play wasn’t a real fast piece, like Earl’s breakdown It was a slower piece, but it had the three finger roll in it and it was just beautiful. And it struck me as being what I needed to do with the rest of my life.
MF: And so once you’ve got this mission, how do you go about learning this style?
TE: Well I went to my grandmother first of all. She listened to that style on a radio program and she said “I know that’s different from what I do.” So, she tried to figure out sort of what was happening, and didn’t have a lot of success, but there was a local banjo player that played for ‘Squared Aces’ and the local radio program, I found out about him. Harold Leonard was his name. So I went down to the radio station to meet him. And he showed me a few basic things.
Then a banjo player from North Carolina moved to the area, and they were doing a TV show at this point, and his name was Swanson Walker. Swanson was a good ol’ boy and I went down to the TV station to meet Swanson, and he was very gracious and nice and helpful, and he taught me for about two years, and he was a pretty good banjo picker.
Then when Swanson moved away, he went back to North Carolina, we were in Lynchburg, Virginia at this point, Swanson went back to North Carolina, and Don Reno had just moved in to the area. He was in Roanoke. And they were doing a Thursday night TV show from 10:30 to 11:00. So I was playing with a little local band in Bedford, Virginia, which was close to Roanoke. And we became acquainted with Reno and Smiley, and then Don began teaching me. And for a couple of years he taught me a lot of things, wonderful person very generous.
MF: Do you remember what was the first bluegrass piece that you learned?
TE: Probably “Jesse James.” The first tune that I learned was an old two-finger style, pre-civil war song, called “Stand Boy Stand.” It was a black freedom song. “Stand Boy Stand/ it’s the old mossie coming/ up with your britches legs/ and beat old mossie running.” They were running off to freedom. Granny taught me that, and “Cripple Creek” and “Old Joe Clark”, “Pretty Little Girl with the Red Dress On.” But the first actual bluegrass song that I learned was “Jesse James.”
MF: Tell about the kind of songs that ended up being considered bluegrass. Were these things that were written for bluegrass or were these older songs that were adapted?
TE: I think there was a combination of things in the development of bluegrass banjo that things were borrowed for the Appalachian tradition, and a lot of new things were written to fit the structure of bluegrass music. So its kind of a combination of elements that went into the development of bluegrass banjo.
MF: And tell me about how it was that you ended up playing with Bill Monroe.
TE: I had an opportunity to audition for Bill Monroe through Don Reno. Don called me and said “Bill’s looking for a banjo player, you gonna audition.” But I said “yeah, but I don’t think my dad will let me go.” I was suppose to go to college. And Don said “let me talk to your dad.” And he could sell anything, Don Reno was one of the best salesman in the world.
So he talked to my dad for about an hour on the phone and my dad finally agreed. “Yeah, go on let him go down there and fall on his face and come on home.” So I went to Nashville, and got hired. I was nineteen.
MF: What do you remember about the audition with Mr. Monroe?
TE: At the audition, I didn’t play very well at the first round of auditioning. Don Reno had taught me his style, and it was a little different from what Monroe was using. So Bill said, “You’re not playing just the way I want to hear it, you’re playing like Don Reno, and that’s good banjo music, but it just doesn’t fit my style, and I’d like for you stay here at the TV station with Jack Cooke, guitar player, and let Jack go through these tunes with ya, and I’ll come back and we’ll try it again.”
So Bill went out to lunch, and Jack Cooke kind of sort things out for me. And got me back to playing Scrugg’s style. So Bill came back, and we played the same songs again. And he said, “Now that sounds more the way I want it to be.” And he said, “We’re going to dinner this evening, would you like to join us?” And I said “Yes sir.” So that evening we went to dinner, and I didn’t know at the time, but he had auditioned two other banjo players that afternoon.
So, I had dressed up, put a tie on. He had Bessie Lee Malden with him, so I used my best manners. I pulled her chair out at the table, and scooted her chair in. “Yes Ma’am” Tried to be on my best behavior. So after dinner, Bill said “Well, I’m gonna tell you now, there were two other banjo players that auditioned today, and they both play better than you do. But Bessie likes you so you get the job.” Mom and dad taught me some manners, so I guess that got me the job.
MF: Now you mention the difference between Reno style, and he wanted you to play Scruggs style. Could you show me what that difference is?
TE: Don used a lot of chord structured playing. (MUSIC) I’m in a different tuning, but a different approach to the banjo, with three finger rolls, but a lot of chord structures intertwined with the three finger rolls. Whereas Earl’s playing is just solid three finger rolls picking… I knew there was a vast difference.
MF: What were some of the things you learned from Bill Monroe, and how did it affect your approach to the banjo?
TE: Probably, some of the most important things I learned from Bill was inflection in singing and playing, and harmonies. Bill had worked in the fields with black folks when he was a young fella. And they would sing these field chants and gospel songs. And he would learn harmonies working with them, and he would sing his harmonies the way they sang harmonies. Which had a real blues element to it. And so that’s part of what went into bluegrass was black blues inflection and harmony singing. So I think that’s probably one of the most important things that I learned while I was with Bill.
MF: There are so many things that we can say about Earl Scruggs. And I’m asking everybody to try to describe what is influence has been for the five-string banjo.
TE: I think Earl is all important. I think he is the absolute reason the banjo is what it is today. He created an industry, or several industries, manufacturing of banjos, and teaching aids, like tablature books and that kind of thing. All these things evolved as a result of the popularity of the banjo, which Earl is responsible for. His playing was so fun to listen to, and at the same time very beautiful to listen to.
Some of the back up he would do behind a ballad, was just beautiful. It was like drops of water, raining down from heaven, with a note attached to them. Beautiful playing.
MF: How do you think it changed the way people think about banjo music and banjo players?
TE: Back when Earl first came along, and became noticed, the banjo was being played in the frailing style and the two-finger style and was considered more of a prop, or a caricature of a musical instrument. It was just a fun thing, and a foot-tapping instrument, and a dancey instrument. But it wasn’t taken seriously as a musical instrument. But Earl changed all that. It became a very definite musical instrument in his hands, the tone of it, the way he approached a song, and his back-up, it all went together so perfectly, that it really redefined how banjo was treated and thought of.
MF: One of the big influences in your music I’ve noticed, is Celtic music. Was that just something that came by way of the old time, or was that something that you were listening to Celtic players?
TE: When I worked for Bill he talked a lot about his family, family influence in music. He had an Uncle Pen Vanderver, who played fiddle, he was a Scottish fiddler. So Celtic music was kind of brought into Monroe’s bluegrass music as a result of the Scottish fiddle influence. So that’s kind of my first experience with Celtic music, associated with bluegrass. Bill wrote a tune called “Scotland.” It’s just wonderful. Used three fiddles on it. One fiddle did nothing but play a drone. Same note, back and forth, back and forth. While two fiddles played melody and harmony. It’s a beautiful piece of music. So a lot of the Appalachian folk songs, Bill knew a lot of them because when he was a young fella that’s what he learned to play, so he had pulled some of those into his music.
The old “Rabbit in the Log, There’s a Feast Here Tonight,” that made a great bluegrass song. But there were other songs he would sing sometimes that were old Appalachian traditional songs, Carter family type things. So what I did wasn’t new, it was just extending what Bill had done in incorporating Celtic music and Appalachian music and bluegrass music, pulling it together. And gospel music, the black gospel harmonies.
MF: One of the things that I noticed is you talk about the different tunings that you used. Is that a double-C tuning that you use?
TE: That’s one that I use a lot. I use double-C tuning quite often. I use G tuning, I use a single C tuning, F tuning, G modal tuning. That’s pretty much the tunings I use. Although once in a while I’ll kind of go off the edge and do something more bizarre than that.
But it’s fun. It makes you think in different terms while your playing, so it opens the door to creating new chords and patterns and licks and its just a lot of fun to noodle around with other tunings, and I encourage banjo players everywhere to do that.
MF: Are you trying to place more emphasis on the melody as well?
TE: That goes back to Earl Scruggs. When I went to work for Monroe. I had met Earl on different occasions, had went to see them play at drive-in theaters and places where they played, school houses, you know, small venues at that time, 1953, ‘54, ‘55.
So I had kind of talked to Earl from time to time. I was just a little boy pestering him you know. But he was very kind and generous to talk with me and give me advice. But when I went to work for Monroe, I asked [Earl] backstage at the Opry on many occasions to show me how he did this or that, and I said “What do you think is the most important thing that a banjo player should do when you're trying to learn to play?”
He said “Play the melody. Play the melody.” And I said, “Well, what’s the best way to do that?” And he said, “Use your thumb as often as you can to lead the melody note, and play your rolls around that. There are times when you can’t use the thumb for that, but when you can, the physical effect of the thumb is stronger than the fingers, so that it lifts the melody notes up a little higher than the other notes, so it defines it better.”
So we were talking about that last night at dinner. He still says, his mother told him, if it doesn’t have a melody, then don’t play it. So that was his advice to me, and I found it to be good advice. When I auditioned for Mac Wiseman, to play at Carnegie Hall, we ran through a bunch of tunes, and Benny Williams was fiddle player on the program, and Benny had arranged for my audition. And after we played, Mack looked at Benny and says, “He plays the melody, doesn’t he?” and smiled real big.
MF: What images or feelings does the banjo evoke in you? When you hear a banjo…
TE: Probably the first image that comes to mind when I think of the banjo early on was my grandmother playing for me at bedtime. Instead of getting a bedtime story, I’d say “Granny, get the banjo” and she’d play a pretty little piece on the banjo for me to have to go to sleep with. So I have very wonderful, early memories of the banjo. Then of course Earl Scruggs. Don Reno. These wonderful banjo players that I was so lucky to have in my life, on time to another. So all these things come to mind, all these people.
One thing that comes to mind in addition to the great musicians that I’ve been blessed to be around, is my home in North Carolina in the mountains. I can see these mountains and trees and the fog and the beautiful mountain rivers. All that kind of falls into the picture with the great players that I’ve known…