William Lee Ellis,
(Yellow Dog, 2003)

Everything ever written about William Lee Ellis starts out the same, and why should this be any exception? Here we go:

He's named after bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe (born William Lee Monroe), who was also his godfather, and his father Tony Ellis played fiddle and banjo in Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. That's interesting, and so is the fact that, growing up in Kingsport, in east Tennessee, young Ellis accompanied his father on visits to the home of the revered old-time music master Tommy Jarrell.

Here, however, the story takes a detour. William Lee Ellis did not grow up to be a bluegrass picker. He got a graduate degree in music and played classical guitar, then -- on meeting the gifted country-blues scholar/performer Andy Cohen -- learned of the celebrated and influential Piedmont guitarist Rev. Gary Davis. That led to Ellis' blues education, followed by his recording three well-reviewed CDs of acoustic blues. Or so I understand; I have not heard them myself. Conqueroo, which introduced to me to his work, arrived in the mail not long ago from the Memphis roots label Yellow Dog Records.

Though blues has a significant presence on Conqueroo, it is only one of the genre influences, among them African-American gospel, Protestant hymns, early rock 'n' roll and revival folk. The first cut ("She Conquered the Conqueroo") -- which happened also to be my first exposure to Ellis's sound -- so reminded me of folk-blues veteran Paul Geremia, however, that I thought I knew what to expect, in other words no surprises. Happily, I was wrong (though there's nothing at all wrong with that first song), and Ellis's appealing baritone vocals and formidable acoustic-guitar playing (on six-string, slide and lap steel) soon won me over.

Because its power is not all on the surface, Conqueroo gets better every time you hear it. Take, for instance, the last cut, "Rose Hill," a literally haunting lament of a failed lover whose guilt lives on with him in his grave -- an unexpected idea for a song and an extraordinary performance of it. You have to listen to it closely, though, to know what's going on here. Other songs expose a political (liberal) or religious (liberal Christian) sensibility. Usually this is accomplished subtly -- Ellis is not, after all, Phil Ochs -- but "My Religion Too," done as a gospel-harmony number with the Memphis-based Masqueraders, is an in-your-face assault on the Christian right. More typical is the lovely "Where Would I Go?" with father Tony's fiddle behind him, addressed ostensibly to a lover but actually to God. On the other hand, "How the Mighty Have Fallen," while it has the resonance of an old spiritual, has in its sights a temporal power that is all too with us.

"Northern Lights" is one of the most intriguingly conceived murder ballads I've ever heard -- an unsparing penetration into the heart of evil and madness. But Ellis isn't all gloom by any stretch. His country-blues recreation of the Chuck Berry chestnut "Maybellene" is a whole lot of fun, perhaps underscoring the point that, given sufficient time, any song that survives begins to sound like a folk song.

by Jerome Clark
17 June 2006

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