[17 June 2009]
Betse Ellis’ fiddle music has an exploratory history. Classically trained on the violin, she tried jazz, experimented with sitar themes, then, after some exposure to old time Americana, co-founded a country group named the Wilders. “Tunes from the Golden Age,” asserts the group’s publicity. “Honky Tonk. Fiddle Tunes. Hoo-ie.” Her debut solo album is proof that Americana is still winning her over. There’s a muted, indie-folk feel to a track like “Another Night Gone”, but most of the time she’s attacking something traditional, something with strong teeth: a tune from the Ozarks, a piece of blues, or a tough “John Henry”, the bow heaving and mourning over the strings as Henry’s hammer does its thing. The African-American songs sound a little off at Ellis’ higher register—or not off exactly, but unfamiliar. Her “Mainz Waltz” is as courteous and pure-spirited as a country waltz should be, and her playing overall is assertive with a constant sprightly subterrain, as if the fiddler, even when she’s singing about dead railway workers, is always, at heart, fundamentally happy, or as if she’s just come to the fiddle straight from an excellent meal and is raring to go.