Last we heard from Betse Ellis, the firecracker fiddle player of The Wilders, was on her fine solo album High Moon Order (which we reviewed here ), an album that portrayed her very fine skills in the world of traditional American music while dipping its toes into more contemporary waters as on her cover of The Clash’s Straight To Hell. On River Still Rise she’s teamed up with banjo player Clarke Wyatt for an entertaining journey of sorts through traditional and old time songs and tunes, their band name and the album title deliberately recalling the exploring duo of Lewis & Clark as the duo carry out their own explorations.
With Ellis on fiddle, viola and vocals and Wyatt on banjos and cello they provide a conduit to the past, the music here (aside from three originals) plucked from a canon that includes the Child Ballads, Charlie Poole, Clarence Ashley and the still with us centenarian Violet Hensley. These old songs and tunes are rearranged by Ellis and Wyatt with brio, there’s a vitality and a sense of fun that prevents the album from becoming a history lesson although part of the enjoyment here is in actually reading the history of the songs and to this end there are extensive notes on the selections available here . While the pair can easily let loose on songs such as Diamond Joe, Take A Drink On Me and the rollicking Rolling River (with Betse’s vocals whoopin’ away) elsewhere there’s an elegiac grandeur, a reverential nod to those pioneers who created such great music in such hard times. This is probably most evident on the pair of tunes associated with Ms. Hensley, Jericho and Fill My Way With Love, the former almost a chamber piece, delicate and awe inspiring.
There are pieces which will be familiar to folk such as Fair and Tender Ladies, Requiem For Little Sadie and the John Hartford inspired The Quail Is A Pretty Bird, others much more obscure but each and all a delight. With occasional support on upright bass and guitar from the band Brushy Creek Betse & Clarke sail through the album with aplomb, keeping tradition alive. Overall the album is an essential purchase for anyone interested in old time mountain (and river) music.
River Still Rise is available now and Betse & Clarke are currently on tour in Ireland, dates here.