Betse Ellis. High Moon Order. Free Dirt Records

Anyone who’s seen The Wilders will know Betse Ellis, the pint sized ball of energy who wields her mean fiddle for the Kansas City quartet. Well the Wilders have been quiet of late and Betse has gone and made her own album and a fine beast it is. A mixture of her own songs, some traditional tunes and a few covers it features several fine fiddle tunes such as Dry and Dusty, Elk River Blues, Stamper and Long Time To Get There where Ellis displays her undoubted prowess on the old bow and is ably supported by guitar and banjo. Her fiddle features alone on the traditional Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies which has Celtic roots but sounds as if its roiling out of the mountain mists of the Ozarks while When Sorrows Encompass Me ‘Round will remind listeners of her solo slots on Wilders gigs as she sings heartily while accompanying herself on fiddle and again it spookily sounds as if it was summoned from the past. No surprise really as Ellis has studied traditional folk and country sounds for the past twenty years gaining the ability to sound as old as the hills. What is surprising is the contemporary sound of many of the remaining songs which feature a full band sound with bass, electric and lap steel guitars and percussion played by several of her Kansas City peers.

Opening song The Traveller breezes in like a light zephyr with rippling guitars and banjo although there is an instrumental overkill as Ellis weighs in with violin, viola and massed cellos on the chorus. No such problem on the following Golden Road which has Ellis on guitar and vocal along with her compadres. With some excellent lap steel playing from Michael Stover Ellis and the band deliver a traditional sounding (although penned by Ellis) song that captures perfectly the stoical religious beliefs of worn out rural workers from way back in the last century. The Collector has some crunchy electric guitar as Ellis takes us on a slow jaunt through her past as she sings about the hold old music has on her and the band almost falls into a waltz, lovely stuff indeed. Question to Lay Your Burdon Down is full blown country rock as Ellis sings a song she describes as a response to a song by Trouble In Mind, a Missouri band who kick-started a local “rural grit” movement several years ago and whose Mark Smeltzer sings on here. Ellis digs deep here and delivers her most soulful vocals of the album while the band whip up a fine dust storm.
The most surprising inclusion on the album is a cover of The Clash’s Straight To Hell and on first seeing this on the album cover we have to admit to some trepidation as to how this would work out. However as Ellis points out on her album notes Joe Strummer was a folk singer and she grew up with this song and she gives it a good go. The drums and Ellis’ incessant and throbbing fiddle give the song impetus and her impassioned vocals capture some of Strummer’s anger and angst and while it’s not as successful as Rachid Taha’s reworking of Rock The Casbah it does pack a powerful punch. Also packing a punch but perhaps somewhat out of place here is the ferocious two minute thrash of The Complainer. It is a cowpunk belter that comes screaming out of the speakers but ultimately disturbs the overall sense of the album, perhaps best shifted to a bonus “secret” track to be accessed only by those who reckon Betse could have been in The Ramones.