Eric Ellis: Wilkes County Banjo Player, Bearer of Bluegrass Traditions, and Teacher
by Lisa Baldwin, Leila Weinstein, and Emily Schaad
Eric Ellis was inducted into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame in 2009—the same year that saw the inductions of Ralph and Carter Stanley, Mike Seeger, and Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith—and today the North Carolina Folklore Society honors him with its Brown-Hudson Folklore Award, an award again shared by a roster of notable folk artists and community scholars. His career represents well the dynamic of family, local community, and wider national contexts that contribute to the development of old-time and bluegrass musicians.
A musicians’ musician, Eric Ellis is one of the best exemplars of a musical style that began in our state: Scruggs-style banjo playing. His new compact disc, Every Night Before Breakfast, produced through a grant from the Folklife Program of the North Carolina Arts Council, provides us with an opportunity to hear Eric’s playing, but many of us have heard Eric representing Earl Scruggs’ playing and backing up Jim Shumate at our state’s Heritage Awards in Raleigh. In 2004, Eric became the first Doc Watson Artist in Residence in Appalachian State University’s Center for Appalachian Studies, and throughout his career he has supported local venues and players in Wilkes County.
Born into a musical family in North Wilkesboro in 1958, Eric Ellis grew up on western North Carolina’s rich bluegrass tradition. Both of his grandfathers, Chelsie Ellis and Ed Pierce, played banjo. His uncle, Bill Johnson of Millers Creek, helped make his first banjo, and his cousin David Johnson (who plays fiddle on Eric’s new compact disc) is a well-known multi-instrumentalist studio musician. In his youth he visited local fiddlers’ conventions, and his father, Jesse Ellis, who played guitar, took him to concerts by bands such as the Stanley Brothers, the Osborne Brothers, and Flatt and Scruggs. After spending years learning the banjo through trial and error, Eric met professionals such as Ben Eldridge, Kenny Ingram, and James Bailey, who took the time to sit down and show him their techniques face to face.
Eric has gone on to win several banjo contests and has played and recorded with an impressive number of important bluegrass musicians. He won our state’s banjo title at the North Carolina State Fiddlers’ Convention in Cool Springs in 1976 and 1978, best banjo at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention in 1981, and another state title at the Mountain State Fair in Asheville in 2004. He has also played and recorded with a large number of historically important bluegrass musicians and bands including Jim Shumate, Charlie Monroe, Chubby Wise, and Wes Golding and Surefire. He also stood in for Bela Fleck when the Tony Rice Unit played with Jim Buchanan at the Birchmere (a renowned venue in Alexandria, Virginia) in 1985, and was a member of the Bluegrass Times (with Steve Kilby) and Wells Fargo, as well as a founding member of Ric-O-Chet.
One of the things that makes Ellis’ playing so good is that he has tone, taste, and timing, and he also knows how to play very tastefully behind singers so that the vocals on a song sound good. Ellis plays mostly in a slightly embellished Scruggs-style, but is also familiar with the playing styles of many other influential bluegrass banjo players. As a musician, Eric Ellis has been extremely important to the preservation and perpetuation of a regional musical tradition that stretches back to the very beginnings of bluegrass music, and his example, support of local players, and recent compact disc have promoted a high level of regional bluegrass banjo playing in the Wilkes County area and beyond.
Eric Ellis’ musical prowess has earned him accolades and recognition from many in the bluegrass world. Bluegrass Unlimited has referred to him as “one of the area’s premier banjo players” (Brown 33), and David Haney points out that “the general bluegrass public outside of this area, probably doesn’t know who Eric Ellis is. But I can guarantee you, J.D. Crowe knows who Eric Ellis is, Tony Rice knows who Eric Ellis is, Herschel Sizemore knows who he is, Del McCoury knows, the Seldom Scene, all the important bluegrass bands know who he is, because he’s so good…People who really know traditional bluegrass banjo will hear Eric play [and] say, ‘That’s the real thing.’”
As a musician, Eric Ellis has been extremely important to the preservation and perpetuation of a regional musical tradition that stretches back to the very beginnings of bluegrass music. He has been teaching around Wilkes County for decades, counting among his former students the banjoist Ramona Church. In fall of 2007, as an artist-in-residence at Appalachian State University, he assisted Dave Haney in his Appalachian Studies class, “Bluegrass Traditions.” Ellis added an invaluable dimension to this graduate/undergraduate course with his first-hand experience as a bluegrass musician, as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of bluegrass history.
We recognize Eric Ellis today because he is “one of the best exemplars of a kind of banjo playing that was invented in North Carolina” (Haney), because he has continued playing in local Wilkes County contexts beside his notable performances in national bluegrass settings, and because he has shared his art and knowledge with his neighbors, young musicians, and students at Appalachian State University.
Brown, Caleb. “Eric Ellis: Elite Banjo.” Bluegrass Unlimited (March 1996): 33-36.
Haney, David. Interview by Emily Schaad and Leila Weinstein. Boone, NC, 2 October 2007.
The authors of Mr. Ellis’ citation are graduates of the M.A. program in Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University. Lisa Baldwin nominated him for the Brown-Hudson Folklore Award, and Leila Weinstein and Emily Schaad worked on the N.C. Arts Council grant which produced Ellis’s compact disc Every Night Before Breakfast. Weinstein and Thomas McGowan read this citation at the Society’s annual meeting, 27 March 2010, at the University of North Carolina Asheville.
Baldwin, Lisa, Leila Weinstein, and Emily Schaad. “Eric Ellis: Wilkes County Banjo Player, Bearer of Bluegrass Traditions, and Teacher.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 57.2 (2010): 4-7.