Circleville Banjo Player Picks for PBS, Steve Martin

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Circleville's Tony Ellis plays the banjo.(Photo: WOSU)
Circleville's Tony Ellis plays the banjo.(Photo: WOSU)

He’s a favorite of Steve Martin and Sponge Bob SquarePants…and tonight Circleville, Ohio, banjo player Tony Ellis is featured in two programs on WOSU TV. The first is Give Me the Banjo, a history of the instrument narrated by Steve Martin. And then at 11, WOSU presents an original production called Tony Ellis’s Quest.  Ellis, an Ohio Heritage Fellow says he was exposed to the banjo by his grandmother when he was growing up in the mountains of North Carolina.

“Instead of getting a bedtime story like a lot of little kids would get, I’d say, ‘Granny, get the banjo,’ and she’d get the banjo and play me a tune or two and I’d nod off to sleep.” says Ellis. “So that was my earliest recollection of really loving the banjo.”

Ellis began playing the trumpet in school. But one day he heard banjo virtuoso earl Scruggs on the car radio, and he’d found his calling.

“I really, really wanted to play bluegrass music,” Ellis recalls.  “My father and I would be working on the farm on Saturday and we’d stop for a break and he’d say ‘What do you want to do, Son, when you get through college? You going to be an engineer?’ I’d say, ‘I want to play banjo for Bill Monroe!’ My father would say, ‘Oh, you’ll never be good enough to do that!’”

But Ellis was good enough and spent two years in the early sixties with Monroe, the father of bluegrass music.  Life on the road was difficult, and the pay wasn’t much. So he left to go to school and get his degree. He had a feeling, though, that if he returned to music, he wouldn’t copy Monroe.

“I told myself that if I ever get out on my own or create my own band it will not be a Bill Monroe-style bluegrass band. I will not do it. And I didn’t. I kind of ended up developing a different style of music for the banjo and our little band touches on other aspects of traditional American music.”

Though he was steeped in bluegrass, Ellis wanted to see what else he could do with the banjo. He traded the “three chords and a cloud of dust” approach to the instrument in favor of simple, compelling melodies that reflect the Ohio countryside he came to love.  He’s played his music for audiences all over the world.

“It’s a melody they can understand and remember quickly. It’s not complicated. It has a simple, nice flow. It’s friendly sounding music. It’s not abrasive sounding music,” Ellis explains.

His arresting melodies, and his experimentation with banjo tunings and the ensembles he surrounds the instrument with have earned him many fans. One is comedian Steve Martin, himself a banjo player.

“I guess Steve had been searching on the Internet for various banjo styles and things and he ran across a recording of me playing a song called The Wild Fox, and he just liked it.

“ I got a phone call one day and he said, ‘This is Steve Martin.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure it is!’ And he said ‘We’re going to be playing in New York pretty soon and would like to know if you’d like to join us up there.’ But he likes the banjo in different settings like I do, and we’ve become good friends. I played with him in Minneapolis last June. Had a great time up there.”

New audiences continue to be introduced to his music. One of Ellis’s recordings of the the first song he  learned from his grandmother was used in an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.  Ellis still plays and loves bluegrass, but the music he creates is all his own.

“I didn’t think enough people would take a banjo seriously to listen to a slow tune on the banjo and appreciate it, because a banjo’s got such a hokey reputation,” Ellis says. “ I had a fiddler here in Ohio tell me one time when I was first putting together the Dixie Banner recording with some slow tunes on it, he said, ‘No one wants to hear stuff. Why are you doing that?’ And that could have broken my spirit, but it didn’t. I just considered the source and I did what I wanted to do.”

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