Brilliant Ozark Fiddler Betse Ellis Reinvents Americana From Her Backyard
Betse Ellis is the rare artist with a distinctive voice as a singer, an instrumentalist and a songwriter. The Arkansas-born fiddler’s new album High Moon Order reflects that individuality, rooted in the Ozark folk tradition but spiked with edgy songwriting and original interpretations of old classics. Ellis, late of Kansas City alt-country hellraisers the Wilders, has an instantly recognizable, unaffectedly calm, attractively nuanced vocal style that often brings to mind Laura Cantrell. Ellis lets the angst in these songs speak for itself – her voice draws you in and then lets the lyrics hit you, and when she goes up for a swell or a high note, she can pack a wallop.
While she can shred with anyone, her playing throughout this mix of mostly slow-to-midtempo tunes is more about capturing a mood than burning down the barn. The instumentals here are flat-out gorgeous: the way Ellis blends the steady chords and bracing blue notes during her swaying take of Stamper is one of the album’s high points. Likewise, her lingering late-summer ambience on Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies, or her reflecting-pool resonance on Long Time to Get There, which might be the album’s best song. She romps through the banjo tune Dry and Dusty, soars elegantly through a measured, deep woods lonesome take of Elk River Blues and a gently swaying, nocturnal duet of Twilight Is Stealing, reprising the traveler’s unease that echoes throughout the album. The darkest track here is the stark Ozark gothic dirge When Sorrows Encompass Me ‘Round.
Ellis’ songwriting is strong, too. The album opens with The Traveler, which grows to an unexpectedly explosive, majestic art-rock/chamber-pop chorus. “The way you live, it might not fit with anybody else…the yellow lines remind you not to look far behind you,” Ellis’ uneasy warfaring stranger cautions. The album ends with a Stonesy, vamping electric anthem capped off with a sinuous bass solo. In between, there’s a steel guitar-driven take of the country gospel standard Golden Road, more of an understated lament for the present than a look toward a heavenly future. There’s also a slowly unwinding, abrasive, fiddle-driven cover of the Clash’s Straight to Hell, revealing what a dis that song is. The Complainer, a lickety-split punk rock song, wouldn’t be out of place on X’s Wild Gift. And the brooding janglerock anthem The Collector makes the connection between exploring the folk song archive and exploring the many ways of getting one’s heart broken. Solid tunesmithing, purposeful playing, impactful vocals, smart lyrics and imaginatively curated traditional tunes combine to make this album one of the best of 2013.