ASU upholds musical heritage with bluegrass project

Article Published: Dec. 3, 2009 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
ASU upholds musical heritage with bluegrass project

Wilkes County musician Eric Ellis tunes his banjo prior to a recording session. A North Carolina Arts Council grant awarded to Appalachian State University helped support a project to document the regional musical tradition. The project evolved from a class on the traditions of bluegrass music.

Photo by Leila Weinstein

A college class in bluegrass traditions has resulted in the release of a bluegrass CD featuring banjo player Eric Ellis of Wilkes County.

Leila Weinstein and Emily Schaad, now graduates of Appalachian State University, began planning the project while enrolled in the Appalachian studies class "Bluegrass Traditions" taught by Dave Haney, vice provost for undergraduate education at Appalachian.

Ellis was an artist-in-residence in Haney's class in which Weinstein and Schaad were enrolled.

Haney is a bluegrass musician himself having played guitar and sung lead vocals with Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys in the 1980s.

Haney, Schaad and Weinstein received a $7,250 grant from the North Carolina Arts Council to produce the CD recording, "Every Night Before Breakfast." The North Carolina Arts Council is an agency of the Department of Cultural Resources and the National Endowment for the Arts, which believes that a great nation deserves great art.

Additional support was provided by the Center for Appalachian Studies in University College at Appalachian State University.

"The project gave them real world experience in writing a grant, which required them to learn about the N.C. Art Council's funding process, to research Eric's background, and to put together a multi-media package to send in with the grant application," Haney said. "Emily moved out of state after she graduated from the Appalachian Studies program, but Leila remained in the area, so she was able to see the project through its various stages of execution, including recording, and design."

Recordings such as the Ellis project help sustain the region's musical heritage, Haney said.

"Ellis has helped preserve and perpetuate a regional musical tradition that stretches to the beginnings of bluegrass music," he said. "The recording of the CD will help further preserve and promote the high level of regional bluegrass banjo playing in the Wilkes County area and beyond."

Ellis learned to play banjo from family members and other regional musicians, and by playing along with the recordings of Earle Scruggs and other banjo players.

Weinstein and Schaad served as coordinators and production assistants for the project.

Weinstein has produced and directed the documentary films "There's a Little Blues in Everything I Play: The Music of Roger Hicks" and "The Fingerpicking Guitar of Clarence Greene."

Schaad plays Appalachian fiddle and banjo and is a classical violinist and educator. She has produced recordings by fiddler Junior Daugherty and Strawberry Hill Fiddlers.

Ellis, who was inducted into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame in January, has recorded with renowned bluegrass musicians including Jim Shumate, Jim Buchanan, Wes Golding, Tony Rice and Bobby Hicks.

In addition to Ellis' banjo playing and baritone vocal harmony, musicians on the CD include David Johnson (fiddle), David Haney (guitar and vocals), Nick Chandler (mandolin), Billy Gee (bass and vocals), Bobby Hicks (fiddle) and Ron Swann (vocals).

The CD includes two of Ellis's compositions - "Every Night Before Breakfast" and "Cedar Creek." It also features bluegrass tunes by Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Steve Earle and others.

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