March 10, 2005
by BOB DORAN
THINGS WERE NOT GOING PERFECTLY ON THE WILDERS' [photo at left] TOUR. Their vintage Winnebago temporarily gave up the ghost somewhere in New Mexico, forcing them to cancel a show in Flagstaff. When I rang the band's fiddler, Betse Ellis, the band was waiting patiently while Nappy the grease monkey fiddled with the engine.
"We met this awesome fellow who's a great mechanic," said Betse with enthusiasm. "Nappy rules! He's putting in the carburetor as we speak." Is Nappy a country fan? "He actually prefers Iron Maiden, but at least two members of the Wilders are Iron Maiden fans, too," she continued after laughing loudly.
Ellis explained that the RV may need loving care, but "It's a lot better than living in a van. We've been playing all these bluegrass festivals, and not all of them have backstage amenities for the performers, so it's nice to have a home on wheels with us.
"We cut our teeth playing bluegrass festivals even though we're not really a bluegrass band. We kind of provide a change of pace at a lot of the festivals."
If they don't play bluegrass, where do they fit in? "We basically describe ourselves as an old time country band. I tell people, if they know anything about the early days of the Grand Ole Opry, that's what we're about -- there's a variety -- we switch gears readily because we all have a wide range of taste in music. We can shift from a hard-driving old time fiddle tune to a honky tonk thing, then into a country weeper. And yeah, we play some bluegrass tunes, pay homage to Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. Who wouldn't? When we had to boil it down for our show posters we thought about it and we say, we're a hillbilly riot, but without the violence."
Betse has won her share of fiddle contests, although she says she doesn't really like playing the highly precise "contest style," which she says, "can seep out the soul of the music." Trained on classical violin, she didn't get into old time fiddling until the '90s, "just before the inception of The Wilders." That was when she and fellow Wilder Phil Wade were playing as an improvisational duo called The Dhurries, Phil experimenting with sitar while Betse played violin.
"We were strongly influenced by Indian classical music," Betse explained. "Phillip took me to this Indian concert in the Kansas City area where they brought in one of the masters of Indian violin. She was a big influence, but we weren't trying to [play like that]. We were trying to express ourselves, celebrating music that we loved, but writing our own tunes, too -- things that didn't sound like anything else. It was definitely part of our musical past and part of where The Wilders came from."
Things changed when Betse and Phil met Ike Sheldon, a former opera singer turned guitarist who was moving away from indie pop and getting into country music, relearning songs he'd heard in his childhood by guys like Tom T. Hall. Phil put away the sitar and picked up the mandolin and banjo his father had given him, and they learned to play a few Doc Watson tunes. The repertoire expanded from there, covering many aspects of country and eventually adding Wilders' originals.
"We've spent a lot of time celebrating the music of the past and now, we're like `Hey, let's get our own voices out there.' We've been working on original material and we've recorded a number of our own songs. We recorded in Louisiana in January with Dirk Powell," a producer/roots musician who has been involved with a number of Rounder Records projects and with the soundtrack for the film, Cold Mountain. "He's an amazing musician and producer. He put down a bunch of our originals for an album that's still in production. We're performing a number of those songs now."
Will you find elements of Indian classical music in The Wilders' current repertoire? "No, no, no," said Betse with a laugh. "We're not into that. We're happy with the sound we've grown and it has enough variety as it is. We don't need to do anything crazy like that. And we don't want to -- we love the groove that we have developed as a band."
While the band basically walks the line in their choice of country tunes, they have been known to stray from the path on occasion. "We have one serious cross-genre song," admitted Betse, "something we learned for a wedding. I won't tell you the name of the song, but I'll tell you the artist: We do a Devo song -- honky-tonk style. We do it at bar shows once in a while `cause it's really fun, but we won't do Devo at a bluegrass festival. That would probably be a little much for the [bluegrass] audiences."
Where do they want to take things next (once the RV is repaired)? "It's hard to say. Even though we've been a band for a number of years, only last year did we get to travel outside of our region. We played coast-to-coast last year, played a bunch of festivals and towns routed along the way. This year we're doing that times 10.
"We started playing the early festivals in February and we're booked through the end of October. We'll be playing a lot of new places. As long as people like it and we're having a good time, there's no reason to stop. We've been playing bigger and bigger stages; we're dying to get on the Grand Ole Opry. We're really, really hoping to make that happen. Talk about paying homage, that's the mother church of country music. Other than that we're just excited to get to play places we wouldn't get a chance to visit if it weren't for the band. And we've heard Arcata is really cool. We hope to see you there."
Catch The Wilders' nonviolent hillbilly riot at Muddy Waters Monday, March 14, at 8 p.m. For more on the band, including some live MP3s, go to www.wilderscountry.com.
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