William Lee Ellis, 'Ghost Hymns' | Album Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Music » Album Review

William Lee Ellis, 'Ghost Hymns'

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Published July 19, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated July 20, 2023 at 11:39 a.m.


(Yellow Dog Records, CD, digital)

An ex-lover of mine really, really hated The Lord of the Rings. She had a litany of gripes about J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy saga, including what she described as its "obsession with nepotism." She didn't love the story's reliance on bloodlines and heritage, often contrasting it to the real world, where royals who had insisted on "keeping it in the family" came out with cleft palates and anemia. (I swear this is a music review.)

While I disagreed with most of her criticisms of the books, they did make me wonder if greatness through blood held any sway in the real world. Music often presents us with fresh case studies in this area. From Leopold Mozart and his tyke Wolfgang to Bob and Jakob Dylan, it's not exactly rare to see kids follow their parents into the family business.

Enter William Lee Ellis. The Tennessee-born singer-songwriter and acoustic guitarist comes from a strong musical tradition: His father is North Carolina bluegrass legend Tony Ellis, who played banjo with Bill "the father of bluegrass" Monroe. With that sort of pedigree, it's not surprising that Ellis the younger makes music infused with the ancient DNA of American songwriting.

But Ellis, who has a PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Memphis and is an associate professor of music and chair of the fine arts department at Saint Michael's College in Colchester, is no rote research act. His fourth LP on Yellow Dog Records, Ghost Hymns, is a showcase of Ellis' synthesis of American roots music. From Delta blues to Appalachian folk to Southern gospel to bluegrass, Ellis takes a slow, hot, summer-paced tour through the bones of the songwriting tradition.

Opening track "Cony Catch the Sun" is a sonic time machine, with Ellis' fingerpicked guitar and weathered voice creating a mix of driving acoustic blues and Southern gothic dread. No other music, not even Swedish black metal, can touch the blues for its power to tell you life is short and full of pain, and Ellis wields that power with impressive expertise. When guest musician Andy Cohen comes in with a swaggering dolceola on "Flood Tale" and Ellis' 12-string guitar intertwines with it in lockstep, it's clear how strong a handle Ellis has on his source material.

For all his bluegrass heritage, Ellis shines brightest as a folk singer. "Pearl River Blues," featuring Burlington-via-Madagascar singer-songwriter Mikahely, is a beautiful acoustic guitar duet, the two musicians' chiming notes forming a bedrock for Ellis' elegantly raw vocal take.

Ellis produced Ghost Hymns with River Hartley and Larry Nager, and the three do an excellent job of balancing the album's sonic character. For songs so steeped in the musical traditions of the Old World, the production never feels like a pastiche.

It would be easy for Ellis to rely on his laurels and family reputation. But like Aragorn, son of Arathorn and first high king of Gondor, Ellis is more than his bloodline. He may have the traditions of American folk music flowing through his veins, but what he does with them on Ghost Hymns is a feat all his own. (So take that, Danielle.)

William Lee Ellis plays a release show at the Phoenix Gallery & Music Hall in Waterbury on Friday, August 4. Stream the album now at williamleeellis.bandcamp.com.

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