Eric Ellis grew up in North Wilkesboro North Carolina and is known as one of the best banjo players from the area. Although he works days for the NC DOT, he has developed one of the best known regional solo careers and has performed with entertainers like Bobby Hicks, Tony and Wyatt Rice and Jimmy Gaudreau. He can be heard on WKBC Radio on Friday mornings performing for the Main Street Music and Pawn Hometown Opry in North Wilkesboro.
Eric Ellis was born on August 12, 1958 in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. He grew up in the Mount Pleasant area of Wilkes County and started playing the guitar at age five. At the age of fifteen he was given his first banjo from his father, made by his uncle Bill Johnson and friend Jack Williams. He started playing the banjo locally with musicians Tiny Pruitt, Steve Kilby and Harvey Baity. In 1978, he played in a band called ‘Heritage’ with Wendell and Darel Wiles from Elkin. He stayed with the band for about six months and moved on to another band called ‘Wells Fargo’ based out of Yadkinville. Eric stayed with the band for about a year, then moved on to freelancing.
Over the years Eric has been a member of local and regional bands, and for the past two years he has played selected dates with David Person and 1946. He has since played with popular bluegrass musicians like Jim Shumate, Tony Rice, Jimmy Gaudreau, Jim Buchanan and George Shuffler. Although Ellis is best known for his talents on the banjo, he’s also a hot shot Nashville-style guitar picker. Today he passes on his musical knowledge as a teacher and mentor to younger upstart players.
The Primitive Quartet is a six-member gospel band that has been together for over 35 years. Their unusual beginning occurred during a fishing trip when they discovered they could harmonize. With music based on a shaped note style accompanied by acoustic instruments, they carry on the musical heritage of their region. National recognition has eluded them as they perform by choice within 300 miles of their home allowing them to spend more time with their families and their large following of friends.
The Primitive Quartet a seven-member band, has been traveling and singing gospel music for thirty-five years. Members are Larry Riddle, Reagan Riddle, Norman Wilson, Mike Riddle, Randy Fox, Jeff Tolbert and David Johnson. The quartet was formed as a result of a fishing trip when a few of the members, Furman, Norman Wilson, Reagan and Larry Riddle, sat around the campfire at night. They realized they had a four-part harmony and that was when they began singing at local churches. Their music is the traditional mountain shape note style singing accompanied by acoustical instruments including the mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitars and acoustic bass.
In 1978 Furman left the group to go into full time ministry and was replaced with Mike Riddle who played lead guitar and sang Baritone. Throughout the years the Primitive Quartet has recorded forty-three projects, made thirteen videos, five DVDs, as well as published five songbooks. Reagan Riddle wrote many of the songs recorded.
In 1986 Randy Fox from Richmond, Indiana joined the group and graced the group with his talent as a musician and singer, who sang with Joe Isaacs and the Sacred Bluegrass. In 1997 Jeff Tolbert from Mt. Airy, North Carolina joined the group as well. Jeff’s talents come from playing with the Easter Brothers, The Lewis Family and the Isaacs.
In 1981 God blessed the Primitive Quartet with a tract of land in ‘Hominy Valley’ located in Chandler, North Carolina. They name it ‘Hominy Valley Singing Grounds’ and on July 4th as well as in October, the Primitive Quartet hosts a gospel singing.
Today the Primitive Quartet group travels fifty thousand miles a year and does about a hundred fifty dates annually. They count it a privilege to be able to spread the gospel through their songs and their ultimate goal is to lead souls to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Mike Cross was born in Maryville, Tennessee and grew up in Lenoir, North Carolina. Although he loved stories and liked to write poems, he displayed no interest in music until a dedicated friend taught him a few chords on the guitar. Mike learned fast and began to originate melodies as background scenery to go with his stories and poems. His eclectic blend of folk, blues and country style sounds has given birth to a new style he calls “Appalachian Mountain Boogie Blues”. He has written a multitude of songs like “The Scotsman” in 1973, which became the theme song for the Dr. Demento Radio Show and was voted the funniest song ever written. Today Mike still performs, writes songs and is now on a new venue of hosting programs like the Wilkes Heritage Museum’s “Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame.”
Over the past 30 years Mike Cross has performed everywhere from raucous music clubs and college auditoriums to the refined concert settings of places like Symphony Hall in Boston. He’s even had the unique pleasure of performing on a Mexican Television Show entitled; "Chulas Frontieras" where in his first segment he followed a cock fight.
Events like this make his appearances on a variety of other radio and television shows such as "The Smothers Brothers CBS Television Special" seem very tame. But whether he’s standing alone on an outdoor stage in the High Sierras of California or playing his songs with a symphony orchestra out in the world somewhere, he’s comfortable, happy and quite at home.
Mike plays guitar and fiddle with reckless abandon and total disregard for his own safety, and his eclectic blend of folksy, bluesy, country sounds has given birth to a musical style he laughingly calls, "Appalachian Mountain Boogie Blues."
He has written a multitude of songs, several of which have become staples in the repertoires of many other performers. His song, "The Scotsman", which he wrote in 1973, has been the theme song for the Dr. Demento Radio Show and was once voted the Funniest Song Ever Written. Another song, "Leon McDuff," as recorded and performed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, served as a theme for the first Farm Aid concert. His songs and stories continue to be recorded and performed on stages, on broadcasts and around campfires throughout the known world by the great, the near great and real, honest to goodness human beings.
Mike was born in Maryville, Tennessee, October 25, 1946 and grew up in Lenoir, North Carolina. Although he loved stories and liked to write poems (even while sitting in his uniform in the dressing room before high school football games) he displayed no interest in music until the middle of his junior year at the University of North Carolina. An unexpected snow storm and a touch of the flu forced him to stay in a friend’s dorm room for the night. His friend’s roommate was a dedicated guitar player who believed that anyone who didn’t know how to play a song or two on the guitar was living a pointless, meaningless life. So, when he discovered that Mike didn’t know how to play, naturally he insisted on teaching him a few chords. By sunrise Mike was obsessed with the instrument and began to see how he could use the guitar to create melodies and set musical scenery to the stories he made up and the poems he wrote.
This innocent, unlikely occurrence completely changed his life and set him on the path he has followed to this day; writing songs, playing music, delighting and entertaining his audiences.
Nancy Watson, a native of Wilkes County, grew up with a love of music. As her children grew she became more and more involved with local theatrical and musical events. Her experiences with the Walker Center, a 1,200 seat auditorium, MerleFest ad Singing in the Foothills prepared her for the difficult task of overseeing a new musical endeavor, the “Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame”. With an expression of gratitude, the committee recognizes and thanks her for her leadership, as their dream became a reality.
Nancy Watson, a native of Wilkes County, grew up with a love of music. As her children grew she became more and more involved with local theatrical and musical events. Her experiences with the Walker Center, a 1200 seat auditorium, MerleFest and Singing in the Foothills prepared her for the difficult task of overseeing a new musical endeavor, the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame. With an expression of gratitude, the committee recognizes and thanks her for her leadership, as their dream became a reality.
Born in Spartanburg, SC in 1927, Don Reno was a bluegrass banjo pioneer whose style was widely admired. In 1948 Reno became a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Two years later with Red Smiley, he formed “Reno and Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups”, a partnership that lasted fourteen years and recorded over 100 influential albums. In 1964, after the retirement of Red Smiley, Reno and guitarist Bill Harrell formed “Reno and Harrell” followed by a solo career that lasted until his death in 1984. Reno accompanied Arthur Smith on Smith’s well-known recording of “Feuding Banjos”.
The importance of Don Reno – especially his work with Red Smiley – in the spreading of bluegrass music and its development as a defined genre of music is often underrated. Not only was he a brilliant and innovative 5-string banjo player, he was also a great bluegrass lead guitar picker – in the days when lead guitar in bluegrass was very rare. In fact, Don was the first to play lead guitar with a flat pick on a bluegrass recording. He could play all the instruments in a bluegrass line-up to a professional standard, was an excellent tenor singer and prolific composer. It’s interesting to note that having written his first song, ‘Jesus will Save Your Soul’, at the age of thirteen, his songwriting tally, by the end of his career, reached 500.
Born in Spartanburg, South Carolina on February 21, 1926, Don started playing music at the age of five and grew up enjoying the influences of J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers, the Delmore Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, Jimmy Rogers and the Monroe Brothers. He became one of the North Carolina school of the three finger banjo pickers after being tutored by Snuffy Jenkins, the great banjo player from those parts, who was also the main influence on banjo player, Earl Scruggs. Don had replaced Hoke Jenkins as banjo player with the Morris Brothers’ band around 1941 and by 1943, long before Scruggs, he was playing the smooth 3-finger roll, now recognized as an essential ingredient of bluegrass music.
The creator of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, invited Don to join his band in 1943 but Don declined as he had applied to join the army and was waiting to see if his application was successful. He had told Monroe that if the military would not take him, he would take the job.
Don was drafted and thereby hangs a tale as, eventually in late 1945, when the position of banjo player with Monroe was vacated by David “Stringbean” Akeman, it was taken by a young Earl Scruggs, who was exempted from military duty to look after his widowed mother. The Grand Ole Opry was taken by storm by the combination of Monroe’s hot mandolin playing and high lonesome singing together with the exhilarating new 3-finger banjo style of Earl Scruggs.
Don did work with Monroe later, after returning from military duty in 1948. By then, Scruggs was a star in his own right and had left Monroe along with guitarist/singer Lester Flatt to perform in the band, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys.
In the early days, Don Reno’s banjo playing was very similar to that of Earl Scruggs, but by the early 1950s, Don had purposely created a style all his own. His innovations included the use of two and three note chords in the construction of solos or, for slow songs, he would sometimes accompany them double time, using the thumb and one finger of his right hand on single strings to play runs similar to those played on guitar.
On leaving Monroe’s band in 1949, Don met Red Smiley, when they worked together in the bands of Tommy Magnus and Toby Stroud and in 1951 they formed their own band. Reno’s high, clear tenor singing and inventive banjo picking, together with Smiley’s distinctively smooth lead singing and solid guitar playing, created an irresistible combination.
Their first recording with King Records in 1952 was the Reno composition, ‘I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap’, which became a bluegrass standard. During this period they took other work and came together just to record. Throughout the years 1952-53 they recorded sixty sides with King, who, over the next twelve years, released an average of twelve singles a year by the band.
By 1955, to take further advantage of their successful recordings, Reno and Smiley formed a band (at the time they had a hit with their cover of Allen Shelton’s version of ‘Home Sweet Home’). By the summer of that year, they were performing on a Saturday night barn dance at WRVA in Richmond, Virginia on a program on WXEX, Petersburg, Virginia and touring country music parks.
The new band was called Don Reno, Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups. It’s interesting to note that their manager at that time was Carlton Haney, the visionary destined to become the organizer of the first 3-day bluegrass festival in 1965 at Roanoke, Virginia. An event that started the festival movement, which in turn provided a home and culture in which bluegrass music was able to support itself and become clearly recognized as a separate genre.
There is an important Dimension to bluegrass music, not always appreciated by its exponents, and that is, as “Entertainment”. Don Reno recognized and fulfilled that requirement to the letter. He acted as emcee and created elaborate comedy routines in which every member of the band dressed in costume. Don’s innate ability to entertain enabled the band to establish a successful country music career at a time when the trend was away from the original ‘Old-Timey’ sound.
It was Don who, in 1955, played on ‘Feuding Banjos’, later to be called ‘Dueling Banjos’ and to be made famous when played by banjo player Eric Weissberg and guitarist Steve Mandrell fro us in the film ‘Deliverance’. This was when Don was working with Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, the man who wrote that famous tune. On the original version, Don played 5-string banjo and Arthur played tenor banjo.
Don left Red Smiley and after leading a number of short-lived bands, joined up with Bill Harrell in 1966 for a fruitful 11-year partnership. Don knew Bill Harrell from when he (Bill) had worked as a mandolin player with him and Smiley back in 1955. Under the name the Tennessee Cutups, they initially recorded well known songs written by other groups, with an assortment of minor labels, in 1968 they produced the first three albums of new songs in a style similar to that of the old Reno and Smiley repertoire. In 1969 Smiley returned and began touring and recording with them, until his death in 1972.
While together, Reno and Harrell earned the honor of being the first American country band to perform at the United Nations headquarters in New York. They also played at the presidential inauguration of Richard Nixon in 1973. Although using the instrumentation of a bluegrass band, they did see themselves as a country band, as that was the area in which they enjoyed their greatest success.
In 1976, Reno and Harrell signed with CMR Records before their partnership came to an end in 1977. The reason for their parting was Bill Harrell’s involvement in a car crash in 1976 where he suffered a serious injury. Don used a replacement until Bill recovered, but during Bill’s recovery period, Don moved to live in Lynchburg, Virginia. By the time Bill was ready to return, they lived so far apart that Don thought it better to dissolve the partnership.
Don died on October 16, 1984 as a result of sugar diabetes. He left behind a legacy of sixty albums. The world lost an exuberant, witty and creative musician as well as an entertainer worthy of the description “A True Bluegrass Hero”.