Acclaimed Americana/Blues guitarist William Lee Ellis was raised in the
deep roots of American music. Named after his godfather, legendary
bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, Ellis grew up in a musical family - his
father, Tony Ellis, was one of Monroe's Blue Grass Boys.
Growing up in Kingsport, Tennessee was as close to bluegrass heaven
as you could get - some of William Lee's earliest memories include
trips to Appalachian musician Tommy Jarrell's home with his father, and
being bounced on his godfather's knee. It was only natural for him to
take up the guitar, and Ellis spent his adolescence backing his
fiddle-and-banjo-playing dad at bluegrass festivals and contests across
In college, Ellis took his musical studies in a new direction,
spending the better part of a decade playing classical guitar and
earning a master's degree in classical performance from the University
of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music (CCM).
While there, Ellis chanced upon a musician who would change his
life: Piedmont blues giant Reverend Gary Davis. Folk-blues revivalist
Andy Cohen introduced Ellis to Davis's intricate finger-picking style,
which fascinated the classically-trained guitarist. "Davis was a great
sacred bluesman, and that's a genre I love dearly," Ellis says.
"There's combination of the heavenly and the hellish, there are
wonderful dynamics… tension and drama."
His discovery led Ellis to other bluesmen - Blind Blake, Lonnie
Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, and Willie McTell. Soon, Ellis had a
band of his own, the Midnight Steppers, an acoustic Delta/jug
band/rockabilly group that included longtime collaborator and compadre
Larry Nager. In the late '80s, the Steppers performed regionally at
festivals and on such national radio and TV programs as NPR's Mountain
Stage and TNN's Nashville Now.
Along the way, Ellis learned to combine Davis's finger-picking
technique with his classical performance background and the
bluegrass-infused memories of his youth. Yet it's clear that he's no
revivalist - Ellis writes his own unique music, using old blues forms
as a vocabulary to express his contemporary experiences. In his quest
to capture the timeless appeal of pre-war blues, and to make the
music's message live for today, Ellis has created a new style of
Americana / roots music - one that's all his own.
With three albums under his belt (1987's Righteous Blues; Preachin' in That Wilderness, a '92 collaboration with Andy Cohen and Eleanor Ellis; and 2000's The Full Catastrophe,
an album hailed by the international press from Billboard to the London
Times), Ellis entered the recording studio in mid-2002 to record his
finest record to date - Conqueroo.
Accompanied by longtime pal Larry Nager, Memphis soul group the
Masqueraders, vocalists Susan Marshall and Reba Russell, and his
father, William Lee Ellis laid out 13 elegant, eloquent tunes, ranging
from the soulful ("How the Mighty Have Fallen") to the heartfelt ("King
of the Mountain"), while touching on every emotion in between. On Conqueroo, Ellis is the vanquisher, the gentle master in control of his own musical destiny.
It's fitting that Ellis's current home is Memphis, Tennessee, the
birthplace of the blues. Kingsport, across the state, still boasts some
of the best bluegrass musicians performing today. And, in between the
two cities, there's Nashville - the state capitol, and the home of
country music. As exemplified by Conqueroo, William Lee Ellis's music draws from all three.