After Wilders go on hiatus, Betse Ellis will continue solo career

Fiddler Betse Ellis, who has played with the Wilders and other bands, has called Midtown home since 1990.

Posted by Joe Lambe

The Wilders band recently went into hiatus after a Kansas City gig, but fiddle player and Midtown resident Betse Ellis will not fade away.

She says she will tour and play alone, play as a guest with other bands and teach music, and do it all it from her Midtown base.

She studied and played classical violin from age 6 and moved from Arkansas in 1986 to attend the music conservatory at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

But other influences pulled her in different directions.

Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page were early heroes, along with the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads and the Clash.

“I wanted to be a rock and roll star when I was a kid,” she said.

Then came other heroes like John Hartford and her friend, Violet Hensley, an Arkansas fiddle player who is now 95 years old.


In Kansas City, Ellis went to nightclubs like The Point and played blues and other music before she and three others formed the Wilders 15 years ago. The band has had the same four members for 12 years. They toured the country and played in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany.

Among the first tours was one through the southwest in a 1982 Winnebago with a broken air conditioner.

The thermometer inside the travel trailer sometimes read 110 or 115, she said. “That was trial by fire.”

But the band survived that and much more.  Members became so close that they sometimes said it was like marriage without the perks.

At first they played music that formed the roots of bluegrass, along with obscure old songs and early country like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and the Carter Family.

Over the years and the course of 10 CDs, they did more and more original material like that on “The Wilders,” their latest CD.

On June 30, they played songs from that CD in a farewell concert to a packed house at Knuckleheads Saloon. At one point, as if on cue, a train chugged by the outdoor venue as the band played a train song.

“We had a great time,” Ellis said, “…but it was bittersweet.”

They will decide sometime later if they will ever regroup, she said, and she will start touring on her own in the fall.

“My job this year is to put myself out there and represent myself,” she said.

Fans can expect a performance that will vary from fiddle music and art folk songs like those she writes to versions of her personal favorites done by her rock heroes.

There will be gentle fiddle music like “Riverboat,” a tune she wrote in memory of John Hartford, who was also a riverboat captain.

But she can also make an acoustic violin sound like it’s going through an effects pedal on an electric guitar.

“I honed that skill with the Wilders,” Ellis said.