photo by Michael Woodall

Dolan Ellis

Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: Spotlight Issue: March 2016
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Arizona’s Official State Balladeer

In 1996, singer Paula Cole lamented “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” That year, one such cowboy was hunkered down in Ramsey Canyon near the Mexican border, building an ark of songs and stories called the Arizona Folklore Preserve. It’s one of many things Dolan Ellis has done to get Arizonans tuned in to the sonic landscapes surrounding them. Ellis earned acclaim as an original member of Grammy Award-winning folk ensemble The New Christy Minstrels, who were regular guests on The Andy Williams Show, and recruited Kenny Rogers to take his place. Now 80, Ellis is entering his 50th year as Arizona’s Official (and so far, only) State Balladeer, and continues to play from his own catalogue of more than 300 songs, plus a trove of Arizona tunes by other artists. Ask Ellis where all the cowboys have gone, and he’ll tell you they live in songs.

What do you do as official state balladeer?
It’s just kind of like a vote of support for what I do. There’s no pay or anything that goes with it. But my certificate is identical to the certificate [a member of] House of Representatives gets when they’re sworn into office. It’s signed by the governor, the secretary of state and all that... I’ve performed for hundreds of thousands of school kids over the years, and I try to do good with my music, for the state. I keep writing, keep traveling, keep busy.

When cooking up an Arizona ballad, what are some of the key ingredients?
Well, the experience. Something has to inspire it... I really do like songs about things of antiquity, and I also like songs about the beauties of our state and the emotional value and psychological value that comes from that beauty, and the value it gives us as human beings. I’ve just always felt that both antiquity and the beauty of Arizona – there’s a deeper use and a deeper understanding of those things that reaches inside of us and give us greater fiber as human beings, makes us realize there are things in life much more important than ourselves.

Tell me about the photos you incorporate in your performances.
All my photographs come from my personal experiences from traveling way over a million miles around this state... I have photographs of interesting people, interesting places, interesting moments in the desert. Many times, these experiences would inspire the lyrics, and sometimes I would write a song with lyrics, and then I would go out and find the photography to go with the lyrics. But most of the inspirations have come from traveling the state – camping and hiking and four-wheeling and all those sorts of things that I’ve done for so many years.

Can you tell us a story about Kenny Rogers?
I was the first to quit [The New Christy Minstrels]... I truly missed Arizona. And I came back home and went back to work doing the same kind of stuff I do today. Well, I was there to do a show in Houston, Texas, and I went to one of the hotels, and there was a great jazz trio playing. After the set, they all came and sat at my table, and among them was Kenny Rogers. And he was the bass [player]. We went out for breakfast afterwards... and he said he’d like to get into the big time and get out of Houston, which was much smaller in those days. And [The New Christy Minstrels] needed somebody to take my place. I knew there was hole in the lineup. And of course, I just fell over when I heard Kenny sing. Who doesn’t?... He came over to the hotel, we called the managers, and I told them I had found a talent in Houston that had an incredible voice and was a fine bass man, and so they put Kenny on the phone and had him sing on the phone... and he was hired. Just a few days later, he had his bags packed and was on his way to California.

Find a streaming archive of Ellis’ Arizona ballads at dolanellis.com.

VIDEO EXTRA - Check out phoenixmag.com/web-extras or our tablet editions (available on iTunes and Google Play) for exclusive behind-the-scenes video of the PHOENIX magazine photoshoot with Dolan Ellis.