Let Arizona State Balladeer Dolan Ellis (Spotlight) regale you with tales of his decades in music in this extended interview and video.
Dolan Ellis, Arizona's Official State Balladeer
In 1996, singer Paula Cole lamented “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” That same year, one Arizona cowboy built a veritable arc of cowboys and their poetry in Ramsey Canyon called the Arizona Folklore Preserve, a museum and music venue dedicated to the songs and stories of the Grand Canyon State. It's just one of many things Dolan Ellis has done to get Arizonans tuned in to the sonic landscapes that surround them. This year marks Ellis' 50th as Arizona's Official (and so far, only) State Balladeer – a position offered to him by then-Governor Sam Goddard in 1966. By then, Ellis had already earned acclaim as an original member of folk ensemble The New Christy Minstrels, regular guests on The Andy Williams Show who won a Grammy Award in 1963, and discovered and recruited Kenny Rogers to take his place in the group. Now 80, Ellis continues to perform around the state, playing from his own catalogue of more than 300 songs, plus a trove of Arizona tunes by other artists, including the official state song, “I Love You, Arizona,” penned by Rex Allen Jr. Ask Ellis where all the cowboys have gone, and he'll tell you they live in songs.
Why is the Arizona Folklore Preserve so important to you?
I felt that Arizona needed a place that would be dedicated specifically to collecting and housing the songs and legends and myths of Arizona. I looked around and I saw that we had museums for photography, we had museums for painters, we had libraries for authors, but as far as the Arizona folklore and the folk singers and the cowboy poets and that sort of thing, I just didn't see a place where we could honor those people, and to present those people and their works in a manner that would be respectful to their work. So I had that property in southern Arizona, and I chunked off four acres of it, and we went to work. We got started on the little house it had on it, which was built in 1929, and I did shows there for several years. I didn't charge for the shows. Put the money in the bank, built a bank account – I paid all the utilities and everything out of my own pocket, just to get it going – and then ultimately, we got the attention of the University of Arizona campus down there in Sierra Vista... and the dean of that campus got on our board of directors. We are 501(c)3 nonprofit. Then from that, we got the university to become interested in helping us to build the new folklore center, and in exchange for their help, we told them that when the center was built and was free and clear, then the whole nonprofit would be gifted to the university and the state of Arizona, and it would become their property, their building, everything. But in return they were to run it as a folklore center for the state of Arizona in perpetuity. That has all transpired. The property is now state property, and the University of Arizona administrates that property.
What does one 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. And I got that, and I went ‘Well, I think that’s just really what I’d like to be’... I camped on it. All my life I have. 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.
What are some of your favorite songs about Arizona?
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. As far as the beauties go, I've written a song called “Song of Spring,” and it talks about... the emotions of the spring. Songs of antiquity – one of my most recent songs is a song about Casa Grande, the ancient Hohokam ruin down in Coolidge... I wrote that because I think the people of the Phoenix area – we have so many new people that just don't know about the Hohokam. You ask the average person, 'What's the Hohokam?' and they'll say 'A freeway.' They don't know about this ancient civilization that Phoenix is literally built over the top of... they absolutely had a developed civilization, and Casa Grande was left behind.
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've used my four-wheel drive vehicle as the means to get me there and home again, and 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 have an interesting story on Kenny Rogers. I don't know if it's appropriate or your article or not. But I was the first to quit [The New Christy Minstrels]. I loved singing with the group and all of that, but Hollywood and all that was just not my cup of tea. I truly missed Arizona. Everybody thought I was crazy for quitting the group. I quit right at the peak of our success. 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 looking for some live entertainment. I went to one of the hotels, and there was a great jazz trio playing. And they knew I was in the audience, and back in those days, it was kind of a big deal because we were so hot nationally. When they knew I was in the audience, they kind of made over me a little bit. So after the set, they all came and sat at my table, and among them was Kenny Rogers. And he was the bass man, with that jazz trio. And Kenny came to me – we went out for breakfast afterwards – and he was going through a divorce, 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 they 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? So I said, 'Kenny, I just quit. I know there's a slot there.' And so he asked if I would call, and I said I would. He came over to the hotel, we called the managers, and I told them that I had found a talent in Houston that had an in incredible voice and was a fine bass man, and so they put Kenny on the phone and had him sing on the phone, in my hotel room. And he was hired. Just a few days later, he had his bags packed and was on his way to California, and that was the beginning of Kenny Rogers.
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