Some years ago electronic and rock musician Brian Eno recorded a series of albums he referred to as ambient music. In the liner notes he mentioned that he tried to make music as enjoyable as it was ignorable. I liked the concept and listened to the albums a lot and found that he was right- if I had the music playing as background “noise” it was ignorable and pleasant; if I had the music playing as something to listen to, it was interesting and held my attention. I had never thought of this in terms of banjo music and wouldn’t have thought the concept was transferable but that is the first thing I thought of when I heard Tony Ellis’ 1993 recording Farewell My Home.
“Banjo playing” and “relaxing music” aren’t words you ordinarily find in the same sentence- that is of course unless they’re separated by the words “does not make for” or some such. Not everyone would agree with that though after listening to this Tony Ellis’ album Farewell My Home. This is a very nice album, it contains a lot of reflective, oftentimes simple and easy to listen to songs all played in Tony’s laid back thoughtful style and accompanied with only a guitar (played by his son Bill). To call these songs “ambient” is not technically correct but for me they definitely fit in with Eno’s idea about being as ignorable as they are interesting and so in my mind at least, I think of them as such. That’s not to say there aren’t also several up-tempo pieces that are maybe more in line with what you think of when you hear banjo music, it’s just that for me, the reflective ambient-like pieces really set this album apart from other banjo albums.
That there are only two musicians on this album points to the strength of the melodies and skill of the musicians and perhaps adds to the almost ambient nature of these pieces. As mentioned above, the guitar accompaniment is done by William Lee Ellis, who is a respected musician in his own rite. The guitar work is very tasteful and both supports and interacts with the banjo but never leads or overshadows it.
Tony Ellis is not a household name I guess, so I will give you a brief summary of who he is and why we want to listen to him. At 20 years of age, Tony became one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and played many times at the Grand Old Opry and also participated in several recordings in the two and a half years he was with Monroe (1/1960-6/1962). He has played Carnegie Hall with Mac Wiseman (1962), Wolftrap (1994), 1996 Summer Olympics ceremony in Atlanta Georgia, toured Japan and Latin America as a musical ambassador (and also toured such countries as Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland and Wales), won two awards from the Ohio Arts Council, been on the faculty of the Tennessee Banjo Institute (1990, 1992) and the Maryland Banjo Academy (1998), did music for the soundtrack of Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary and also in a BBC documentary Echoes of America, recorded four critically acclaimed albums, as well as having played in many festivals and colleges throughout the country and has been nominated for the National Heritage Fellowship Award.
As I said, not everything on here is “ambient”, those are just what I like best. I tried to describe each of these pieces but the descriptions ended up sounding too similar so I’ll just say the following songs are my favorites on this album and I listen to them frequently. They are calm and relaxing and beautiful and their simple melodies invoke an idea of peace and a comfortable feeling. I would say that they “feel like home” but that would be too corny so I won’t say it (but they do). At this time of year- the upcoming Thanksgiving break that is- I think they are a good listen. My favorites: Farewell My Home, Cherry Blossom Waltz, Wind Chimes and Nursery Rhymes and Straw Dolls.
This being the technological age that it is, McConnell Library is able to offer you a link to listen to this album from wherever you happen to be reading this (provided you are a member of the Radford University family!).