Though I was born and raised in Mississippi, my mother and grandparents were from the north, from Pennsylvania, and were transplants to the south. I grew up feeling like a transplant too. I didn’t have the drawl, I wasn’t raised on field peas and cornbread, and there was no bible thumping in our family to speak of. More than once, kids would say to me, “You talk funny”, my early introduction to irony. I felt like the proverbial stranger in a strange land a lot of the time, and sometimes still do.
I went to college at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. On Saturday evenings I’d drive home to my grandparents’ house in Clinton, a couple of hours away. It was great in the spring and on toward summer. Tooling down highway 49 in my little 1970, very used blue VW Beetle, channel hopping as radio stations faded in and out over the miles. I loved the ridges on the radio knob, the way they felt under my fingers as I cranked up and down the dial searching for a signal. One evening I was down on the left end of the dial and stumbled across a bluegrass song.
I almost switched the station automatically. My mother worked in sales at a country station, WJQS-AM, when I was a kid and was a country music fan. That naturally meant that country was insufferably uncool. I was a staunch rock and roll girl. Sure, my grandparents instilled a love of old jazz and big band and swing, but country? No thank you. Heck no. Ugh. Ew. Ick. Blech.
But this wasn’t exactly country. I kept listening. It was kind of like country, though. It stopped me. It felt almost subversive to listen, like I was discovering something about myself I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. It was embarrassing—and fascinating. I couldn’t decide how I felt about it. But I kept listening.
Then the song was over and the announcer was there, talking about the songs he played and the artists coming up. Watson, Lawson, Monroe, Clemens, Stanley, Hartford, Blake, Skaggs, Krauss, Grisman, Harris, O’Connor—I didn’t recognize a single name. I got the sense there was a huge body of music that I was totally unaware of, a solid rock wall of new songs and artists to chip away at and become familiar with if I wanted. The announcer, too, was a new voice. Bill Ellison. He was the antithesis of the usual slick DJ patter. He sounded like he was sitting on a porch, a yard dog dozing at his feet. So warm, friendly, casual, like a friend who happened to be on the radio. Half a dozen words and I was drawn in by the lilting rasp of his voice. He sounded like a real person. “You’re listening to Grassroots on Mississippi Public Broadcasting” he said, I felt like I had just found something big. I kept listening.
The music, too, sounded like it was made by real people, so plain and beautifully simple, yet so precise. It was like listening to living history. Some songs ran like a freight train at breakneck speed, rattling on the rails, threatening to throw a rod yet sticking the landing every time. Other songs were, as they say, high and lonesome (what a gorgeous phrase), aching with longing and regret. Some raised up praise to Jesus, but in such a sweet, simple, humble way that it felt truer than the ploddingly formal Anglian hymns we sang on our occasional churchgoings. This bluegrass was strange, beautiful, moving music, filled with pine trees and muslin cloth, iron and dirt, faith and love and loneliness and loss. Spare music with a shining, stripped down sound. Not much vibrato, just clean, clear tones, authentic and earnest but with a sly sense of humor now and again. And it was so personal, so intimate. I felt like I could hear the singer and the song, the picker and fiddler and mandolin player all standing together, gathered around a microphone big as a hubcap, leather shoes tapping the floorboards in mad time.
And the harmonies, lord, the harmonies. Tight as a pair of starlings in flight, so subtle and entwined I almost couldn’t pick it out. But when I found my alto part and settled into it, what joy and satisfaction! Singing along with the windows down at the magic hour, hair in my face, sun keeping time through the trees, fields unfurling on either side with lush velvet winter rye, a rich riot of greens in the raking light of evening. I learned the particular way each note, each word, sits on your tongue like a sheltered dove before taking flight over a swell of guitar and banjo. I learned how to tense my jaw, biting into the words like a crisp apple, and how to let it flow loose and warm like sunlight through honey. I could sing long and loud, there in my VW Bug—not well, and not for show but for the sheer pleasure of it. It helped me understand the music and feel the stories behind it. For maybe the first time in my misfit life, it made me consciously, deeply grateful to be in—and from—Mississippi.
I still felt like an outsider but it didn’t matter. The bluegrass songs on that radio show just spoke to me. I may not come from twelve generations of Mississippians, but I connected with that music as if I had. It was the first time I consciously felt that maybe I was part of Mississippi after all. This was music I had discovered and fallen in love with on my own. No one told me to. I found it alone, and alone it became mine.
I spent a lot of time listening to Grassroots during that time in my life. Now, many years later and after decades away, I’m back in Mississippi. And in that funny way that life sometimes goes, that selfsame Bill Ellison and his wonderful wife Lynn are now our neighbors. The first time I got to talk to him on the street I tried to explain how much Grassroots meant to me, how it came out of nowhere onto my radio dial, helped me find my feet and opened up a new world of musical bliss that I still hold close today. But I’m pretty sure it just came out as squeaks and stammers and hand gestures, because I was trying to fit the story of my life onto a gum wrapper and failing. But I did manage to send him the link to my post about WZZQ, where he worked. He read it and said maybe I should do some more writing, and I knew in that moment what I wanted to write about.
So today, on Bill Ellison’s birthday, I’m the one getting the gift—the chance to try again to tell him what his show means to me. And I’m just one person. Countless people around the state over the years feel just as strongly about Bill and about Grassroots as I do, and they know a whole lot more of the music than I ever will. But I’m glad to let him know one girl’s story, anyway. Doing a radio show can be a lonely, isolating business. You sit in a room by yourself and try to figure out what to play and what to say. You don’t ever really know if anyone’s listening, even when you’re looking at the Arbitron numbers. Bill Ellison’s commitment to Grassroots is a true labor of love. It is a gift, keeping the flame of roots music alive in Mississippi, where it needs to stay vibrant more than anywhere else, because this is the place where it all began.
He doesn’t just spin the records. He and Temperance Babcock play it live around the state on a regular basis and they’re mighty good at it. I’m listening to Grassroots on MPB as I write this tonight, and it’s as sweet and high and lonesome as it ever was, and Bill is in fine voice. And it moves me just as much. My sweet grandparents are long gone now, but when I listen to Grassroots on a Saturday evening, it feels like I’m back there in my VW Bug, flying over the bumps, singing along with Alison Krauss, on my way to their house, my home, where joy and love and home cooking await. So happy birthday, Bill Ellison, Thank you for that memory, and for what you do for the music lovers of Mississippi. We are so lucky to have you.