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Bluegrass Music

Red Ellis and the Forgotten History of Michigan Bluegrass

I recently read in the March issue of Bluegrass Unlimited that Red Ellis passed away in Little Rock, Arkansas on December 29, 2019. He was 90 years old. The paragraph in the “Life’s Highways” section noted his work in bluegrass gospel with Jimmy Williams and The Huron Valley Boys during the 1960s. The note made a few errors, stating he was born in 1919 and that he served in the Army during World War II (he actually served during the Korean War).

However, the most upsetting error to me was that there was no mention that most of Red’s recorded bluegrass work was done while he lived in the Detroit area. The notice was not well researched, suggesting that all of his work was performed while he lived in Arkansas. I have been doing some research on Red lately for possible induction into the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Hall of Honor. Red, shortly after his mustering out of the Army, moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan to work for American Airlines and later Ford Motor Company. He also worked as a DJ and engineer at local radio stations in the Ann Arbor area.

During this time, Red hooked up with mandolinist Jimmy Williams, who previously worked with The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and Mac Wiseman, to record and release a number of records for Starday label. He also recorded with The Huron Valley Boys and Red Ellis and The Crossmen. All of these recordings were gospel bluegrass in content, with many of them being re-released on the Old Homestead label out of Brighton, Michigan. He moved back to Arkansas in 1967, but reunited with Williams in 1971 to record two albums on the Jessup label out of Jackson, Michigan. His last few years were spent DJ-ing and occasionally performing in Arkansas.

This just seems to be one more example in which Michigan is often forgotten when it comes to talking about bluegrass music during the 1950s and 60s. The automobile industry was booming during this time, and many men from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and the Carolinas relocated to the Motor City for steady work. Want for back-home music made bluegrass and old-time country music extremely popular on the radio stations and in local dives. Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers got their first post-Monroe big breaks in Detroit performing on WJR as well as Casey Clark’s TV show on CKLW out of Windsor.

The meteoric rise of The Motown Sound suffocated the bluegrass scene in the Detroit area, with most popular artists moving back south by then. Heck, Charlie Moore even recorded a song in 1972 (which has been covered many times) called “I’m Leaving Detroit.” Today, while there is no great scene for bluegrass here, there are remnants of fans at the local Kentuckians of Michigan hall. The west side of the state has produced some fantastic talent, with the band Detour as well as guitar wizard Billy Strings making names for themselves. Even when bluegrass was at one of its lowest points during the 1970s, the Jessup label helped keep it alive, releasing two albums by Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys (featuring young versions of Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs).

The history books on bluegrass music seem to completely ignore how popular and developing the genre was during the 1950s and 60s in Michigan due to the automobile manufacturing workforce. It gets mentioned as a footnote at best. It is even more insulting when it gets misrepresented in coverage. It is high time that this small piece of bluegrass music history gets more recognition. There are a number of ancestors in Michigan who should be proud of what bluegrass meant to the area in past decades. Hopefully, organizations such as the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association and the West Michigan Bluegrass Music Association will step up even more to not only preserve, but to promote the great history that is there.

Chew on it and comment.