The Kennedy Center

Tony Ellis


A veteran of Bill Monroe’s early-‘60s Blue Grass Boys, North Carolina native Tony Ellis is able to drive the five-string with the best of them, as he did on the acclaimed 1993 Masters of the Banjo tour and album produced by the National Council for Traditional Arts. Tony also has deep roots in old-time music, having had a long musical association with legendary fiddler Tommy Jarrell and others.

His “Appalachian eloquence” – a deeply personal approach to the banjo and fiddle in the form of highly original compositions – has defined his sound over the past three decades. It has earned him numerous honors, including the inaugural Ohio Heritage Fellowship Award for Performing Arts in 2003. Playing with a clear, ringing three-finger roll, he utilizes a variety of old-timey modal tunings combined with elements of bluegrass, parlor music, steamboat calliopes, Irish music, ragtime and more.

His unique compositions have been featured in several Ken Burns documentaries, including Baseball and Horatio’s Drive as well as the television series Party of Five, Spongebob Squarepants, and an episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology by filmmaker John Landis. Tony’s compositions have been recorded by the Red Clay Ramblers, Áine Minogue, Alice Gerrard, and Jerry O'Sullivan. Among Tony's many album credits are four acclaimed solo albums: Dixie Banner, Farewell My Home, Quaker Girl and The Quest.

Tony Ellis has performed the world over including State Department tours of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Belarus, and Cuba. He has also performed at MerleFest, Wolftrap, and other notable venues; was featured in a 2003 special on the Travel Channel commemorating 9/11, America’s Voices: Celebrating Life; and appeared in 2005 with Earl Scruggs and film star/banjo picker Steve Martin on Late Night with David Letterman and at the New Yorker Festival. Martin, a longtime fan, recently interviewed Tony for an upcoming Banjo Newsletter feature. In April, Tony premiered a suite of his compositions performed with the Southeastern Ohio Symphony Orchestra. This is his second Kennedy Center appearance.

Based in Memphis, William Lee Ellis is Tony Ellis’ son and the godson of bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe. Bill holds a PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Memphis. He accompanies his father on Tony’s four albums of original compositions. Among William’s solo recordings are Conqueroo, picked by Acoustic Guitar magazine as one of the year’s best albums, and 2007’s God’s Tattoos. He has toured extensively with his father, as well as solo and in an acoustic blues duo with Larry Nager, including concerts in Cuba, Belarus, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Italy, Switzerland, Norway, France, and Scotland.

Louise Adkins is a folk musician based in Central Ohio. Louise specializes in the rarely heard missionary pump organ, adding a variety of textures to the group’s sound, ranging from calliope-like tones on Tony’s riverboat songs to eerie bagpipe drones on “Plockton Aire.” She and Tony have been married for 18 years and make their home in Circleville.

Larry Nager has played traditional American music for more than 40 years. He has performed and recorded with such bluegrass greats as Red Allen, Frank Wakefield, Vassar Clements and the Allen-Lilly Band, appearing with the last on Smithsonian-Folkways’ Classic Bluegrass Vol. 1. Now based in Nashville, he has played with the Ellis family since 1988.
Tony Ellis