Northeast Musician Betse Ellis, of old-time folk bands Betse & Clarke and Short Round Stringband, moved to Kansas City, Missouri 33 years ago after receiving a full-ride scholarship to the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance.
She has lived in Kansas City ever since.
“It just became home,” Ellis said.
Ellis and Clarke Wyatt moved to Northeast Kansas City a couple years ago. Ellis said she loves the Northeast because of the diversity and creative scene.
“Kansas City alone is just an amazing creative scene, as we all know,” Ellis said. “It’s just astonishing in all artistic pursuits and beyond.”
Ellis first got involved in music at age 6 after her mom saw an ad in the paper for free beginner violin lessons for kids
“My first violin teacher was really inspiring, brilliantly talented, just a tremendous performer, and it obviously had an impact on me,” she said. “He was a great teacher for kids and I was hooked right from the beginning. Somehow, fate arranged it. It seemed to be what I was meant to do.”
Entering college, Ellis said she thought her goal was to become a professional symphony musician.
“But honestly, I just wanted to rock,” Ellis said.
Right after college, Ellis played violin in a rock band. A few years later, she heard bluegrass music for the first time. After telling her boss at the Nelson Atkins Museum about it, he loaned her three bluegrass records.
“That just sealed the deal,” Ellis said. “It was like, okay, that’s it. Getting into music to begin with was an awesome start and became my life, but what really became my livelihood was this old-time music. That’s when I found my purpose…I continue to be inspired by the great and seemingly simple music of the past.”
Bluegrass music inspired Ellis to form a new band, The Wilders. The band was together for 16 years. They toured Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada and Alaska. After The Wilders disbanded, Ellis toured and performed solo. She said this was difficult, because she was lonely driving around by herself.
“I was at a crossroads and seriously thinking about switching careers, thinking ‘what do I do now? How can I live and can I manage to live any other way?’” Ellis said. “A lot of things happened at the same time. My father passed away, and a couple weeks later, I saw Clarke while playing a solo show here in town, but we didn’t know each other yet.”
A couple weeks after that (five years ago), Clarke and his friend came to see Ellis play at a show, and a mutual friend introduced them to each other.
Clarke was also at a crossroads. He grew up in Kansas City, but he had been away for about seven years. He happened to be visiting, and he planned on going back to Texas to live with his parents until his friend convinced him to stay.
Ellis and Wyatt became a couple shortly after that. They first played music together at a music festival shortly after becoming a couple.
“Clarke was a closet banjo picker at the time,” Ellis said. “He taught himself how to play the banjo. He’s a brilliant musician. At the festival, he brought his banjo and then we played at night together and it was like ‘oh, this is interesting. Maybe we should start a band?’ and then we did and all of a sudden, here we were. We were a couple and then we were putting a band together.”
Ellis and Wyatt have performed across the United States and Ireland. They also teach music lessons at workshops and camps all around the world—Belgium, Scotland, Alaska and Yukon.
“We’re really motivated to help people feel empowered and excited and strong as musicians,” Ellis said. “We learn so much from the process of teaching.”
Ellis said that to be a full-time musician, you have to love it.
“You don’t usually get into music for the money, or any creative art,” Ellis said. “You have to be drawn into it. It has to be the thing or else nothing. Yet, these opportunities to travel the world and meet people is an incredible opportunity, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
To listen to and read more about Betse & Clarke, visit betseandclarke.com.