Ellis Dyson & The Shambles are a rowdy bunch of swinging jazz cats harkening a sound of the past. They don’t just “try” to play like old-time jazz musicians—they create new material in a language in which few are currently fluent. Ellis Dyson & The Shambles live and breathe jazz styles many have abandoned. Swing, traditional New Orleans jazz, ragtime, old-time, gypsy jazz and other styles ring as real as if penned during the Prohibition Era in a shotgun shack on Frenchmen St.
They are preserving a nearly lost form of American music and bringing past into the present with a sound so authentic it will make you think you’ve stepped back in time. GrassRoots had a chat with Ellis Dyson & the Shambles’ banjo player and frontman, Ellis Dyson, where he talked about his in-depth exploration of sounds from the past and how he hopes to preserve them.
Dyson started listening to swing and old-time music and playing old-time banjo when he was 18. Once he started on the path, he went “down a rabbit hole,” devouring 19th and early 20th-century music. That voracity has never left Dyson, and he remains a serious student of old-time sounds. According to Dyson, “A lot of what I try to do is musicology. I try to keep a clear mind about where the music we are playing comes from and who created it. I want to preserve those traditions, but still exist in the modern realm of music.”
Roscoe Holcomb was the old-time banjo player that started it all for Dyson. Holcomb was a coal miner from the mountains of Kentucky who is known for his falsetto voice and his unique style of banjo playing. Dyson dove into old recordings and learned Holcomb’s repertoire, but was also led to old-time jazz via Louis Armstrong.
“My ear evolved, I started understanding the music more, and I started exploring more,” said Dyson. “There is so much old-time jazz, and I am trying to get to as much of it as I can. It never ends, and I have to accept that I can’t listen to it all.” It sounds like Dyson is trying to get it all in his ear, anyway, and that effort shines through his music. “A lot of the music I play is basic and direct at heart,” explained Dyson. “It’s the nuance of it I have had to work most on. The hardest part for me has been making these innately simple songs really swing. The more I listen to the greats, the more I understand how to do that.”
About six years ago, when Dyson felt he was getting better as a musician, he sought out other musicians playing in the styles he was pursuing. Slowly and surely, members of The Shambles stumbled in from the UNC-Chapel Hill Music Department. “Danny Abrahams and I were the first two,” shared Dyson. “We would rehearse in Kenan Music building on campus, and we were right there in the thick of it. There is a great jazz program at Carolina. Neither Danny nor I were majoring in music while in school, but Danny was minoring in it, and he was involved in all the jazz groups at school. I got lucky falling in with all these great musicians who had a much deeper understanding of music than I did.”
Dyson may have started this journey as a listener and a novice player, but he has evolved into a confident bandleader who can make a dance floor shimmy, sweat, and sin. His dedication to his craft and study of American music history, mostly through intense listening, has not only moved crowds but inspired listeners to dig deeper into these nearly long lost musical styles. “I hope the music pushes listeners to explore as I do,” revealed Dyson. “Of course, I want them to buy a ticket and see us again, and buy our CD, but ultimately I want to preserve these traditional forms of music. This is music that was built here in our country in a time when there was tremendous adversity. It shouldn’t just die out. It’s not fair to the music or the people who created it. It’s damn good music.”
You can join Ellis Dyson & The Shambles on their mission to preserve early forms of American music at the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance in our Dance Tent on Friday, May 3rd. Ellis Dyson & The Shambles are also involved in our Roots in the Schools program, which you can learn more about here.
BUY TICKETS FOR SHAKORI GRASSROOTS FESTIVAL OF MUSIC & DANCE HERE
LEARN MORE ABOUT ELLIS DYSON & THE SHAMBLES HERE
Photos by Kendall Atwater