Pope family competing at youth bluegrass contest in Branson
By Jeremy Weldon
A local bluegrass group will vie this weekend for the top award in the “Youth in Bluegrass” competition held annually in Branson, Mo., in an event that attracts America’s premiere pickers and singers.
Over the past decade, Jonathan Ellis of Pope, an accomplished guitarist, has used his talent for ministry playing in area churches and quietly raising a family with his wife Misty. The couple’s children naturally moved into music and have become among the best bluegrass youth groups in the country.
Just 20 groups from hundreds of entries are selected each year to wrap up the month-long Bluegrass and BBQ celebration at the “Youth in Bluegrass” contest. The contest will be Saturday (May 26) on the main stage at Silver Dollar City.
Sponsored by the famed country radio station KSMU, first prize is $1,500 and five groups will receive checks. The real prize for winners, however, is the national recognition the award brings. With all the major players in the increasingly-popular bluegrass genre at the festival, winners are almost assured of recording contracts and tour schedules if interested.
Groups who don’t place in the competition are often asked to take on regular dates to perform at Silver Dollar City and other venues. The networking possibilities are abundant.
Without much promotion, though, the Ellis family is already singing and playing on the road almost every weekend, and often on weeknights. In 2017, Ellis said, the family played 87 different dates in churches, at festivals, and other booked events.
Their musical ministry has taken them all over the Southeast, mostly by word of mouth from church to church and from posted videos on social media. It was a YouTube submission by a fan of the family performing that earned them the invitation to Saturday’s contest.
Ellis, quiet and unassuming, has worked in the parts department at Hallmark Ford for 17 years. The invitation came as a surprise to him because he normally would not enter the family in a contest. “We have never asked to go anywhere,” he said. “The Lord opens the doors for us.”
The son of Rev. Tim Ellis, Jonathan has deep roots in Panola County, and most them have strings and chords attached. His uncle is Steve McGregor, long recognized as one of the best musicians in the area. His father, well known for his preaching and mission work, has also played guitar and sung for years. His mother Lisa plays church piano and gives lessons.
When the elder Ellis was preaching in the downtown Memphis missions early in his ministry, young Jonathan would tag along to watch and help where needed. Soon he was strumming the guitar and his parents were startled by how quickly he began to play.
In a short time, son was out picking father with no formal training, playing to the delight of the homeless and downtrodden of Memphis. Even now, though Jonathan has honed his playing into the tight and precise style that defines the best of bluegrass, father and son will occasionally pair up to play “mission music” with distinctive hard licks and fast strumming that rambles and shuffles and thrills listeners.
When Rev. Ellis moved his family home to Panola County and in 2002 started Bethany Baptist Church, four miles east of Batesville on Eureka Rd., both Jonathan and his younger brother Daniel helped in all areas of the ministry, especially in music. Since then, the brothers have each followed in their dad’s footsteps and accepted calls to preach.
Over the years as children were born to Jonathan and Misty, the musical talents continued to be passed down. Brianna, 18, was born first and was quickly nicknamed “Cricket” by her grandfather.
“Right after she was born she started singing,” Jonathan said. “She would just lay there and make this little noise that daddy said sounded like a cricket. She’s been singing ever since.”
As her siblings arrived they each began to pick up instruments or started singing with their dad. Boys Caleb, 16, and Benjamin, 15, followed and then came Brinly, 13, and finally Joshua, 7. While all the children together make a very attractive and entertainment group, it’s young Joshua that steals the show. He has a remarkable stage presence for his age, and the family has a few songs that highlight his clear and strong singing.
Brianna is the songwriter, Caleb plays mandolin and guitar, Benjamin plays guitar, and Brinly plays violin. While those are their usual roles in the groups, all the family members sing and play other instruments. Even Joshua has begun to play guitar and can already change chords.
Also, Jonathan’s younger sister Melanie, who now lives in Papua New Guinea, and works as a missionary teacher for natives in the Panola district of the country, wrote some of their songs and had a large influence on the children’s early musical training.
Recognizing the children needed to play and sing for people other than their regular church friends, Ellis began taking the family to Banner in Calhoun County where the “Pickin’ Shed” is located on Hwy. 9. It was there mostly that the group began to take shape and learn the art of performing while presenting the Gospel of Jesus with their singing.
Ellis has never strayed from his Baptist roots, and has turned down just a few requests from churches who have conflicting doctrines, but the family has played for congregations of nearly every denomination and many secular events.
“We will play almost anywhere that is not a honky-tonk or something like that, but we won’t change our music,” Ellis said. “People who invite us know what we are going to play and sing, and they know that we aren’t going to be playing anything that is not gospel music.”
Like most bluegrass groups, the family began playing at their local church, then branched to other small gatherings. They have been played frequently on the Local Yokels radio program and other events in the county.
The family was already gaining popularity when they met the Larry Nelson Family of Clinton, Ark., at a church revival. “I guess that was when things really took off for us,” Ellis said. “They had connections in bluegrass that we could have never made. They kind of took us under their wing and really helped us.”
It was through those connections the family was introduced to Raney Recording Studios in Drasco, Ark., the mecca of bluegrass recording and production. From there, Ellis was able to give the children an opportunity to be trained by professional rhythm and voice coaches. Just a few lessons and sessions over the years were a big influence on the family’s progression.
The boys are natural pickers, but they too have been helped by association with some of the top performers in the Gospel Bluegrass circles. The girls learned violin from a classical violinist, and play with the strings on many of the family’s numbers.
“There are things about singing together and harmony that I couldn’t teach them. It was a blessing to have people work with them on singing the different parts, and to encourage them to keep playing and getting better,” Ellis said.
It also didn’t hurt that the elder Ellis had formed close friendships with the Rochester Family of Blacksburg, S.C., years ago while ministering in Memphis. The Rochesters have become one of the most successful Southern gospel groups of the last 20 years, playing in all 50 states and touring full time, and have helped the Ellis Family with advice about a music career.
Ellis said he admires groups like the Nelson Family and the Rochesters who have stayed true to gospel music when the lure of better money playing secular music is so pressing. “We love playing and singing but it really is a ministry for us, a way to tell people about Jesus,” Ellis said. “That’s the way I was raised and we are going to continue doing that.”
The children have never been pushed to sing and play, and Ellis said he will leave it that way. “I told them we will help them go as far as they want to go,” he said. And go the family will, albeit easier than in the beginning.
“There were times when we would get calls from way off and I would tell them that we were coming when I was actually worried about having gas money to get there,” he said. It’s been years now since that was a concern as the playing dates have become larger and more frequent.
The family has also taken advantage of the travels their music has provided. “We don’t sit around the hotel rooms when we are on the road,” Ellis said. “We learned that from the Nelsons. They told us to get out see things and go places and meet people wherever we are. It was good advice.”
Because of that approach to musical ministry, the family is as comfortable playing in city parks and at impromptu pickings as they are on stage at large churches or at music festivals.
Ellis is quick to acknowledge that his employer have been gracious in allowing him to pursue the family’s endeavors with extra days away from work. “I am very thankful for the way they work with me. It’s been a big help in our ministry.”
Hallmark Ford general manager Chad Heafner said is “definitely pulling for them to win,” noting that Ellis is always ready to help with anything the dealership asks of him. “For good people you try to accommodate them with things that make their lives more fulfilling, and that’s what this is.”
The Ellis family has crossed paths with some of the groups in the competition before, and is well acquainted with last year’s winners, The Sowell Family Pickers of Hemstead, Tex. Ellis also hosts a bluegrass festival each fall at Bethany Baptist Church and had the Sowell’s to attend two years ago.
The Pope family was the only group invited from Mississippi (there are no going from Tennessee and just two from Arkansas.) A majority of the groups are from Texas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Michigan, and Missouri.
What’s next for the Ellis Family? Playing and singing for sure, but Jonathan is already thinking about the next step for the children and his ministry. “I think it’s time to get them out of their comfort zone and onto a mission field somewhere to minister,” he said. The children have been pushing him to find a foreign mission work they can visit and take their music, but so far trips have been cost prohibitive.
“It’s the airline tickets that are so expensive, and we would need seven of them,” he said, laughing. For now, the family is willing to wait and minister as opportunities are presented.
And that’s exactly how the family is thinking about this weekend’s event – just another opportunity. The benefits are pretty nice also, Ellis concedes.
“If nothing else the kids get to play for a lot of people in a new place and we all get free passes to everything while we are there. Some people might call it a vacation,” he said. Besides other attractions, Silver Dollar City has an amusement park with a full lineup of rides, including the new Time Traveler – billed as the world’s fastest, steepest, and tallest spinning roller coaster.
The focus of the competition is on young band members and not adults, although parents and others are allowed to participate if they are essential to the group. Ellis said his children will be the ones playing Saturday.
The rules say all participants must be 21 or younger, any type of bluegrass may be played, but all lyrics must be in keeping with Christian values. Only acoustic instruments are allowed. Groups will perform twice on the day of the competition, and will be evaluated by different judges each round. Bands are to play no longer than six minutes per round.
The officials will be judging on the following criteria: Instrumental ability (in time, in tune, degree of difficulty), vocal ability, professionalism (wardrobe, showmanship, microphone technique), and audience response.