The Grassroots of Bill Ellison
by Susan Marquez
For thirty years, bluegrass enthusiasts throughout Mississippi have tuned their radio dials to their local Mississippi Public Broadcasting channel to hear Grassroots. Every Saturday evening, host Bill Ellison presents two hours of carefully curated bluegrass, roots, and Americana music, along with exciting backstories and interviews beginning at 8:00 pm. “I know to tune in because Bill’s show is always so good,” says Ronnie Agnew, executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting. “I have to admit that I wasn’t much of a bluegrass fan before listening to Bill’s shows, and now I’m a big fan!”
Grassroots celebrated thirty years on the air this spring. “I’d like to think I had something to do with Grassroots being on MPB,” says Bill. “It was one of the original programs on Public Radio Mississippi when it started back in the early 1990s.” Bill recalls that he was doing news at WJDX radio in Jackson when the lady in charge at MPB invited him to lunch. “She wanted to pick my brain,” he laughs. “They played classical music during the day but wanted ideas of what to play at night. I told her we were in the birthplace of the blues, so they should do a weekly blues show. And I had just started playing bluegrass music with The Vernon Brothers, and bluegrass music was exploding with festivals around the country, and young people were embracing it. So, I told her they should do a bluegrass show.”
Mike Morgan was the original host of the show, which was named Grassroots. “The show absolutely exploded,” said Bill. “Mike did a great job, and he introduced this area to artists like Doyle Lawson and Hot Rize. Everybody I knew at the time listened to the show every Saturday night.”
Bill moved to WTYX radio in Jackson and continued to play with The Vernon Brothers. When Mike Morgan took a job with Alabama Public Broadcasting in 1991, he gave Bill a call. Mike told Bill that since he was already in radio and a bluegrass musician, he would be the natural person to take Mike’s place as host of Grassroots. “He told me to put together an audition tape, and he’d take care of the rest.”
Bill took over as host of Grassroots in May 1992.
“I tried to keep it as close to the regular format as possible. I had always enjoyed what Mike did, and I thought that if it wasn’t broke, I wasn’t going to fix it.”
Back in those days, people communicated with Bill via telephone and letters sent in the mail. “That was way before the internet and text messaging.” A few months after Bill began hosting the show, he received a letter from a listener. “You have ruined the show.” Bill says he would have responded, but the letter writer didn’t sign his name.
Typically, Bill recorded the show ahead of time. “On the weekends, the station is automated,” explains Bill. “From time to time in the 1990s and 2000s, I would go in and do the show live, which is kind of weird because I’m the only one in the building! I just liked getting my radio fix. The funny thing was that when I was there, the phones would begin to light up. Callers would tell me that I played too much bluegrass and not enough folk music or whatever. It never bothered me because I was just happy that they were listening!” Now the show is taped in the Bill Ellison Studio. “That’s right,” says Ronnie Agnew. “We named the studio after him. For someone to come into that studio for as long as he has, doing those shows every Saturday night, he deserved to have the studio named after him. There are a lot of consistent things in this world. We get up. We go to work. We listen to Grassroots.”
Rarely, a previously run Grassroots show airs again, but after Katrina hit, it seemed that would be the case. “MPB was an Emergency Broadcast System station,” explains Bill. “After Katrina, it went into full-time news mode. The station was a lifeline for so many people who were affected by the hurricane. We did 24/7 wall-to-wall coverage for the entire week. Saturday morning, we weren’t sure yet when regular programming would resume. I was told that if Grassroots went on that night, they would play a repeat show.” Bill didn’t think running a show with “happy banjoes” would be a good idea. “I went in and produced a show, not sure if it would even run. I carefully selected songs that were a bit more somber, and I thanked the first responders. I spent all day working on the show, and it just fell into place.” At 8 pm that evening, Grassroots was the first music show to air on the station since Katrina hit a week earlier.
“We got a letter a few days later from a guy on the Coast who said he was sitting in a tent with his neighbors that Saturday night. All they had was a couple of lanterns and a battery-operated radio. He said when I played ‘Captain,’ a gospel song about surviving a rough sea life, they all broke down and cried.”
In 2010, Grassroots received the Governor’s Arts Award for Excellence in Broadcasting. “There was a nice ceremony with the Mississippi Arts Commission,” recalls Bill. “It was a wonderful honor. I had to make a speech, and I thought it would be nice to have Mike Morgan there since he was the original host. He came to Jackson for the ceremony, and I was able to recognize him and his work. He really appreciated that.”