Scotland’s Medicine Show Master
Well, after a few weeks of focusing on American DJs, I figured it’s about time I expand our horizons and check out some of our international radio friends. I can think of no better person to start with than Rob Ellen from the Highlands of Scotland.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio and what other stations have you worked?
Rob Ellen: I’ve always loved radio. Like many of my age group, I would hide under the covers with a transistor radio listening to the pirate radios [that were] bringing in the hits of the day on medium wave. [That was my] first listening experience! I used to log the songs for Dougie MacKenzie’s Folk Programme on Moray Firth Radio Inverness in the late ’80s. I was promoting a lot of World Music locally [back then] and got myself 30 minutes on his show as a review guest, introducing the newly circulating world music discs. I had a record shop at the time and access to new releases. … Then, in the late ’90s, the Village of Ullapool here in the Highlands secured European Union funding to start our first community radio station. It broadcast from a tin hut on the shore front and only [went] to the village and communities around Loch Broom. It was a revelation and the start of a revolution.
I was touring a lot of artists around the Highlands, so I would wheel them into LBFM regularly. Loch Broom FM then offered me my first show when they opened a new purpose-built studio. I got training — three hours on a Saturday afternoon — and I staged shows with the guest artists who played at the Arch Inn on the Saturday evening. That was 2002. I later did a similar arrangement with Nevis FM, which was a bigger station in Fort William, that was two hours on a Wednesday and ran for five years. My shows are still broadcast on LBFM.
Where do you work now and what’s your show called?
These days I don’t broadcast live; I pre-record and syndicate. The show is called “The Medicine Show Radio Health & Happiness Hour,” broadcast across the Highlands on Two Lochs Radio in Gairloch and Lochbroom FM in Ullapaool, across Glasgow on Celtic Music Radio and Sunny Govan Community Radio, across the south of England (North of Kent) on Sheppey FM, to the UK country music fraternity on UK Country Radio, and on The Online Station. [Also] now out of Toronto on Blues and Roots Radio. Also, my brother Mark Ellen does a show every Sunday afternoon on Sheppey FM then he puts out my show, we call that “Riding Point with The Wayward Ellen Brother.”
How do you describe your show and how do you define what you play?
“Country Blues and Beyond” is the strapline and I have a passion for encouraging people to organize concerts in their own home. I run the European House Concert Hub Community as well as a fellow broad/podcasters and roots music bloggers community at Flyinshoes Review, so we are the Home of the House Concert. I have a featured FSR Album, and a featured FSR Tour as well as a featured House Concert Hub artist who is booking dates and usually a live guest on the show. I try to use all of these facilities in tandem to support the independent roots music scene in general.
How do you define Americana music?
Damn, that old chestnut is never easily answered! Well, apart from a valuable marketing tool, Americana is a catch-all for the roots and shoots of American music. Truth be told, more accurately, Southern American music, much of which can be traced back through the song lines to this part of the world and other parts of ethnic Europe. When it met African music, it started to swing and get an American accent, and that’s what I love.
Our mass emigrations of the 17th and 18th century, and the Highland clearances, displaced our music and our culture. It found root again in the Americas, [and] that’s why this music resonates so deeply [with] Scottish and Irish people particularly, and I suspect Africans too.
I’ve become known as the go-to guy here, now, for this music. A great many US artists see traveling here as a pilgrimage, so I’m in a very privileged position to be able to show people who make the music I love around the place I love, and to broadcast their music to my people. It truly is a great honour.
How do you prepare for your shows?
I am thinking about it all week and building it on the formula I explained above as content comes in on FSR. Artists post their windows of opportunity for booking on the House Concert Hub, and when local artists perhaps release a CD, I’ll get them in for a session. I will snag traveling artists and help organize tours so they come close enough to record for the show. I mix that with classic tracks and basically that’s the Medicine Show Radio Health & Happiness Hour.
How many new releases and old stuff do you play?
About 50/50, and pretty much all new stuff is independent.
What was the first artist or album that turned you on to roots music?
Little Feat have to take the prize, and continue to do so in my book.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre? What artists define Americana music for you?
Little Feat and The Band — they were to two bands that defined American music [for me] and [were] the starting point of my roots music education.
Where do you see Americana radio going in the future?
It’s all up for grabs, as the big networks become homogenized and bland-out while hemorrhaging their discerning listeners. The diversity isn’t being halted, though it is spreading via fan-driven internet community stations [and] podcasters. The fans for real music are gravitating, inevitably, to those. Music has always been the social glue of humanity, and again via social media, it is creating a myriad of like-minded and free-thinking musically savvy and sensitive communities around radio shows, in support of equally independently minded, savvy, sensitive musicians. It’s a very exciting time. Thousands of cottage industries are springing up around thousands of musicians. It’s a directly symbiotic synergetic system, a very down-home movement and completely correct for this music.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
My new favorite band — I always like to have one of them — is the Treetop Fliers from London. Scotland has the Strange Blue Dreams and Dropkick, leading a wealth of great bands. The New Madrids and the Holy Ghost among some of the best live bands I’ve ever seen. Out of Texas I’m loving Chuck Hawthorne and Ray Bonneville. Charlie Roth and Phil Lee my favorite entertainers and as far as country music is concerned there is no one exciting me more right now than Tex Mex star Stephanie Urbina Jones. There is a lass from Seattle who is home free, traveling totally independently, and burning it up where ever she goes called Shelita Burke — she’s a unique talent too.
In blues, I believe we now have the best blues guitarist alive living in Inverness — Andy Gunn. However it’s not about albums for me, it never was. Albums were always, and even more now post-record industry, just a tool to help people travel and play live. I live for live music and the magic that spreads in people’s lives.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests, or anything else you wish to share?
As I’ve said, I love house concerts. I have an evangelisic zeal to encourage people to host house concerts. I set up the European House Concert Hub seven years ago to help support the movement. House concerts and free-form community radio are the ways ahead for the beautiful spirits who know how to communicate the right way, for human beings to treat each other. We now call them “songwriters,” [but] they were “troubadours” in the medieval [times]. In pre-history I suspect they were even more revered and important than the community elders, before warlords took over after the collapse of the Neolithic era. I have a passion for Neolithic history.
[It’s] the oldest profession in the world — maybe the second oldest. Traveling as they still do from community to community, carrying the lore of the people with them. They are leading us back into the light from centuries of dark industrial male-driven, socialy disenfranchised times. I believe there is no more important work in this world. Who needs a hobby?!