“River Still Rise” is a homespun recording in more ways than one.
The inaugural full-length from Betse & Clarke, the Kansas City duo comprising Betse Ellis and Clarke Wyatt, fuses and recasts old-time/traditional folk music with contemporary twists.
The duo started recording the album in January, in the very familiar confines of their own Kansas City home. The process was more than a matter of convenience; it also gave the two the freedom to proceed at their own pace. For Ellis, patience and extra deliberation were just what the project needed.
“A couple of the Wilders albums were recorded at home,” she said, referring to the old-time music quartet of which she was a member. “But we did those in a matter of a few days. This was different. We could let the songs sit and breathe and then come back to them a week or two or a month later. It was really refreshing. I learned to be patient with the material. Having the time to put something aside and reconsider it on a different day did wonders for the project.”
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Ellis and Wyatt have been performing together for more than two years, since they first played at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan., in 2014. That was two years after the breakup of the Wilders, who were stalwarts in the Kansas City traditional music scene.
In 2015, Betse & Clarke released “Bird Notes,” a digital-only EP. In the summer of that year, they started writing material for “River.”
The recording process took about five months, which afforded them room to tinker and experiment with arrangements. Wyatt, an experienced sound engineer, produced the album, with final-stage assistance from Chad Meise.
Ellis cited the song “Requiem for Little Sadie” as an example of a track that benefited from the extra recording time.
“It’s a famous murder ballad, ‘Little Sadie,’ ” she said. “We explored the idea of improvising an intro to set the appropriate mood. The song rolls by so quickly — the murder happens in the second line of the song. Then the rest of the story is delivered so matter-of-factly there’s not really a trace of remorse on the murderer’s part. If you blink your ears, so to speak, you can miss how shocking the story is. It’s all fairly emotionless.”
So Ellis composed an intro and outro for a string quartet to bookend the song. She played the violin and viola parts; Wyatt played the cello.
“It really added some texture to the somberness of the subject matter,” Ellis said. “It turned the song into a requiem”
Likewise, the song “In This World” is a reworking of a song Ellis recorded on a solo album with an electric band.
“I thought it needed a different setting. So I picked up the fiddle and found a new melodic home for it,” she said.
“I also wrote chorus for it, and Clarke helped me with that. … I play it very simply on the fiddle, a very different approach from how I played the fiddle in the past. It was really neat to discover a new way to present it. It has become one of my favorite songs.”
The album was finished in time for Ellis and Wyatt to take it with them on their busy summer tour, which included stops at music camps and festivals in Montana, Michigan and Wyoming and a three-week tour of Ireland. One of their stops there was the Ulster American Folk Park Bluegrass Festival.
“The Wilders played there about 10 years ago during our first trip there,” Ellis said. “This year, the organizers reached out to us and asked us to come over, so of course we said yes.”
The itinerary also included performances at the Guinness Dunmore East Bluegrass Festival and at the Séamus Ennis Arts Centre.
“It’s a wonderful venue that attracts traditional musicians from all over Ireland,” she said. The trip gave them a chance to present their music before many “folk-loving people” in Ireland, Ellis said, which is something they hope to do again.
This week, the focus is on bringing the sounds of “River” to a hometown audience. On Thursday, Oct. 27, Betse & Clarke will celebrate the release of the recording at the Buffalo Room, 817 Westport Road. The show will feature a mix of duos and trios, plus Brushy Creek — multi-instrumentalist Brett Hodges and stand-up bassist Alex Mallett — who performed on the album.
The chance to showcase in Kansas City a recording that was made in their own home has been a long time coming.
“We were on the road almost the entire time starting in June and until after Winfield (in September),” she said. “It’s past the time for a proper album release. We’ve shared the album in many places during our travels, but now it finally gets a homecoming.”
Thursday, Oct. 27
Betse & Clarke perform at the Buffalo Room, 817 Westport Road. Showtime is 8 p.m. $10, general; $20, VIP with album. Eventbrite.com.