Many well-deserved awards have come to Dolan Ellis over the years: a Grammy, gold records, the Arizona Tourism Hall of Fame. Senator John McCain read Dolan and his music into the Congressional Record. He was the first to be inducted as an Arizona Culture Keeper.
As wonderful as these awards and titles are, nothing means as much to this great musician and folklorist as being The Balladeer. He even wrote a song about it:
I write the songs but not for fame
The lyrics are true. Dolan Ellis is a very talented poet and tunesmith who could have directed his efforts toward the commercial market. Instead, he chose to write about, sing about, and teach us, Arizonans and visitors alike, about the state he loves.
Dolan is not a native Arizonan. He was born and raised in Kansas , and never even visited Arizona until he moved to Phoenix in 1959. And yet, that move seemed like a homecoming to the young man who had loved the Western movies, especially those featuring the “singin’ cowboys.” He fantasized that all of the movies depicted life in Arizona. Dolan knew that Arizona, with its wide-open spaces, was the place he ought to be.
Dolan had spent his very early years on a farm, and even after the Ellis family moved to town (Topeka), they still visited the family farm often. Dolan was always interested in nature. A song that he wrote early in his career, “Son of the Desert,” is semi-autobiographical. The boy in the song clearly grows up in the Southwest:
He’d stroll the quiet sandwash
This child of the dry earth
When Randy Sparks was recruiting solo artists and small groups to become part of the New Christy Minstrels, Dolan was a natural fit, with his great baritone voice and 12-string guitar, his enthusiasm, and his clean-cut good looks. By 1963, the Christies were at the top, with a Grammy for best group, five albums including some that were gold, 39 consecutive weeks on the nationally televised Andy Williams show, and appearances at the best concert venues in the nation. That was when the future Arizona Balladeer left the group to move back to his beloved, adopted state and once again explore its back roads, canyons, and mountains—and meet its unique people.
Upon leaving the Christies, Dolan wrote another autobiographical song, “Goin’ Home to Springerville.” Springerville, a real but very small town in the Whtie Mountains of Eastern Arizona, was a metaphor for Scottsdale and Phoenix, which at that time still had the small town feeling. He wrote it on the airplane back to Phoenix, after they finished an engagement in Lake Tahoe. Dolan had just made a huge decision, and the song lyrics and bluesy sound seemed to echo his feelings.
Goin’ back to bein’ me
Goin’ home to Springerville
More than 55 years and 300 songs later, Dolan Ellis is still going strong. In 1996, he began performing at the non-profit, 501c3, Arizona Folklore Preserve, which he founded in Ramsey Canyon south of Sierra Vista. It had taken more than five years to restore the property and go through all the necessary legal steps. Now the Preserve is under the ownership of the University of Arizona South and operated by the AFP Board of Directors.
The Balladeer remains Artist-in-Residence and appears there one weekend each month, presenting different shows based on the seasons of the year and holidays and such. On other weekends, he books the best of Arizona cultural and folk artists to appear at the rustic stage in the Preserve’s theater, which Dolan designed specifically for presentation of acoustic music. Dolan proudly keeps track of the number of folk artists who have appeared on his stage–a number that has now exceeded 200. Regular customers of the AFP have learned to trust Dolan in his choice of guest artists. They know any show that Dolan books is going to be highly entertaining.