Local legend Ellen McIlwaine still breaking new ground and driving the bus for the blues

Heroes and legends walk among us.

Sometimes you just don’t know it, though.

But they’re there — people who have done or are doing amazing things are undoubtedly in your life.

It might be your doctor, possibly the mailman, hell, it could just be the woman with big red hair who picks up your kids and drives them safely to and from school in a big yellow bus.

Especially her. Especially Ellen McIlwaine.

The local blues legend and guitar hero continues to be one of this city’s most unassuming superstars, with a history and list of accomplishments that dwarfs us all.

It’s been written often and for much of the 30 years she’s called this city home, but the Nashville-born, Japan-raised, Calgary-based pioneer can lay claim to rubbing shoulders and holding her own with some of music’s greatest — be it her friendship with Jimi Hendrix in the ’60s, her time in Woodstock, NY, pre-festival, but alongside Bob Dylan, The Band and everyone else, or even on a tour opening for Lily Tomlin.

Name a name, she’ll have a story, which she’ll casually share, without any airs or arrogance.

And she lives here. And she drives a school bus.

So, you have to wonder if the kids she’s ferrying to local learning institutions are aware that they have one of the coolest people in the world at the wheel?

“Yeah, but they don’t think it’s because I sing,” McIlwaine says and laughs. “It’s because at Halloween I ride a skeleton on the bus with them — I make it fun.”

Well, they’ll know now as she had to warn them to be good for her substitute because she’ll be taking Friday, March 1 off in order to perform a concert at Heritage Park’s Gasoline Alley as part of this year’s Calgary Midwinter Bluesfest. It will be a one of her patented headlining solo acoustic sets, which she promises will be feature “lots of foot pedals and craziness.”

Then again, she didn’t think they’d be too impressed by even that.

“They think Ariana Grande,” she says. “Not Jimi Hendrix.”

Sadly, McIlwaine’s reveal of her musical alter-ego didn’t come a month earlier when she was awarded the Blues with a Feeling Award (Lifetime Achievement Award) at the Maple Blues Awards in Toronto. The reason she couldn’t attend was that because she’s not much of a flyer these days she would have had to have taken much slower transport out east, and if you’re a bus driver with under 10 years of service — she’s at seven — you lose your route, and that was not something she was prepared to do.

She was there, though, in spirit, having broadcaster, journalist and Stony Plain Records label head Holger Peterson deliver her acceptance speech which read, in part: “We owe a huge debt to all the African people who were brought to North America against their will, out of whose anguished hearts the Blues was born and speaks directly to the hearts of you and me.”

She also went out of her way to mention the support she and her music have received in Canada — a prime reason she relocated here in the late ’80s, Calgary in the early ’90s.

Specifically, she notes, because in this country few people blink when a woman is a bandleader, compared with the U.S., where she says it’s still “terrible” and the stories she can tell about the gender bias of club owners, bookers and audiences are myriad.

She recalls an encounter she had with Paul Brandt when she was volunteering at the Children’s Hospital and he was still working as a nurse. The two chatted, connecting on the fact that both of them played the guitar.

“And I said, ‘Well, I get called a female guitar player and I bet you get called a male nurse.’

“People think of how they identify that gender with that role … I don’t know if it will ever change. And certainly not if something like Trump stays in office,” she says, before quickly adding with a laugh, “I didn’t say that.”

This, despite the fact that McIlwaine is considered a trailblazer who can wipe the floor with almost anyone, early on earning the nickname Goddess of Slide for her skills. She’s released a dozen albums, has been featured on numerous compilations with other shredders and singers such as Link Wray and Eric Clapton, has toured the world and continues to find new ground to break.

Some people, though, will never change their perceptions and beliefs.

“It was bad enough when I played in Greenwich Village at the Cafe Au Go Go Jimi Hendrix sat in on my set and we played together and the reception — this is in Greenwich Village, OK — and the reception was very cool … not enthusiastic,” she says.

“And it took me years to figure out that it was a black man and a white woman — hello.

“It just makes me sick. You can’t get past stuff like that.”

She obviously can and has, not seeing gender, celebrating all colours, while also seeing no real delineation between different cultural approaches to telling stories through sound.

McIlwaine has a deep love of world music, thanks in part to her education overseas, and not only champions it but studies it and works it into her own music. Her most recent recording was 2006’s Mystic Bridge, which was recorded with acclaimed Canadian tabla player Cassius Khan.

To her, when it comes to music, there simply are no borders.

“No, no, I don’t see any barriers. It’s the best way to communicate without language,” she says before repeating the oft-cited quote, “Music is the language of the soul.”

She gives a particular nod to Peter Gabriel for his WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festival and initiative that blurred all of the lines between music from other nations and regions, and also brings it to the ubiquitous workshops that many different fests in this part of the world utilize, pairing up seemingly incongruous artists together on one stage.

She relates one of her “favourite memories” from the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Fest, where she had to lead a workshop with a pair of Indian musicians as well as late Malian artist Ali Farka Touré, and Moroccan performer Hassan Hakmoun.

“This is what I love about the shock value,” she says. “I get up with my fluffy red hair, my acoustic guitar and they go, ‘OK, lady.’ …

“And when it was my turn, I always go last, I started to play and I did my Middle Eastern stuff and they all sat up in their chairs and started playing with me.”

She laughs. “It was wonderful fun.” 

That said, while she may not see borders between different styles, she always comes back to the beginning. Well, not the very beginning, but the beginning for her, which she noted in that aforementioned acceptance speech.

“I think for me the music that I play the root is always the blues. It starts with Africa and it comes through the United States and it evolved into many different forms of music, like rap and rock. There’s so much amazing stuff out there, but to me if it doesn’t have that African root I’m not really interested,” she says.

“And I know that every culture has its own blues, if you listen to Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, he’s from Iran and he does folk music from Iran — that’s fucking blues, man. It is.”

She continues. “There’s so much good stuff out there and it’s not limited to any one culture. It’s human music from the heart.”

And it’s why she still does it and will continue to do it for as long as she’s able.

“Why would you stop?” she asks. “I think the only reason to retire is if you’re doing something you don’t like. And I’m so glad I found school bus driving because if I have to do something to pay the rent, I would like it to be something that I enjoy, and I do enjoy driving a school bus a lot.”

As to why that is, the Zen-ness of the routine or being around the young energy, McIlwaine makes it a little more personal.

“You get attached to the kids,” she says. “See, I never had kids, I was always on the road playing music. And I was drinking when I was playing — I’ve been clean and sober for 36 years — but I was drinking when I was looking at guys. And they were drinking, too, and we wanted the same thing and it wasn’t to settle down and have children.”

She laughs. “And then I just wanted to keep playing music and keep playing music, so I think music probably took up most of the space in my life for many years.

“So now I can be around children and be the mother for the day — I take care of them just like they belong to me and then when they get off the bus I go home and don’t have to worry about if I can pay for their braces or where they’re going to go for the summer.”

(Photo courtesy Brian Zahorodniuk.)

Ellen McIlwaine performs Friday, March 1 at Heritage Park’s Gasoline Alley as part of the Calgary Midwinter Bluesfest. For tickets please click here.

Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at