Captured in Music
by Bobbi Mlynar
Emporia Gazette
Front Page, Saturday, July 24, 2010
   The Tallgrass Express String Band will debut its new CD at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 7, at the Emma Chase
Music Hall in Cottonwood Falls.
   The CD, “Clean Curve of Hill Against Sky: Songs of the Kansas Flint Hills,â€� will be sold at the
concert and is available at the Town Crier and Bluestem Farm and Ranch in Emporia, according to Annie
Wilson, one of four members of the band.
   The CD is the group’s third. The first, “Music of the Emma Chase,â€� recorded in 2005, was
followed in 2007 by “Tallgrass Express Comes Back.�
In addition to Wilson, who is lead vocalist and plays guitar, the band is made up Charlie Laughridge, on
fiddle, harmonica, mandolin and concertina; Loren Ratzloff, on banjo, dobro and mandolin; and Carl
Reed, on bass and guitar.
   Wilson wrote 15 of the 16 songs included on the new album. The songs incorporate intricate melodies
with the precisely metered lyrics that she uses to float the listener’s imagination deep into the
landscape of the hills, its people, its wildlife and its ghosts of the past.
   â€œThey’re all local scenes that go with the songs,â€� Wilson said. “It’s kind of history
and landscape and wildlife and cowboys and Indians.�
   [Living] on a ranch in the hills west of Madison seems to have joined the soul of the Flint Hills to
Wilson’s own.
   â€œIt’s just really been my life out here for these many years,â€� Wilson said. “And I actually
compose when I’m out on walks ... I take little index cards, and that’s where I get the rhythm.
That’s where you get the meter.�
   She jots down her thoughts and feelings and returns home with “weirdâ€� notes, ideas and notes to
herself.
Some of the lyrics come through “word-listing.�
   â€œYou brainstorm a lot of words that have to do with the subject,â€� she said. “I just have a box
full of (notes). ... I could just do this for the rest of my life.�
   Because of her affinity for the Flint Hills, her songs are more than rhymes and melodies about feelings.
They hold a deep knowledge of her subjects and their habits, whether they are prairie chickens or
romantic cowboys.
  â€œThis is such a rich area of beauty, and the wildlife and the plants — and then all the cool people,â
€� she said. “I could do one on just the people.â€�
   Wilson is a teacher, mother of three, and works with her husband on their ranch in Chase County. She
has managed a rancher-owned grass-fed beef cooperative and has been active in conservation issues. She
often plays at Friday night jam sessions at the Emma Chase Cafe in Cottonwood Falls, and writes poetry
and songs about the Flint Hills, according to biographies provided for the group members.
   Laughridge, who operates a business in rural Council Grove, played and toured with the band â
€œFirewaterâ€� for 10 years; he also played on the soundtrack of the movie, “Through Martha’s
Eyes.� The 16th song on the new CD is an instrumental waltz, “Home from the Z-Bar,� written
by Laughridge.
Ratzloff is a full-time farmer-stockman from Canton. He does historic re-enactments, portrays Abraham
Lincoln at festivals and school events, and won the 2008 Lincoln Days lookalike contest. Ratzloff also
plays with a gospel group, “Black Kettle.�
   Reed worked for almost 30 years in international programs of Kansas State University Grain Science
division. He now owns a grain scouting company in Buhler. Reed learned to play guitar while in the Peace
Corps and 15 years ago bought a bass so he would be able to play in bluegrass jams. Songs written by
Reed have been recorded by “Special Consensus,� “Continental Divide� and other groups.
   The Tallgrass Express String Band’s style of bluegrass is more lyrical than the strident bluegrass of
the South, while still retaining the tight harmony associated with the genre. Tallgrass songs on the new CD
carry messages that are simultaneously personal and broadly appealing for those who love the Flint Hills
and likely for those who have never seen it.
   The album includes a couple of songs with swing-ragtime rhythms and two ballads with historical value â
€” “Flint Hills Billy,â€� about Wilson’s father’s early childhood on the ranch, and “Chase
County Courthouse Ball of 1873,� which recounts the opening of one of the county’s treasures.
   The CD features the solid instrumental and vocal skills of the band and showcases the uniquely clear
and melodic voice of its lead singer and guitar player, Wilson.
   Several area students were involved in the CD project, Wilson said.
   The painting on the package cover was done by her daughter,
Emily Wilson, a student in art education
at Emporia State University; band photos were done by
Brendy Muninger, ESU photography major,
and Chase County 4-H photo project member
Bailey Lewis.
   Tallgrass’s next performances will be on Sept. 6 at the Burdick Labor Day Celebration; Sept. 11,
Abilene Bluegrass Festival; Sept. 25, Salina Street Fair; and Oct. 16, Harvest Celebration at the Tallgrass
Prairie Preserve north of Strong City on Highway 177.
   Beginning in January, the band will have a monthly concert series on the third Saturday of each month at
the Emma Chase. The concerts will be in addition to the Emma Chase’s open-mike jam sessions on
Friday nights.