“I always am thinking about putting on a musical performance or hosting a party or entertaining folks,” says Josh Ellis, the executive director of the PEI Mutual Festival of Small Halls. “I guess it’s just the way my mind works.” I’ve interrupted his day putting finishing touches on a brand new festival—the Setting Day Culinary Festival, set for May, a celebration of music and the first lobster catch of the season.
Not only was the new festival getting launched, the Small Halls Festival was “starting to roll”—and Josh was also expecting a new baby in his family. Spring won’t leave a lot of time for parental leave.
Josh hopes the Setting Day Festival will be “a way to celebrate the first catch of the year—and why isn’t there a party? There is an informal tradition around setting day.” Josh reflects, “It’s such a beautiful Island tradition, why not celebrate this part of our heritage?”
Josh recalls, “stewing over the idea for several years.” He says, “It started ten years ago, when I wrote a song about a fisherman moving out west—and it was floating in my mind ever since.” He says, “Then when I started working with Small Halls, it gave me the perfect vehicle to put it on.” To Josh’s mind, lobster and music are a perfect combination: “Some of the most famous songs of the East Coast are songs about life on the sea, and songs of fishermen.”
As a musician and songwriter, Josh was part of the Grass Mountain Hobos, a bluegrass outfit. “I guess even in the music, when I was performing, I had as much fun organizing the shows as playing them.” He chuckles, “The group was terribly overworked because I was having so much fun on the phones.” On the serious side, he celebrates that he’s “a person with abilities to do these (promotional) things and feel good about it.”
He adds earnestly, “I do have an honest passion for music… It’s also hard to write songs! I feel I was always better at the business end of music than the creative side.”
Where did that passion start in his life? “I remember exactly when it happened,” Josh says. “I was at a dinner theatre in Summerside, and I was twelve or thirteen, and there was this guy with long hair who was just shredding an electric guitar—just tearing it up in the basement of The Brothers Two,” he laughs. “I have no idea how it led to traditional music,” he says.
“I always laugh when I think of what someone once told me about how you attract twenty and thirty year-olds to traditional music: ‘Wait until they turn fifty.’ I just think they’ll come around to it.”
His own first band was a Metallica cover band, “and then George Jones crept into my life, and all bets were off,” he says. The O, Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack inspired a whole generation to rediscover bluegrass, and the Grass Mountain Hobos was part of that “resurgence.”
“When we stopped performing, it was time to keep touring, or to settle down and have a family. Half settled down, and half became Gordie MacKeeman and his Rhythm Boys, and they took it farther than we ever could have,” Josh says.
“I had my ‘furlough’ from music for ten years and got back into it.” Music, Josh says, is “just one of those things—it just never leaves you. It’s like another organ or another part of your body. I thought I’d ‘get a haircut and get a new job,’ but I keep getting called back to it.” This time, on the programming side, but that’s where the party is.
What he wants to do, with Setting Day and Small Halls, is to support artists, to keep the music flowing and keep the traditions growing. “Whether they appreciate it when they are twenty years old or fifty years old, if the art is made—if you allow people to put the time and effort into the art, by supporting it—they can develop it.”