Under a starry sky, with a magnificent dancing fountain as a backdrop, the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra plays “Hoedown” from Aaron Copeland’s ballet, “Rodeo.” You know, Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.
It’s Bluegrass Night, a collaboration between the Symphony and the BTJ Trio, a bluegrass band from the Jackson, Mississippi area that has played at beer halls and fancy balls. On this night, the trio is the featured guest artist, standing in front of the Mississippi Symphony under the direction of Conductor and Music Director Crafton Beck.
The idea of a collaboration between a symphony orchestra and a bluegrass band began over lunch one day in downtown Jackson. Andrew Mattiace, developer of The Renaissance at Colony Park, a high-end shopping center in Ridgeland, Mississippi, and Bill Ellison, a bluegrass guitar picker who is the “B” in the BTJ Trio, were sharing a meal when Andrew asked Bill if he thought it would be possible to have both the Symphony and the bluegrass band play together in an outdoor concert. Bill took the ball and ran with it.
The Mississippi Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1945 as a community band. Now a full orchestra with over 100 musicians, the MSO plays a full concert schedule in Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson and several community events around the state each year.
The BTJ Trio was formed 16 years ago when Bill Ellison met fiddler Temperance Babcock. Bill asked Temperance to join him and bassist Jeff Perkins. The perky blonde sawing the fiddle has an interesting backstory that brought her full circle that night under the stars.
An Oklahoma native, Temperance and her twin sister have played classical music all their lives.
“We started taking violin lessons when we were four years old,” she says. “We were homeschooled, and the whole time we were growing up, we played only classical music or praise and worship music.” By the time she turned eleven, Temperance knew she wanted music to be her career. “I wanted to usher people in and out of worship services with music.”
By the time she was in high school, she had her sights set on attending Julliard or the Manhattan School of Music. “I practiced six to eight hours a day because that’s what it took to get into that kind of school.”
In her junior year of high school, Temperance prepared to compete in a major music competition in Oklahoma. “Traditionally, the winner was invited to play as a soloist with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. That was my ultimate goal in life at the time.” Temperance swept the competition, winning first place with her quartet, then as a solo performer before being named the best overall performer. “I just knew the invitation was coming, but it never came.” Temperance’s teacher had differences with the conductor, but that didn’t help alleviate Temperance’s disappointment.
The following summer, she attended a music camp in Canada where she auditioned for teachers from Julliard and Manhattan School of Music. Both accepted her into their programs, but when she returned home, her mother said they could not afford it. “She told me I would graduate with hundreds of thousands in student debt and that going to New York was not my path in life.” Another disappointment.
In the fall of her senior year of high school, Temperance walked through the local mall and stumbled upon a bluegrass band playing in front of a store. She was mesmerized. During the break, one of the band members asked what instrument she played.
“He knew I played something because of the way I was watching them.” She told him she played the violin, and he said, “Oh, you mean the fiddle.” He asked if she could play “Orange Blossom Special, and she told him she had never heard of it. “He said it was the ‘end all, be all’ of bluegrass fiddle pieces.”
He gave Temperance a CD to take home and told her to call him when she could play it. The following Friday, she was at the mall, violin/fiddle in hand, with the iconic song memorized.
Temperance was taken with all things bluegrass, and she moved to Nashville. “I pursued bluegrass fiddle the way I did classical violin. I wanted to learn from the best of the best, and I studied with some amazing fiddle players.”
After a busy year in Nashville, Temperance took a job teaching at a fine arts school in Tupelo. She met her husband while there, and when they married, they moved to Jackson, where he was working. Temperance auditioned for the MSO, and she was offered a position. “Six months later, I met Bill Ellison, and we started playing bluegrass music together.”
Temperance stayed with the Symphony for two years before getting too busy with the BTJ Trio.
The band plays about once or twice a month, but during busier seasons, it’s not unusual for them to play once or twice weekly.
The open-air concert with the Symphony was a huge blessing for Temperance. “One of my dreams came true. I also play with a Celtic band, and that night, we played a tune called ‘Toss the Feathers’ with the orchestra backing us up. All my worlds collided that night – classical, Celtic, and bluegrass. I have had so many opportunities living in Mississippi, and I am so appreciative of the music culture here. It all came together at the Renaissance that evening, and it was so very special.” To cap the evening off, Temperance played a rousing rendition of “Orange Blossom Special,” and the crowd went wild.
Concert photos taken and donated by Scott M. Crawford.
Headshots by J.B. Lawrence.