Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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A couple of crooners

It is often said that married couples make beautiful music together. But professors Ellen and John Wright literally do.

The Wrights — married for 42 years this June — formed a two-person bluegrass band seven years ago and on Friday released their first album together.

“I like to say with Ellen that I finally found a sideman who can’t quit,” John said. “And if she interrupts at that point in the script, she says, ‘And who can’t be fired either.'”

John, a “semi-retired” professor who teaches two courses in Northwestern’s Classics department each year, plays the banjo and is the lead vocalist and songwriter for their group. Ellen, a college lecturer for the Writing Program, plays the guitar and sings.

The two toured across the Midwest and they often perform at retirement homes, where people remember and love traditional bluegrass music, Ellen said.

Charlotte Smith, one of Ellen’s students and a bluegrass fan, saw the couple perform last year in Wilmette. Smith said the Wrights were “cute” on stage.

“In between songs they’d talk to the audience and tell stories,” said Smith, a Weinberg junior. “She would crack little jokes about grammar. … They were just so happy. You can tell they really love playing music.”

The musicians both started teaching at NU in the 1970s, but they first met one another as undergraduates at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. At that time, John said, bluegrass music was all the rage — at least for students

at Swarthmore.

John learned to play the banjo while in school, but set the instrument aside for about 20 years. Ellen didn’t pick up the guitar until 1997, when John was looking for musicians to form a band.

“She took that thing up to her study every night and a month later she was a guitar player,” John said. “She concentrated so ferociously for a month or two that she taught herself.”

Although their CD, titled “I Shook Hands with Eleanor Roosevelt,” has a play-list of old favorites such as “Oh! Susanna” and “Red River Valley,” the couple also performs a few original songs.

John said he writes songs when a particular verbal phrase sticks with him. A lot of times the songs are about Ellen.

“They’re often a birthday present,” Ellen said. “His specialty is the love songs — at least I think so.”

One of Ellen’s favorite songs, “Everything She Asks For,” is based on a conversation John imagined having with his younger brother. In the song his brother asks for the secret to a successful marriage.

The chorus goes: “Give her everything she asks for/ Give her everything she wants/ That’s the only secret I believe/ Because everything she asks for and everything she wants won’t come close to what she should receive.”

Their performances give them the opportunity to visit quaint towns throughout the Midwest, the couple said. Although they have performed in more traditional venues in New York City, most of the shows are in “fly over” places, John said, such as

Coffeeville, Kan., where they saw the

original “Little House on the Prairie.”

“We’ve had just some amazing experiences,” said Ellen, who once performed with a Japanese bluegrass band when she was visiting her daughter in Kyoto, Japan. “One of the reasons I got into it was I wanted to play with people. … The wonderful thing about this type of music is that you can play with people you don’t know.”

Danielle Pickard, a friend of the Wrights and a self-identified groupie, said she tries to attend all their shows.

“There’s such an extraordinary relationship between those two musically and otherwise,” said Pickard, a program assistant in Northwestern University Information Technology.

“There’s so much love between them and they have so much fun,” she said. “Above all, more than love, they have so much fun together.”

Extra Credit Questions

Q :What is a typical saturday night for the Wrights?

A: (Ellen) We’ll be exhausted, and we’ll have dinner, and I will maybe correct papers for an hour or so and then we’ll practice or I’ll practice alone, just because I’m trying to get better as a guitarist.

Q: Ellen, what is the most

romantic thing John has

ever done for you?

A: He’s always considerate of me, and I know he’s always going

to be considerate of me. That’s very romantic. Writing those songs was

no small thing either.

Q: john, what do you like the most about Ellen?

A: Her warmth.

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A couple of crooners