“The Flint Hills are worth singing about,” claims singer-songwriter Annie Wilson of rural Elmdale.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback agreed an presented Wilson with a certificate of recognition for her “outstanding contributions to the State of Kansas,” and recognized her as a “Flint Hills Balladeer” for her “endeavors to share the beauty of the Kansas Flint Hills through words and music, and to inspire an abiding love for the Kansas Flint Hills.”
The ceremony took place Jan. 11 at the third Flint Hills Visioning summit at Rock Springs 4-H Center.
As part of the growing culture of live music in the Flint Hills, Wilson and her band, Tallgrass Express, have delivered more than 200 performances of “Flint Hills music” in the area since 2004. She has written more than 40 songs about life in the Flint Hills, many of which have been recorded on the group’s three CDs.
Song titles include, “Clean Curve of Hill Against Sky,” “Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie,” “My Diamond Creek Cowboy,” “Big Bluestem: King of the Prairie,” “Stopping by the Homestead Ruins,” and “Runaway Nell.”
Of the Flint Hills Balladeer designation, Wilson said, “I am absolutely thrilled to receive this honor.” She thanked all those who spearheaded this effort.
In a letter of support, Emporia author and Flint Hills expert Jim Hoy wrote, “Annie’s music goes deep into the soul of the Flint Hills…and carries others along with it.”
Bob Workman, director of the Flint Hills Discovery Center, stated, “Annie is truly a treasure of Kansas and the Flint Hills.”
Marty White of Symphony in the Flint Hills said Wilson “articulates the Flint Hills ranching culture” and “conveys life and love in our rural communities.”
Elmdale Mayor Josh Simmons wrote, “Annie has a rare ability to translate her love of the plants and animals, the weather, and the people, into songs,” and called Wilson and her band “exceptional ambassadors of the Flint Hills.”
Lynn Smith, director of the Pioneer Bluffs Foundation, thanked Wilson for writing “The Story of Pioneer Bluffs,” a ballad about the history and mission of that historic ranch near Matfield Green.
Other endorsements came from the Chase County Commission, the mayors of Cottonwood Falls and Strong City and the Chase County Chamber of Commerce.
Instead of seeking a broader, national market by writing songs with more generic features, Wilson said, “I find it more interesting to first seek out the fundamental messages of this particular place—the Flint Hills—and then discover the universal themes contained here.”
She said “those who appreciate the Flint Hills are exactly the people I hope to reach” and claimed this audience is expanding, as “more people discover this region and its fascinating stories.”
Also in the Tallgrass Express String Band are Charlie Laughridge of Council Grove on fiddle, Carl Reed of Manhattan on bass and new member Jim Versch on mandolin following the recent retirement of banjo player Loren Ratzloff.
Wilson said she “deeply appreciates” all her band members’ support of her songwriting and their “incredible talent” in creating and performing musical arrangements.
After a brief transition period, the group looks forward to producing another CD of original Flint Hills songs.
Wilson has been a long-time participant in the Emma Chase Cafe’s Friday night jam sessions, now named one of the “Eight Wonders of Kansas Customs.”
Wilson and her husband, John, operate the Five Oaks Ranch west of Elmdale, where they raised their three daughters Katie, Emily and Julia.
Wilson is also a language arts instructor at Emporia High School and earlier managed a rancher-owned grassfed beef marketing cooperative.
For more information, see the band’s website, tallgrassexpress.com.