Kiley Ruwe Shaw


ellie shaw 1.jpg

Woman holding guitar, younger woman holding fiddle.

The mother-daughter duo, Swingin' with Ellie Shaw. Photo by Maddie Shaw

Growing up, my mom started each of us out with piano lessons. It didn’t take her long to figure out that while my sister was a natural, I was having trouble connecting my right and left hands. Wisely, she looked around for another option and I found my niche with guitar lessons. My younger sister studied violin, always hoping her teacher would get around to teaching her to play the “fiddle.” Eventually, Kendra entered a fiddle contest and Donelle backed her up on the piano while I played guitar. Next thing we knew, Kendra was winning trophies and my younger brothers wanted a piece of the action. Before long everyone was playing an instrument and a family band was born. For us, music kept us close, emotionally and physically. It’s not easy to fit eight people, a stand up bass, a banjo, three guitars, a mandolin, four fiddles, and a sound system into a motor home…but we did! Even as we grew older, we had music to keep us together.

I got married and started my own family. My husband Steve and I adopted 2 girls, Maddie and Ellie. We adopted our daughter Ellie as a baby from Houston and brought her home to Idaho. Once again, my mom realized the importance of piano lessons. Only this time there was a twist—Ellie’s teacher explained that she wasn’t really playing what was written on the page, but that was ok, there was a name for it: jazz. Ellie was five years old at the time, and they left the lesson to buy Ellie the very first CD she ever owned: Doris Day with Les Brown and his Band of Renown. Ellie continued with piano but also fell in love with the fiddle and followed in her Aunt Kendra’s footsteps and became a state, regional, and national fiddle champion. Once again music was bringing our family closer together as I backed Ellie up on the guitar and we traveled with my mom and sister to various contests.

Our story could have continued on as a multigenerational family playing bluegrass and traveling to music festivals and competing in fiddle contests. But Ellie had another voice inside of her. She listened to the 24-hour Christmas station and she discovered Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and so many others. She discovered she lived behind the beat and not in front of it. This child could swing! She started singing and scatting and a whole new side to her personality was uncovered. I realized that this kind of natural talent comes from deep within.

We named Eleanor Rosa after Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks (Ellie is half African American). We have since discovered that Ellie was born the year that Ella Fitzgerald died and that Billie Holiday’s real name was Eleanora. I put down the banjo and learned to play rhythm guitar and our mother daughter duo, “Swingin’ with Ellie Shaw,” was born.

We joke that Ellie could have been adopted by sports people and lived her life on the sidelines (she still can't ride a bike!) But instead, she heard vintage jazz and our lives took a whole new direction. In music Ellie found her voice. We gig regularly and take pride in the Great American Songbook. These aren't just songs to Ellie, they are the soundtrack to people's lives. This week we made an older gentleman cry, in a good way. He told us he didn't think he would live long enough to hear anyone sing those songs again. That's what music has done for us—given us a chance to make memories of our own while keeping memories alive.