Cosmic Wagon is an ensemble of four very unique musicians combining different musical backgrounds and tastes to create a big sound for a big universe.
Formerly known as the Matt Renner Band, Cosmic Wagon brings together Matt Renner, Ella Ellinghausen, Robert Artz and Clayton Howard to produce a combination of country and bluegrass unlike any other.
Matt Renner plays fiddle and mandolin in the band and has been making music since the age of 10. Matt’s song lyrics describe growing up in a covered wagon — in fact the covered wagon is currently parked outside Matt’s home south of Coeur d’Alene. It is actually a trailer that his father pulled while traveling across the country in his 1953 Chevy station wagon.
Matt’s travels brought him to the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest in Weiser, Idaho, when he was 10. There he started playing fiddle and mandolin. He eventually settled in Sun Valley, where he played with the bluegrass band Slow Children for more than 20 years. He relocated to North Idaho in 2012.
Ellinghausen started on the piano and switched to accordion, even pianos proved hard to carry up flights of stairs. A customer once paid her for web-design work with a guitar, which Ellinghausen says “changed my life,” as the instrument allowed her to meet and connect with people in very different ways than the piano and accordion.
One of those connections was with Renner, in Weiser, at the annual Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest. Renner encouraged her to continue with her guitar playing and they began performing together as a duo. After moving to Coeur d’Alene, they found a bass player and landed a regular gig at Silverwood theme park, which she says forced her to improve her playing quickly.
Renner and Ellinghausen found Artz through a Craigslist ad. Artz grew up in the Tri-Cities in a musical family — his father was a country and western singer who played VFW dances while his brother played bass and guitar. Artz’s intro to the music world was playing guitar with the Three Rivers Dulcimer Society, a Tri-Cities group of musicians centered around the Appalachian Mountain dulcimer, but that welcomes musicians with all kinds of instruments to play along with them.
Artz hit the road at the age of 18 traveling to Alaska, listening to and playing all kinds of music. He found Renner and Ellinghausen through Craigslist and has been writing songs and playing with them for the last three years.
Howard is the newest addition to what came to be known as Cosmic Wagon. He grew up in southern California and began playing music as the new sound of country-rock was emerging in LA Howard worked by day as a pipe welder, retiring in 1999 in order to pursue music full time, playing in LA clubs and recording and releasing a CD.
Like many musicians, the reality of the music industry in California turned out to be less attractive than he had hoped and he headed to North Idaho in 2006 where he played open mics and joined any group he could on guitar, bass or drums. He eventually joined the local bluegrass group Moses Willey on guitar. When the Matt Renner Band found themselves in need of a bass player, he joined the group and soon after the name was changed to Cosmic Wagon.
Cosmic Wagon was chosen as an inclusive name reflecting four songwriters who each contributed original music to the group. Despite their sound and image as an old-school country and bluegrass group, the band also has an affinity for hippies, which led them to the word “cosmic.” The “wagon” is, of course, a reference to Renner’s covered wagon. Robert says that “cosmic” also reflects the big universe that we live in and the band’s desire to create a sound big enough to reflect that. Howard describes the band as unique in that everyone writes songs, and yet egos never seem to get in that way.
Listen for standouts like Matt’s “Bein’ Me,” Robert’s “Never Be That Lonesome Again” or fantastic covers of “Freight Train” and “Orange Blossom Special.”
No matter what song they are playing, expect to hear great songs, fantastic fiddle and mandolin playing and the sound of old-time music played with unique drive and energy.
Cosmic Wagon can be seen at the following venues:
● Tonight at The Snake Pit in the Silver Valley (Kingston)
● Aug. 26 at McDuff’s Brewery, Sandpoint
● Sept. 3 at The Snake Pit
● Sept. 4 at Big Barn Brewing, Green Bluff
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Tom Richards is a music lover, the lead singer in local blues band Dr. Phil & the Enablers and the owner of The Snake Pit.