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Tinsley Ellis Interview

“It’s been a long 18 months and now folks are ready to have some fun.”

By Linda Cain & Greg Easterling

Photo: Regan Kelly

“Feral blues guitar...non-stop gigging has sharpened his six-string to a razor’s edge...his eloquence dazzles...he achieves pyrotechnics that rival early Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.” –Rolling Stone

World renowned Southern blues-rock guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Tinsley Ellis—like every other musician—was caught off guard when the pandemic shutdown hit in March 2020. Ellis was forced to cancel the tour promoting his just-released album, Ice Cream In Hell, only six weeks into the 60-date run. This would be the first time in 40 years he’d be off the road, and as he drove the 2400 miles home from Reno to Atlanta, he was already formulating his future plans.

Ellis resolved to dedicate his pandemic-forced downtime to creating new songs and growing as a songwriter. To get back to his musical roots, he began composing on amps and guitars that he hadn’t used for decades. He explored obscure studio and live recordings from some of his greatest musical heroes, such as the Allman Brothers, Freddie King, Michael Bloomfield, B.B. King and beyond, and was inspired by his favorite artists all over again. Eighteen months later, Ellis had written an astonishing 200 new songs.

Explains Ellis, “There was a lot of time to experiment. In my downstairs studio I set up every guitar and amp that I owned, plus a Leslie cabinet, an old wooden Wurlitzer electric piano, an old Maestro Echoplex tape delay and 30 or 40 glass, steel and brass slides. Experimenting with different gear set ups inspired the songwriting. Plus, I was able to listen to more music than I had since the 1970s. My imagination was fired up!”

As early as April 2020, he began regularly releasing his new material online, keeping his thousands of fans engaged and soaking up their comments and responses. He knew, thanks to the reactions of his fans to his new songs, that he needed to make a record and get back on the road as soon as possible. Ellis whittled his massive song list down to ten, enlisted his friend and co-producer, keyboard master Kevin McKendree, and headed for Franklin, Tennessee’s famous Rock House recording studio. The result is Ellis’ new Alligator album, Devil May Care, a record Ellis says, “is for the fans as much as for me.”

READ Chicago Blues Guide’s review of the new album HERE:

Photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau/ Tinsley Ellis 2008

Tinsley Ellis has been immersed in music his whole life. Born in Atlanta 1957 and raised in southern Florida, he acquired his first guitar at age seven, inspired by seeing The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. He took to guitar instantly, developing and sharpening his skills as he grew up. Like many kids his age, Ellis discovered the blues through the back door of British Invasion bands like The Yardbirds, The Animals, Cream and The Rolling Stones as well as Southern rockers like the Allman Brothers. One night in 1972, he and a friend were listening to Al Kooper and Michael Bloomfield’s Super Session record when his friend’s older brother told them that, if they liked Super Session, they should go see B.B. King, who was in town that week. Tinsley saw that show from the very front row. As fate would have it, King broke a guitar string while playing, and after changing it without missing a beat, he handed the broken string to young Tinsley.

Georgia Blue, Tinsley’s first Alligator release, hit the unprepared public by surprise in 1988. The Chicago Tribune said, “Tinsley Ellis torches with molten fretwork. Ellis takes classic, Southern blues-rock workouts and jolts them to new life with a torrid ax barrage.” His next four releases—1989’s Fanning The Flames, 1992’s Trouble Time, 1994’s Storm Warning, and 1997’s Fire It Up—further grew his reputation as well as his audience. (His song A Quitter Never Wins, a highlight of Storm Warning, was recorded by Jonny Lang, selling almost two million copies.)

In the early 2000s, Ellis released albums on Capricorn Records and on Telarc, returning to Alligator in 2005 with Live–Highwayman, which captured the fifth-gear energy of his roof-raising live show. He followed it with two more incendiary studio releases, 2007’s Moment Of Truth and 2009’s Speak No Evil. He self-released four successful albums on his own Heartfixer label before coming back home to Alligator in 2018, releasing the fan favorite Winning Hand. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard Blues Chart and earned him Blues Music Award (BMA) nominations for Blues Rock Album Of The Year and Blues Rock Artist Of The Year. 2020’s Ice Cream In Hell further cemented Ellis’ reputation and put him on the cusp of even greater success before all touring was brought to a halt that March. Now, with Devil May Care and a new nationwide tour booked, Ellis is more than ready to get back on the road and make up for lost time.

“It’s been a long 18 months,” he says, “and now folks are ready to have some fun.”

Tinsley Ellis will perform on March 13, 2022 at SPACE in Evanston, IL

Photo: Thomas Joyce

Q. You said that you wrote close to 200 songs during the pandemic down time. Was it difficult to narrow down to a relative few for the new album and what framed your final decision?

There were 3 factors in choosing the songs. First there were the songs that I wanted to be on the album. Then there were the songs Alligator Records wanted to be on it. Then there were the songs the fans liked. I posted on new song semi-weekly on Facebook and the fans weighed in on it.

Q. Can you describe your songwriting process? Do you use your phone and computer and other modern tech devices?

Every morning I went downstairs to my home studio and wrote till noon (except for Sunday when I watched my news shows). I use my computer to make demo versions of the songs.

Q. You were able to use the internet to release some of your new songs and get them out to your fans during the shutdown. How exactly did you do that? Were these the studio versions or at home demos?

They were the demo versions. I called my “Wednesday Basement Tapes”.

Q. Did you perform live at home and then stream on the internet in real time?

I didn't do much streaming. But there were many song demos posted.

Q. What things did you miss about not being on the road, besides the chance to play live and the revenue derived from it?

I really missed seeing my friends all over the planet.

Q. The pandemic and covid has given us all the blues. Blues fans know that blues music is a healer. How exactly does it feel to be back on the road and performing in front of audiences again? Do you feel differently on stage since you were away for so long? Do audiences react with more appreciation and enthusiasm after being deprived for so long?

The fans are really loving going back out to see concerts. It feels about the same as before. There is a little more social distancing at the merch table.

Q. You cite Leon Russell as a major songwriting influence. What aspects of his music inspire you?

His music is very much rooted in the gospel music he grew up with in Oklahoma. Do you have gospel roots or influences too?

I don't have many gospel roots but I love gospel music. And I still listen to Leon's records.

Q. A few of the songs on Devil May Care reminded us of the Allman Brothers. Do you agree and how much did they influence you?

Well I grew up in Florida and Georgia and The Allmans were “our” band. I love the way they mix so many different styles of music into their songs. And they've always had the best musicians they could find. I miss their concerts very much.

Q. Did you a chance get to see the original version of the Allmans live with Duane and Barry Oakley?

No I never saw the original band but I was a fan early on. I stated seeing them when Chuck Leavell joined.

Q. You have enjoyed a connection and friendship with many of the current Southern blues-rock jam bands like Tedeschi Trucks Band, Widespread Panic, Warren Haynes and Government Mule. Have you ever, at some point in your life, considered putting together an 8 to12-piece jam band and hitting the road?

I have written many songs in that style. It would be nice to collaborate more with my Allmans family band friends.

Q. Who would you cite as an influence from more traditional blues performers?

There are so many. BB, Freddie, the Alberts, Muddy, Wolf, Little Walter, Buddy, Otis, Son House.

Q. In 2013 you toured with the Crossroads 2 Tour, which starred Chicago blues legends James Cotton and Jody Williams, along with Bob Margolin, and Kim Wilson & The Fabulous Thunderbirds. (We were at that show and I wrote a review of it. I recall you played a very intense solo set). At age 56, you were the youngest member and you once said that the blues elders “busted your balls” and teased you. But you also learned a lot from them and their personal stories. How did that experience influence and shape you as an artist? Can you share some enlightening or humorous memories with us?

As great as those moments on stage were, There were so many off stage memories that I cling to. One of my favorites was when Bob and I drove Jody and Cotton down the coast of California. They told one ribald story after the next about folks like Sonny Boy, Little Walter, Bo Diddley and Chess Records.

Q. Speaking of Chicago blues greats, you knew Son Seals and once said he gave you good career advice. What was that?

Son Seals once told me that I could support myself as a Blues musician if I was willing to carry my own amp. We backed him up on Navy Pier and he arrived with his guitar in one hand and his amp in the other.

Q. You have recorded many albums for Alligator Records. You have an interesting business history with them. Years ago, you started your own record label, Heartfixer, but you weren’t on it at first, and you wanted to sign other bands to it. Is that right? Do you still maintain the Heartfixer label?

I still have Heartfixer Music label but I was the only artist on it. I wanted to sign other artists, but I didn't want them calling me to complain while I was on the road. Then I decided that I'd maybe sign only artists that were deceased, but none of them ever called me!

Q. And you didn’t sign on as an Alligator recording artist right away, you continued to put out your music by yourself, on Heartfixer? But finally in 1988 you released Georgia Blue on Alligator and that was 20 albums ago?

I came to Bruce's attention by way of an album we made with Nappy Brown in 1984 on Landslide. We started talking about working together in 1987 and he signed me in 1988 to release “Georgia Blue”, my first solo album.

Q. What is the key, if any, to that long term business relationship with the world’s premier indie blues label?

To keep the music bluesy and rockin' and to do a lot of concerts and interviews everywhere.

Q. Like most of us blues fans in the U.S., you came to the blues by way of the British Invasion bands. And when you were young you got to sit in the first row at a B.B. King show and he handed you a string that he broke on stage. After that, you were hooked.

Do you still have that string?

Yes. It's in my desk about 2 feet from where I'm sitting now as I type this! It's taped to a postcard he gave out that night with his photo on it.

Q. Did you ever get to meet B.B. King or share the stage with him? If so did you tell him your story about the broken string?

We played many shows with BB starting in 1990. He loved the broken string story and gave me a private audience with him in his dressing room at most of the shows.

Q. You will be performing at SPACE in Evanston on March 13. Tell us about your backing band and what can fans expect to hear, besides your new material?

I'll have Erik Kaszynski on drums and Andrew White on bass. We will feature songs off the new Devil May Care album as well as songs from my many Alligator albums. There will be some old Blues songs thrown in as well. And there's an acoustic segment of the show when I'll play my 1937 National steel.


About the author: Linda Cain is the founder/managing editor of Chicago Blues Guide.


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