By Aaron Irons
Tinsley Ellis is a consummate bluesman, a string-savvy veteran whose work ethic across four decades and 18 albums has made him an icon of modern blues. After folding his band, The Heartfixers, in 1988, Ellis released his solo debut Georgia Blue with Alligator Records, and since then he’s been a border-to-border, coast-to-coast road machine — that is until COVID knocked the touring industry off the blacktop.
Rather than waste away, Ellis embraced the fandom of his youth, digging into the music of his heroes, and maintaining a weekly online residency that engaged fans and ultimately provided the fuel for his latest album Devil May Care. Ellis is back doing what he loves — playing the blues for real live people — but this time around he’s swapped his cherished ’67 ES-345 for a Martin D-35 to embark on his very first solo “Acoustic Songs & Stories” tour.
After decades of nonstop touring, you hit the wall with the pandemic and it was time to go home, whether you wanted to or not. In that tragedy, you found an opportunity to become a fan again.
Tinsley Ellis: We had to drive all the way back from the middle of the tour that was supporting [the album] Ice Cream In Hell. That would’ve been in March of 2020. I got a phone call, and they said I had to come home — it just went down so quickly! The long drive back from Northern California to Georgia was brutal! I got back home and just sorta stared into the abyss for a couple of weeks, and then decided, “I don’t wanna lose my chops!” ’Cause 40-plus years of touring, I was always working. A friend of mine said, “Why don’t you designate from seven or eight in the morning till noon every day as your songwriting time?”
Tinsley Ellis Acoustic Songs & Stories, Friday, Feb. 24, doors 6 p.m., show 7 p.m., Stargazers Theatre, 10 S. Parkside Drive, $20, stargazerstheatre.comI moved my studio from Tucker, Georgia, into my basement in Atlanta. I was able to go down there with a cup of coffee in the morning, ’cause I’m a morning guy, put on the computer through the big speakers and listen to music and get inspired — dig back through B.B. King recordings and Allman Brothers Band and Mike Bloomfield — and that became the inspiration for the songwriting that became Devil May Care.
Streaming became the artistic lifeline for a lot of artists — a way to perform, to connect with fans outside of the traditional live setting. You also used it as a way to test that new material. Had you done that before? Just thrown the new music out there?
Never been able to do that before. I think that’s one of the differences between this album and the previous albums. I was able to make the most fan-friendly album I could — and you can’t go wrong making albums for your fans. You can go wrong making albums for radio; you can go wrong making albums for critics, but you can never go wrong making an album for your fans.
Every Wednesday, I would post a demo of the best song I wrote of the week. I called it the “Wednesday Basement Tapes” as sort of an homage to Bob Dylan and The Band. The Wednesday Basement Tapes were a way for the fans to weigh in on the songs, and I took their criticism to heart. I looked to see how many views and listener counts it got, and it appeared to me that people wanted me to make an album that had the sound of Capricorn Records in the early ’70s. That’s the kind of album I made.
There’s a vulnerability to putting yourself out there like that as a songwriter. There are some artists that really embrace the idea of making their fanbase a part of the creative process. And then there are others that are like, “Oh no, I could never do that!” At its core, how did that affect you as a songwriter?
Well, I think it would be somewhat conceited of me to think that someone’s gonna hear a demo of a song and rip me off! Because is there any other genre where people have ripped each other off as much as the blues? It all kind of comes back to Robert Johnson, so short of somebody using an actual lyric, I don’t need to worry about putting stuff out there. That is very old school to think of it that way. I enjoy the criticism and I enjoyed the feedback from the fans — they helped me choose the songs. I chose songs, the fans chose some songs, and Alligator Records chose some songs.
Have you done a tour like this before — songs and stories, just you by yourself? That’s a little different than what you typically do.
No, haven’t done it. But with [Devil May Care] over a year old, I’m not really goin’ out on an album tour and it’s important that I do something different until I have a new album out. I’m doing all the way from south Florida to Seattle to San Diego to Maine — the entire country. And I’m doin’ it in a car by myself with two guitars — a Martin and an old 1937 National Steel — a suitcase, a whole bunch of vinyl and CDs — not normal behavior for a 65-year-old man, I might add!
The guitars, specifically the ’37 National Steel, the ’69 D-35… Those give the tour a bit of an identity. Does that play into your creativity? Your ES-345 is a known favorite, but what went into choosing the guitars for this run?
It’s interesting doing these electric songs in an acoustic format. I won’t have anything to back me up, but I found that if I stomp my foot, I can play the solos and it sounds almost like a band. I’m takin’ some real chances here. I’m not just doin’ the songs off of the various albums and talkin’ about ’em, I’m doin’ some old Delta blues — Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Son House… Howlin’ Wolf, of course! And then I’m also doing some really quirky covers, Gregg Allman and Cowboy, and I’m also getting into Leo Kottke, Jimmy Page open-tuning type songs, a Bob Dylan song, maybe — and whatever the hell I want. A Buddy Holly song!
Will this lead you into a straight acoustic blues album?
Yes, that’s what I’m working on right now. I’ve gone in the studio with a young, great, talented blues-and-soul artist here in Atlanta producing me — Eddie 9V. He and his brother did 12 songs on me and we’re gonna add some more songs to it and I’m gonna have an album of acoustic music that will be made by an old blues rocker with the help of a couple of guys with some young ears.