The early sun is shining when Tinsley Ellis answers the phone with a relaxed but no less joyful, “Go dawgs!” It’s a cool morning after UGA supremely wrested another National Championship, this time from Texas Christian University, and spirits are high throughout the Peach State. For Georgia bluesman Ellis, who’s embarking on a first-ever solo acoustic tour that lands in Macon for two shows on Saturday, February 4th, it’s one of many sweet moments in the wake of a pandemic that briefly grounded a near non-stop forty-year career.
“We had to drive all the way back from the middle of the tour that was supporting Ice Cream In Hell,” recalls Ellis. “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 go back home and just sorta stared into the abyss for a couple o’ weeks, and then decided, ‘I don’t wanna lose my chops!’ ‘Cause forty-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 ’til noon every day as your songwriting time?'”
Ellis moved his personal studio from Tucker, Georgia into his Atlanta basement and was determined to stay vital and creative. But in the downtime, he also reconnected with the simple luxury of being a fan again.
“I was able to go down there with a cup o’ 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.”
Tinsley’s latest effort, Devil May Care is a healthy one-two punch of deft songwriting and Georgia-grown style that cashes in on a lifetime of blues study and practice without feeling dated or worn. In fact, Ellis has never sounded better, and he attributes the notion to those who know him best.
“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,” says Ellis. “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.”
Songs like “Right Down The Drain” and “Just Like Rain” certainly bear the hallmarks of Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman, but there’s no mistaking the voodoo magic of Johnny Jenkins’ Ton Ton Macoute on “Juju” or the rock psychedelia of another Jenkins disciple Jimi Hendrix on “28 Days”. Other highlights include the sophistication of “One Less Reason” and the soul-break of “Don’t Bury Our Love”.
“I think that’s one of the differences between this album and the previous albums,” Ellis claims. “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.”
For his acoustic tour, Ellis is carrying those songs along with some of his personal favorites from Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and other blues stalwarts– but he’s prepared to venture into more unconventional territory as well.
“I’m also doin’ some really quirky covers,” laughs Ellis. “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!”
Armed with only a 1969 Martin D-35 and a 1937 National Steel resonator, Ellis intends to pay plenty of homage to his Capricorn heroes when he gets to Macon on February 4th.
“I recorded there once when it was in its first incarnation after the label folded, and I really enjoyed recording there. It’s gonna be gas to play some of those songs where they were recorded!”
When the prospect of a straight acoustic blues album is brought up, I can almost hear the grin on Tinsley’s face.
“That’s what I’m workin’ 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 twelve 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 o’ guys with some young ears.”