Tinsley Ellis – Waking Up to the Naked Truth

The celebrated blues-rock legend heads back to Macon for a night of music set to be unusually…unplugged.

There aren’t many notable musicians, of any age, willing to admit they get up at 6 AM daily. But Tinsley Ellis wears that particular practice with pride. “I’m like a farmer,” he laughs. “Even though I’ve never farmed a day in my life.”  On the contrary, he’s been a tough, blistering, road hardened blues-rocker. 

For the past almost five decades, seeing Atlanta’s iconic Tinsley Ellis on stage meant a loud, sweat-soaked affair propelled by the frontman’s sizzling leads and grizzled vocals, backed with an ever-changing array of rugged players laying down a pulse-pounding set of predominantly beer guzzling, gutsy tunes from a thick catalog of studio and live releases. 

But no more. 

About a year ago, Ellis discarded his backing musicians, along with electricity, deciding instead to tour as a solo acoustic act. Just him with two guitars and a microphone, creating an intimate, informal show as he digs into a passel of new and old songs, originals and covers that have defined and/or influenced him.

That’s what you can expect when the early riser plays two intimate, seated shows at the 70 person capacity Capricorn Studios on March 1 supporting his new, similarly performed Naked Truth release.  

Ellis has typically tossed a few acoustic ringers into his always rollicking, plugged-in sets and included a handful of them on albums. But this is the first time in his nearly half-century as a professional musician—initially in the Alley Cats, then as co-founder of Atlanta’s Heartfixers, followed by his own outfits– that he has recorded a full album of them, then supported it on an unaccompanied tour. Traveling with just his six strings and always engaging personality has been a challenge but one he finds inspirational, especially when visiting Macon. 

He has performed often in the city over his extensive career, yet few know he has family roots here that go back a few generations. His many Macon shows prompt memories. While a showcase for Capricorn Records in 1977 with his band at the time, The Alley Cats, didn’t pan out, he has worked every club in town since. 

But gigging at the recently refurbished Capricorn studio is different. “They fixed it up really nice. I played there last year and I can really feel the spirit of all the music that was made there when you enter the room,” he explains. Even though he’ll be focusing on the new album’s material, he’ll cover some gems initiated at the legendary locale from the Allman Brothers’ Brothers and Sisters disc, and Gregg Allman’s Laid Back era. 

That’s part of what makes this one man show excursion so special. “I haven’t had a set list since I started doing it (playing solo),” he muses. “Of course I always play songs off the (older) albums, specifically the Alligator catalog, that brought me to town in the first place. I also do some Delta blues (Muddy Waters, Son House) and some folkie Leo Kottke type stuff. But there are quirky covers I throw in that raise an eyebrow. People seem to enjoy that.” 

Additionally he rearranges his own compositions and chats about which ones were written on the guitars he brings with him. Other nightly subjects might be details about composing the music and the era that it references, who originally played on the recordings, and even confessing where he stole some songs from. 

Naked Truth’s tracks were recorded live, no overdubs, at various locations which Ellis calls “his studio.” Some were completed in his basement with the help of Pro Tools because as long as he can plug in his computer, he can record. Fans will remember he posted a song a week during the pandemic downtime in a series called Sunday Morning Coffee Songs. Some of those made it to the album, albeit in different performances. Initially Ellis’ concept was to make the disc’s contents 50-50, originals to covers. But Alligator label founder Bruce Iglauer insisted he write more material, ending up with nine originals and three written by others.

When asked if this was just a temporary side-road, Ellis says he could do another Devil May Care (his well-received 2022 electric release) tomorrow. “But my heart’s in the acoustic thing,” he concludes. “I love the shows. I’ve done the whole country and the response is great. There are a lot of stories told during the show. I think I’m hilarious (laughs). But after doing the band thing for almost 50 years, I have not seen so many people smiling and laughing in the audience in decades. It’s nice to have that back.” 

Operating alone now, Ellis has the freedom to head out to the next gig, waking up, then leaving as the rooster crows, or maybe even before. And that’s the way he likes it.