Tinsley Ellis won't slow down. He's still grinding away at the cool roadhouses and Georgia studios with a furious guitar tone and a robust spirit.
Based out of Atlanta, the guitarist and songwriter first made a splash in the South as a solo artist in 1988 with his Alligator Records debut Georgia Blue. He's toured nonstop ever since, averaging over 150 gigs a year across North America and around the world.
Playing from an impressive repertoire of classic blues, vintage R&B, early rock 'n' roll, and soulful original material, Ellis is a treasured blues-rock veteran, revered by critics and fans alike. Following the success of his 2005 live collection Live—Highwayman, recorded at a packed, sweaty club just outside Chicago, he returns to Charleston this week with a new, self-produced, guitar-driven collection titled Moment of Truth.
"The album title is sort of an inside joke between me and the people I've been making records with over the years," says the guitarist. "In the studio, there are all these knobs, dials, gizmos, whammys, and gauges you can do to make an album. One time, a guy in my camp said, 'You know, all that stuff just delays the moment of truth' [laughs]. It has a little more meaning than that, too. I think every time you put out an album or step on a stage, it's very much a moment of truth ... you gotta get it right there."
Ellis' current studio and touring band features Kevin McKendree on Hammond organ and Wurlitzer piano, a bassist curiously nicknamed "The Evil One," drummer Jeff Burch, and second guitarist Mike Lowry. They sound tight and determined on all of Moment Of Truth, which was officially released on June 26. From the smoky covers of Sam & Dave's "I Take What I Want" and the Gary Nicholson-penned tune (re-arranged by Bonnie Raitt) "Shadow of Doubt" to the hard-stompin' electrified excitement of "Get to the Bottom" and "Too Much of Everything," Ellis pours his heart into his singing and playing.
Another highlight, the straight-up 4/4 track "Tell the Truth," features a terrific backing vocal performance from fellow Atlantan Michelle Malone.
"You know, the live record served us so well and people really liked the raw quality about it, we just did a four-piece set-up in the studio and played the songs live ... and we'd been playing most of these songs for a long time on stage already," says Ellis. "We just added a little bit of organ and had Michelle sing on the fifth track. And that was it."
Born in Atlanta in 1957, Ellis spent his earliest years in south Florida. At eight, he picked up his first guitar and started digging into records by American blues and R&B acts (especially B.B. King) and the slew of British Invasion bands who drew from the same rhythm and blues vault (The Yardbirds, Cream, The Beatles).
Ellis first cut his teeth while attending Emory University, playing around Atlanta with the Alley Cats, a gritty blues band that included Preston Hubbard (of Fabulous Thunderbirds fame). He later fronted popular Atlanta act The Heartfixers (Atlanta's top-drawing blues band at the time) with veteran blues singer and harpist Chicago Bob Nelson before splitting for a solo career. While a popular draw on the Southern circuit and heavily compared to Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ellis was virtually unknown nationally until signing to Alligator Records in the late '80s. Ellis first gained serious attention with his 1994 album Storm Warning, which spotlighted his fiery guitar work. He signed with Telarc Records in 2001 and recorded Hell or High Water.
Over the years, he's collaborated with a variety of American roots music acts, offering his versatile chops to the likes of The Allman Brothers, Robert Cray, Koko Taylor, Peter Buck of R.E.M., longtime Rolling Stones keyboardist sideman Chuck Leavell, and Widespread Panic. Recently, his own material has taken on a noticeably heavier "rock" vibe.
"The music has definitely got more of an edge now than it did back in the 1980s, when I was trying to be more of a purist," Ellis says. "Interestingly enough, I'm playing the same guitars [a Fender Strat, a Gibson ES-345, and a Gibson Les Paul] and the same vintage amp [a black-faced Fender Super Reverb], but I'm just crankin' the amp all the way up now. Before, I had it about halfway up for that vintage tone, but now it has more of an aggressive sound, similar to Warren Haynes or Derek Trucks."
The aggressive style of sharp tone propels Moments of Truth. Mixed in is some Hendrix-esque wah-wah pedal noise, Cream-i-fied psychedelic grooves, and occasional acoustic guitar work — all of which adds to the unique, sonic blues/rock texture.
"You don't wanna call it 'blues' because it sort of does a disservice to folks like B.B. King and the older crowd," chuckles the guitarist. "And you don't wanna call it 'rock' because it might get mistaken for Nine Inch Nails or Van Halen or whatever. The term 'blues-rock' hits it on the head for me."