Tinsley Ellis says there’s a difference between a bluesman and a blues musician.
“I’m definitely a work in progress as a bluesman,” explains Ellis, who has earned legions of devout fans after decades of global touring and a succession of acclaimed, and popular, studio efforts. “There are tons of blues musicians, but only a few bluesmen. The role of the bluesman is to hold up a mirror to life. Sometimes life burns low and slow. Sometimes the end of a song is the end of the day—it builds up to a crescendo or it fades out.”
Ellis, who was born in Atlanta in 1957 and still lives just outside the city in Tucker, shows no signs of fading out nor does he think he think his chosen musical form will either. He’s shared the stage with the likes of departed great Stevie Ray Vaughn, living legends Otis Rush and Buddy Guy and today’s torchbearers in the Tedeschi Trucks Band, and says, “The cool thing about the blues is all the cross-pollination that created it. When I go sit in with the likes of a Gov’t Mule or a Widespread Panic, who play many styles, I can do my solos and it fits in. Blues soloing fits in everywhere. Whoever finds a way to fit in blues stylings over a a hip-hop or a street beat, that’ll be the next B.B. King [laughs]. It won’t be me, but somebody should do it.”
With the release earlier this year of the stellar album Winning Hand, Ellis makes a triumphant return to Alligator Records, the leading blues label in Chicago he first signed with 30 years ago.
For an artist who spends so many days out of the year performing for audiences, it’s no surprise that Ellis heads into the studio hoping to “just go in there and capture what we already play.”
The 10 songs on Winning Hand were recorded at the Nashville studio of keyboardist and co-producer Kevin McKendree with the final touches (“to see if there’s anything I need to fix up”) added by Ellis at his home studio in Tucker. “It’s a nice luxury to have nobody watching me through a glass window as I change a vocal line,” he jokes.
Ellis kept all the original guitar solos in the final mix. And, boy, are there guitar solos. Magnificent, soaring, stirring, pleading guitar solos, all coaxed from one of the three guitars used on the album: a 1959 Fender Stratocaster, 1967 Gibson ES 345 (the same as B.B. King and Freddie King) and a Les Paul Deluxe, which Ellis bought from money earned washing dishes in 1972.
Classic, crunchy blues riffs mark the album-opening track “Sound of a Broken Man” before Ellis blasts into searing leads and cascading reverbs during an instrumental mid-section that is the work of a guitarist in command of his craft. “Nothing but Fine” features infectious opening drums and rides on the desperate wails of a Hammond B-3 organ. (“The backbeat and the organ—that’s Georgia blues,” Ellis says. “Georgia is where the blues has soul.”) The rollicking good times of “Satisfied” shuffle along as Ellis’ cheerfully defies the current state of the union, while a cover of Leon Russell’s “Dixie Lullaby” sways to a Southern boogie in a style that pays homage to Ellis’ late collaborator and “greatest songwriting inspiration,” Freddie King.
While Winning Hand finishes big with the haunting slow-burn of other-worldly riffs on “Saving Grace,” it’s actually another cut that stands out for holding a mirror to life.
“It’s not the kind of song that will pack a dance floor,” Ellis says of the tender melodies and reflective lyrics of ‘Autumn Run.’ (‘Things we call pain / We used to call fun’). “There’s a melancholy and a few soul-bearing moments in it. It’s a song about getting older. I just hit a milestone—60 years old, though I feel like I’m 12 and act like I’m 16 [laughs]. But I don’t sing about the woes of the world. I sing about the whoa, whoa, whoa’s.
“Art can make an impact,” Ellis continues, pointing to a stipulation in the Beatles’ contract forcing the first integration of many Southern theaters in the 1960s. “I’m not the guy to do that. I’m more of an entertainer. There’s enough woes going on. Maybe my job is to take people away from it and hopefully cause people to have a good time.”
All in a day’s work for a bluesman.