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Tinsley Ellis, Alligator Records reunite for ‘Winning Hand’

Tahoe Onstage

Hot off the press: Tinsley Ellis poses for first publicity shot with Alligator Records in at least 5 years.

Tinsley Ellis’ haunting, heartfelt ballad “The Last Song” doesn’t apply to his relationship with Alligator Records. The Atlanta artist and the Chicago music label announced on Thursday they are back together for the third time.

“I re-re-signed with the best promoters of roots music,” Ellis told Tahoe Onstage. “I’m returning to the guitar-driven, hard rock sound I had on Alligator.”

A new album, “Winning Hand,” will be released in January, when Ellis starts his “longest nationwide tour in decades.”

Like most people, Ellis commutes to work every day.

I think it’s a pretty rare artist-record company relationship where the artist puts up the president of the record company at his home

He prolifically writes songs, not only for himself but for other artists. When Alligator balked at his experimentation into different styles in 2012, Ellis started his own Heartfixer label, vowing to release five records in five years. The first was an instrumental album, “Get It,” and another was R&B, “Red Clay Soul.”

While Ellis cranked out records, he continued his friendship with Alligator Records and its founder and president, Bruce Iglauer. Ellis recently asked Iglauer’s opinion on some rough mix recordings.

“He liked it so much, we were able to make a deal,” said Ellis, whose five-in-five prediction is coming through in unexpected fashion.

“This is very much a return to the Alligator-Tinsley tradition,” Iglauer said. “It’s a harder-edged album than what he’s been doing.”

“It’s a very bluesy record maybe a little more bluesy than a couple of his last Alligator Records. There’s a lot of melodic blues material, and there’s a level of subtlety. There’s a great deal of confidence in this record. And it wasn’t that I disliked his other records that he self-released, especially the second one, ‘Tough Love.’

Tahoe Onstage

Alligator Records President Bruce Iglauer.
Chris Monaghan/ Alligator Records

Coincidentally, tough love is an expression the label president uses when he critiques and produces music. He is extraordinarily close with his artists and their work. Iglauer traveled to Atlanta this week for a photo shoot for the new album.

The two spent the evening in Ellis’ living room watching the Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary on television.

“Tinsley and I had a chance to bond again,” Iglauer said. “I think it’s a pretty rare artist-record company relationship where the artist puts up the president of the record company at his home.”

An accomplished guitarist, Ellis is sometimes called “Highwayman” for one of his songs and a live album, and for his willingness to go the extra miles to play shows. While that is a trait of a true bluesman, Ellis also is atypical in his profession. He has a degree in history from the prestigious Emory University. So displeased with the advent of insidious synthesizer sounds in the popular music of the 1980s, Ellis nearly turned to a career in academia. Instead, he left his band The Heartfixers and started to sing his own songs as a solo artist, signing with Alligator for the first time in 1988. He was the first person to include Derek Trucks in a recording, and he wrote the song “A Quitter Never Wins,” which skyrocketed Jonny Lang’s career. He also has a deadpan sense of humor.

“I am not being dropped by my Heartfixer label,” Ellis said.

Iglauer not only loves the material on “Winning Hand,” he is thrilled with the work of Ellis’ booking agent.

“It’s one of the best album-launching tours that we’ve ever been offered,” he said.

The tour will include more than 60 shows. A concert in the Lake Tahoe-Reno area could potentially occur in early March.

“Tinsley is a touring musician, a songwriter, a performer and recording artist and being a record label was not really what he wanted to do,” Iglauer said. “He did it well enough and he probably came out of it OK financially because he’s a smart guy about this stuff. He understands the basics of business and cost and profitability but he also knew that there were limits to what he could do in terms of creating public visibility for himself, his records and his career.

“We can do a lot for him that he can’t do for himself. … So it’s a two-way street. I want this music back on the label. I very much like the record and felt that it was a very good fit for Alligator. It’s an intensely raw blues record and he needed services that we could provide beyond getting the album into the marketplace, which is getting the media and the public to know it exists.”

Details about “Winning Hand” and the tour will be announced in a couple of weeks, Iglauer said.

-Tim Parsons

About Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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