Tinsley Ellis drives new album, familiar wit back onstage

Tinsley Ellis plays “The Last Concert on Earth” for Reno on March 15, 2020.
David Rocco / Special to Tahoe Onstage

The last time Tinsley Ellis was onstage he was close enough to hell to see Sparks, the town just east of Reno. A pandemic was starting to cause hell for the blues rocker and the entire music industry, which is working its way to whatever will be the new normal.

“The Last Concert on Earth,” as Ellis called it, was held March 15, 2020, in the former midtown venue The Saint. A long tour, which had just begun, abruptly stalled out 3,000 miles away from “The Highwayman’s” home.

“The Highwayman has been on a hiatus,” Alligator Records artist Tinsley Ellis said. “Now, I’m the Hiatusman. But the Highwayman, he will come back. He’s in me. He’s dying to get out.”

Today, Jan. 21, Ellis’ 20th album, “Devil May Care,” is released and Ellis will start a nationwide tour with a show in his hometown Atlanta. A red vinyl record is cased in brilliant artwork of a wing walker with a guitar flying through flames.

“What would be more ‘Devil May Care’?” Ellis asked. “Somebody on a tour during a pandemic might rival that. … (But) I’ve been in my basement long enough. It’s time to emerge. This is getting ridiculous.”  

Almost two years ago, ‘twas miraculous Ellis even made it to “The Last Concert on Earth.” He drove his “bug-eyed” bandmates in his van through a mountain blizzard from Paradise, California to Reno, Nevada on the backroad Highway 70 with no tire chains or cellphone service. The next day, a nationwide lockdown due to a pandemic occurred just as his new album reached No. 1 on the blues charts — “Ice Cream in Hell,” indeed.

“We’d played in Paradise for 800 people in close quarters with no masks,” Ellis said. “The next day people were singing a whole different tune. At the beginning of that tour and the excitement about that album, we really thought it was going to be a game changer. Then I had the scariest drive I’ve had in my life and the next day I had my longest drive of my life.”

Optimism is high again for “Devil May Care,” which has a title that has become a theme for Ellis. The new album includes the song, “Beat The Devil, the previous album was “Ice Cream in Hell” and one of Ellis’s most performed songs is “To the Devil for a Dime.”

“I better have a come-to-Jesus moment,” Ellis said. “I told Bruce (Iglauer, Alligator Records’ president) I’m not going to be on the cover dressed like Lucifer holding the guitar like a pitchfork. I like the notion of ‘The Devil May Care’ because it was in an Elvis song I really liked, ‘Viva Las Vegas.’ Doc Pomus wrote the song: ‘There’s a thousand pretty women waitin’ out there. And they’re all livin’ the devil may care.’ It’s a great line.”

Ellis is no ersatz Elvis.

“I’m kind of a cross between Hound Dog Taylor and James Taylor,” he said.

The Allman Brothers could be added to the mix. “Devil May Care” has a peachy flavor. The tunes “One Less Reason” and “Just Like Rain” are obvious nods to the influential Southern rock blues band. Ellis wrote 200 songs and picked 10 for the new record.

“I tested the waters,” Ellis said. “The two most ‘Allman-sy’ songs, Tracks 1 and 3, I sent to Warren Haynes. I don’t want to be a ripoff but I don’t really have any other birthright. This is Georgia music and it’s really my only birthright. I’m never gonna be Elmore James or Freddie King, no matter how hard I try. Warren gave me the thumbs up on it, which made me very happy. In fact, I sent ‘One Less Reason’ first and then I sent ‘Just Like Rain’ and that precipitated a phone call from him.”

Ellis plays dual guitars on much of the record, which he’s apt to do in the studio. But for the first time in many years will bring along a second guitarist on his tour: Yates McKendree, the son of Ellis’ longtime producer Kevin McKendree.

“Yates has been the one who hits the red button since he was 11 years old.” Ellis said. “By the time he was 16, I noticed he’s getting really good. He started to perform with Delbert McClinton and he plays all the lead guitar on John Hiatt’s fantastic ‘Eclipse (Sessions)’ album. He’s a triple threat on organ, piano and guitar.”

Yates’ best friend, Andrew White, will play bass on the tour, joining Ellis and Erik “Jazzy Skins” Kaszynski, who joined the band midway through a 2013 tour a couple of days before playing at Lake Tahoe.

Yates is 20 years old and White is 26.

“It’s not going to make me look any younger, I’ll tell you that much,” said Ellis, who has an ear for young talent. He was the first to record Derek Trucks, who was just 14, and Oliver Wood, who was in his early 20s. “I get them and keep them as long as I can and when they pass on by me and to onto greater things, they hopefully won’t forget their old friend.”

Ellis invited the young guns after he and Kaszynski jammed with them in Nashville.

“It sounded great, just like the album,” Ellis said. “We’re going to play the whole album in its entirety live.”

That won’t leave much time for other songs from Ellis voluminous library. He has 18 albums of originals, one greatest hits compilation and one live record, “Highwayman.”

“Somebody said, ‘You can’t please everybody, you’re not a taco,’” Ellis said. “But you know what? The worst taco I ever had really wasn’t that bad.”

Notes: Ellis wrote the song “One Last Ride” in honor of his former bandmate, bass player James “The Evil One” Ferguson, who died July 3, 2020. … During the pandemic, Ellis wrote a song a week and played it from his basement studio on Wednesdays on his Facebook page. “Going through a pandemic is a high price for extra creativity,” he said. … Alligator Records needed some convincing to include “Just Like Rain” on the new album. But it received the best listener feedback from the basement recordings. “We were able to do a test market on it,” Ellis said. “It was a nice luxury to have.” … Ellis’ drummer Erik Kaszynski ‘s nickname was born after Ellis dictated “Kaszynski” to his phone and “Jazzy Skins” appeared on the text. … Before the start of the The Wood Brothers, Oliver Wood toured with Ellis in 1994 as a second guitarist. … Ellis is mentioned frequently in a new book by Daniel M. Harrison, “Live at Jackson Station.” The remote South Carolina venue’s heyday in the 1980s had a diverse cultural clientele and the music of Ellis when his career was just starting, along with artists such as Widespread Panic, Nappy Brown and Drink Small. Its gay owner, Gerald Jackson, was murdered in an apparent hate crime. “It is such a great book,” Ellis said. “Jackson Station was the ultimate Southern roadhouse. The writer took me back to a time where people really went out and supported live music.” … Landslide Records “40 Years” anniversary 33-song compilation released in 2021 includes two early Ellis tracks. The singers were Nappy Brown and former Heartfixers frontman Chicago Bob Nelson. “I used to sing one or two songs a night before the featured vocalist would come on,” Ellis said. “Chicago Bob left The Heartfixers rather abruptly and we had literally 100 shows booked, and I had to step up and handle the singing. So my singing career was born out of necessity.” …The midtown Reno venue The Saint where Ellis played the “Last Concert on Earth” has been remodeled by its new owners. The new name is Cypress. Scott Pemberton O Theory headlines the first show on Thursday, Jan. 20. Tahoe native Dan Green’s band Ten Foot Tiger opens.

-Tim Parsons

Related stories:
Georgia on his mind, Tinsley Ellis makes devil of an album. LINK
Album review: ‘Genuine Houserockin’ Music roars: Alligator turns 50. LINK
50 years of Houserockin’ — Q&A with Bruce Iglauer. LINK
Highwayman plays ‘Last Concert on Earth. LINK

ABOUT Tim Parsons

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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