Q&A: ‘Red Clay Soul’ by Georgia bluesman Tinsley Ellis

Tahoe Onstage

Tinsley Ellis portrait courtesy of Flournoy Holmes

Editor’s note: On June 3, the prolific blues rocker from Atlanta, Tinsley Ellis, released his fourth album in as many years, “Red Clay Soul.” Tahoe Onstage spoke with Ellis about the new record.

Tahoe Onstage: Once again, you have put together an album that has songs with a wide variety of styles. And each album you release has an overall different sound. It that what you were seeking?

Tinsley Ellis: I don’t want to make the same album again over and over, and yet I don’t want to confuse people, so it’s a delicate balance. What we did on this album is we had more songs than ever to choose from. One thing I don’t have is a writer’s block. We went into this album with about 100 songs.

Tahoe Onstage: What happens to the unused songs?

Tinsley Ellis: The extra songs that I don’t use on a particular album might re-surface on a later album. For example, “Givin’ You Up” was initially intended for 2009’s “Speak No Evil” CD.

Red Clay SoulTahoe Onstage: Anyone who has been to Georgia will understand the album’s title, “Red Clay Soul.” You didn’t use pedal effects much at all, was that to create a soulful sound?

Tinsley Ellis: We wanted a name that depicted Southern soul music. I used the wah-wah on one song (“Hungry Woman Blues”) but it’s not used like the way I’ve always used it in the Eric Clapton Cream era or Hendrix way. It’s more used in a Johnny Guitar Watson or “Shaft” way.

Tahoe Onstage: How is this album different from your others?

Tinsley Ellis: I don’t see it as a deviation but as somebody pointed out it’s one of my more singer-songwriter albums. I’ll take that.

Tahoe Onstage: Kevin McKendree again co-produced the record. You two must have an outstanding rapport.

Tinsley Ellis: Kevin McKendree has been on every one since (“Fire It Up”) in ‘96 with (producer) Tom Dowd. We started talking about doing an album and he had some conditions. He would co-produce, and I was happy with this, and then I wondered what that meant. I was looking for some direction. He said, ‘We’re going to do it live in the studio like we used to do,’ and that scared the hell out of me because when you’re live in the studio a lot of stuff can’t be changed.

Tahoe Onstage: It was mostly live, even the vocals?

Tinsley Ellis: Ninety-eight percent live and 2 percent stuff fixed later. It has more live vocals on this album than any album I’ve done since the 1980s. And with that comes with some not horrible mistakes but emotion over other things like perfect pitch. That was (McKendree’s) concept for the album as co-producer. … We had all of these different versions of the songs. We had to pick what version was better. It felt more exciting.

Tahoe Onstage: A lot of the songs have a slow, relaxed tempo.

Tinsley Ellis: The last thing I ever want to be termed is a nervous white guy. There are bands that that worked for, maybe like the Ramones. I like the Eric Clapton approach. His new album is so excellent. I am glad I made my album before his because I would have wanted to make an album pretty much like his. He has such a good J.J. Cale thing that he does. He’s so relaxed and comfortable. I am not the voice of the youth rebellion, I’m not even the voice of middle-age rebellion. So, no reason to get people all fired up. The concerts are a different thing, but on an album I want to have a nice listening experience. The tempos may seem relaxed but I am relaxed as a person at this moment. I’m in a comfortable spot.

Tahoe Onstage: The last time you were in Tahoe, you had just started your own Heartfixer label and you said you were going to make an album a year. You have backed up that statement. Four in four years, correct?

Tinsley Ellis: Four in four years. I might be able to squeeze one in 2017 but if I don’t make one a year, I hope you don’t hold it against me. I don’t want to make an album before its time and this album took longer than the others because of the song selection process. The last three came out in winter, this one in the spring when things are rejuvenated. My touring is about to start up and I’m about to tour like I’ve never toured before. There’s an increased demand now due to the higher visibility created by my new album-a-year approach.

Tahoe Onstage: The album opens with an upbeat guitar note on “All I Think About” that quickly gets the listener into it. Did you want to get their attention right away?

Tinsley Ellis: I wanted something that leads with the guitar, no pun intended, because I want people to know there’s going to be plenty of guitar on here. And I wanted a song that was going to be more lighthearted thematically. I didn’t want to open with “The Bottle, The Book Or The Gun” or anything like that. I wanted to open with something fun. So the line comes around, “I ain’t much but I’m all I ever think about.” That’s lighthearted. That’s fun.

Tahoe Onstage: I also like the line on another song, “Paging Mr. Bitter, Party of One.”

Tinsley Ellis: Mr. Bitter couldn’t find anyone to dine with. He was too much of a bummer.

Tahoe Onstage: Is “Circuit Rider” your modern day “Highway Man”?

Tinsley Ellis: “Yes, it’s autobiographical. You go town to town and hopefully make people feel better. That was the sleeper track. For about a month that was going to be the name of the album. But we chickened out. You don’t want to name an album after a song if the song’s not THE song, so we never know what THE song is. We went with the “Red Clay Soul” because we wanted to have a Southern title.

Tahoe Onstage: I hear “Estero Noche” and wonder if you someday might record an all Latin-flavored album.

Tinsley Ellis: That song wasn’t meant to be a Latin song. We were jamming on it and those guys started playing on it like that and it came out like that. I did grow up in South Florida, near Miami, so that music is in me. Afro-Cuban is music that’s from the region. “Catalunya” from the instrumental album (“Get It”) didn’t start being Latin either. Maybe someday Santana will hear one of my songs and want to do it. I could hear him doing either of those tunes.

Tahoe Onstage: You reunited with Oliver Wood on “Givin’ You Up.”

Tinsley Ellis: Oliver Wood co-wrote it. He sang the backup vocals and played the lead guitar and he played such a great lead guitar part that people are thinking it’s me and I have to tell them that, for once, I wrote a song where I didn’t play the lead guitar. I played rhythm guitar and harmonica on it. He’s like a brother to me. It’s my favorite track on the album. Me, Oliver and Kevin were just rocking out and so we decided not to fade it out and just play it in its entirety. So it’s a long piece of jamming.’

Tahoe Onstage: “The Bottle, The Book Or The Gun” is a pretty heavy song to end the album.

Tinsley Ellis: I am around people who do all kinds of stuff. Bob Dylan had a song, “You’ve Got to Serve Somebody” and he was talking about all the different ways you can find to get by in life and get over the rough spots. For some people, it would be the bottle, the book or the gun and the book would be any kind of book out there that people can relate to, a self-help or more classical literature — or the gun. Some people turn to violence or something like that. So there’s a controversial title at the end of the album.

Tahoe Onstage: I love “Red Clay Soul.” It might be my favorite one you have made. What has been the response so far?

Tinsley Ellis: There was an early release with autographs and that’s going well.The initial response is better than the other three, so that’s a good sign. It’s an exciting time. You never know what people will think of an album until it comes out and by then it’s too late. We just want to make an album the fans will like.

  • Related stories:
    Tinsley Ellis at his best on “Red Clay Soul.”  LINK
    “Tough Love” from Tinsley Ellis. LINK
    Tahoe Onstage video: Tinsley Ellis onstage, backstage. LINK

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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