Tinsley Ellis is all about “Tough Love.”
Ellis made the tough decision to walk away from one of the biggest blues labels, Alligator Records, in order to have more control of his career. As a prolific songwriter and indefatigable road warrior, Ellis reasoned his time is too valuable to idle some of it away in order to work on other people’s schedules.
He set a goal of five albums in five years, and he’s right on track with today’s release of “Tough Love,” the third in as many years on his own Heartfixer Music label.
The 57-year-old from Atlanta who when he’s not on tour works each day in his studio in Tucker, Georgia, is on a recording clip rivaled in the blues-rock field perhaps only by Walter Trout and Joe Bonamassa.
By controlling the entire Heartfixer operation, Ellis says he has “just enough rope to hang myself.” However, he is savvy enough to consult with people in the industry he has worked with over the years, especially Alligator Records President Bruce Iglauer, who once sent him an e-mail with the subject header “Tough Love.”
“When you see that, you know it’s not going to be a pleasant email,” Ellis told Tahoe Onstage. “Basically tough love is telling somebody the truth. Someone who gives tough love is a teller of unpopular truths. Also love is tough, and also tough love is the way I feel about the music business. It’s a tough business to love, but I love it all the same.”
The Heartfixers was Ellis’ band in the mid-1980s before he began to sing full time and start a solo career.
Each of the 10 tracks on “Tough Love” has a unique flavor, which is Ellis’ goal for all his albums. “It’s like my record collection,” he said. “The common denominator is guitar.”
Ellis is a virtuoso on his instrument, but guitar is delivered more subtly on “Tough Love.” It’s the first of his 15 albums that doesn’t use any wah-wah pedals. He says the new album has a “more earthy sound.”
Known as “the Highwayman,” for one of his songs which was embraced by a legion of motorcyclists, Ellis offered another driving track, “Midnight Ride,” which is the second song on “Tough Love.”
It was nearly the first. But the new album opens with “Seven Years,” a rock ballad about infidelity.
“Bruce Iglauer said you’ve got to open with ‘Seven Years’ because you are a serious artist and that’s one of your serious songs,” Ellis said. “He is one of my close advisers and he is the king of tough love. He never tells me what I want to hear. He tells me what I need to hear. So I have him to thank for that sequence.”
“Tough Love” was released to radio stations last week and already “Seven Years” is in the rotation on a major station in Des Moines, Iowa, Ellis said.
With the wide variety of songs, radio stations have plenty from which to choose.
“All in the Name of Love” has a Memphis flavor with its organ and horns. Don’t be surprised to hear it covered by a soul or R&B artist. Jonny Lang’s first big hit was a cover of Ellis’ “A Quitter Never Wins.”
It’s somewhat unusual for acclaimed or even regional artists to credit influences or make comparisons to his songs, but Ellis is quick to offer them.
“Seven Years” feels like Bay Area funk such as Robert Cray or Tower of Power, he said. “Give It Away” has a Traveling Wilburys’ tempo with a Duane Allman dobro slide. And the song “Hard Work,” “JJ Cale is what it was compared to by one writer, and I took that as very high praise,” Ellis said.
Longtime fans will appreciate “Leave Me,” the most traditional and Tinsley-sounding song on the album. “The King Must Die” is a dark, spooky song about a hit man with a Robin Hood theme. It leaves plenty of room for interpretation and sounds like a movie soundtrack.
“Everything” opens with a harmonica solo.
“I put that harmonica part on myself and I kind of thought people would (suggest) to bring in Kim Wilson or John Hammond to play the harp part but nobody said anything so I just left it on there,” Ellis said. “It was a keeper, a one-take harp track. I am kind of tickled with the fact that my record company who happens to be me allowed me to do it.”
‘Tough Love’ Heartfixer Music
Release: Feb. 3, 2015
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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