Waiting out Covid-19: Tinsley Ellis keeps making music

The coronavirus hit at a most inappropriate time for Tinsley Ellis.
Kurt Johnson / Tahoe Onstage

Part of a series about musicians during the time of Covid-19.

“Highwayman” Tinsley Ellis was riding high when his tour came to a screeching halt. His 18th album, “Ice Cream in Hell,” was in the Top 10 on Billboard’s blues chart and he was in the midst of his longest West Coast tour when concerts all across the nation were canceled. His last show was March 15 in Reno.

Ellis, 62, has not let his creative music foot off the pedal, however. He releases an audio clip of a new song on his Facebook page each week, “Wednesday’s Basement Tapes.” Last week, the Alligator Records artist had a guest stint as a DJ for Sirius/XM Bluesville. He’s done three performances from his home studio as benefits. Plus, he’s distributing his albums, 2-for-1 offers, by mail order.

Ellis spoke to Tahoe Onstage by phone this week from his home in Atlanta.

What do you see coming out of this era of music with no concerts?

There’s going to be a whole new slew of songs and also there’s going to be some artists who are going to be discovered on things like Facebook Live. All of a sudden things are going to go viral. I’ve seen a few who have really impressed me that I’ve never heard of before. People are broadcasting all manner of performances.

What is a typical day for you now?

I get up really early in the morning. There is nothing nightcluby keeping me awake late. I get up around 6 and change out of my nighttime pajamas into my daytime pajamas and start working downstairs. I’m a person who like to stay busy.

What songs did you play during your DJ set on Sirius/XM Bluesville?

Some of the songs were more message oriented. I started with “We’re Going to Make It” by Little Milton. Then “Steppin’ Out” by John Mayall and Eric Clapton, Then “Goin’ Down” by Freddie King. And they invited me to do one of the songs from my new album, so I played “You’re Love’s Like Heroin.” And several others, a mix of rock and blues.

Tell us about the Wednesday Basement Tapes.

Last Wednesday the first song and it got a great response online. I’ve already been doing “The Sunday Morning Coffee Songs” for six years, so this is an extension of that. We can’t do any concerts for a while so this is an opportunity to make people happy with music, which was the original plan from the beginning.

Your last show was in Reno. It must be the luck of a bluesman to have your tour come to a halt when you are nearly 3,000 miles from home and your album is high on the charts. You must have had a lot of time to think on the way home to Georgia.

It was a 37-hour drive and don’t forget the drive the day before that though a snowstorm on a mountain pass with no chains. It was agonizing but we got home and took about a week to decompress. Then I went downstairs and fired up the recording equipment and started working on the music. It’s very soul cleansing to do that. It put all of us out of business for a while. Some people are probably going to have to get jobs and hang it up for good. There are people with much larger overhead than myself.

When do you think you might do another concert?

My next show is scheduled for July. We just had the entire month of June fall through, including the Chicago Blues Festival — that was a rough phone call to get. It all just evaporated at once. The next dates in question will be July. Am I going to get a phone call about all the July shows next? If we have to wait for a vaccine for touring to resume, I wonder if I’ll ever play again. They’ve been waiting for a vaccine for the AIDS virus for 38 years. So this is truly something out of my control, which is why I don’t like it. I am very much a control freak.

I understand your former bass player left music for the medical industry. What a time to do that!

Kevan McCann left the band right before the album came out. He was juggling the two careers. He’s an ICU nurse at Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital. He is working in the Covid unit. We are great friends. I talked to him last night and he said he’s still healthy. He’s dressed like a beekeeper, there’s a great word for it: apiculturist. He’s got a shield and he almost looks like a spaceman or a beekeeper or a beekeeping spaceman. He’s in my thoughts all the time. He’s on the front line. These doctors, nurses and EMTs are like saints.

-Tim Parsons

Related stories:
-Tinsley Ellis plays ‘last concert on Earth.”
– ‘Ice Cream in Hell’ album review.

Kevan McCann, left, performed in December 2018 at Lake Tahoe with Tinsley Ellis. McCann is now working as an ICU nurse in the Covid-19 unit at Emory Hospital in Atlanta.
Tinsley Ellis plays “The Last Song” for Reno on March 15.
David Rocco / Special to Tahoe Onstage

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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