Tinsley Ellis turned a taxing lockdown into laid-back but determined opportunity, digging back into his primary inspirations, and writing more than 200 new songs in the process. Debuting many during a fan-engaging social media blitz, a rousing plan emerged for these 10. Ellis’ 20th album, “Devil May Care,” became a colorful, blues-rocking parade in celebration of his musical roots. In a handful of instances, it’s an unabashed salute to The Allman Brothers Band. “The Allmans’ sound is in my Georgia blood,” he told me recently. “Their music plays in my head all the time.”
When his mind isn’t spinning Allman music, Tinsley Ellis plays penetrating, persuasive guitar, his singular, muscular tone inspired by several of the blues and rock greats of his 1960s and ‘70s youth. He sings through vocal cords that are like hand-tooled leather, the distinctive nuances worn to their most appealing perfection by years and years of good use.
“One Less Reason” begins the album on a blend of everything that makes Tinsley Ellis stand out — clever, sardonic verses; a thunderous beat; and melodic, window-rattling guitar. As he snarls “The monkey was off our backs now, but the circus was still in town,” several possible scenarios emerge. That knack of being at once vague and thought-provoking takes his songwriting to the next level. Somewhat Allman-esque in quality, it hits head-on with bravado into “Right Down the Drain,” bouncing on a phrase straight from the Allman Brothers’ 1975 take on Muddy Waters’ “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.” Although Dickey Betts was the sole guitarist for that brief period in Allman Brothers history, Ellis overdubs his own lead and slide playing here, shrewdly achieving the magic of the Brothers’ dual-guitar symbiosis. Then, in “Just Like Rain,” molded from Gregg Allman’s soulful, drifting blues “Just Ain’t Easy,” Ellis channels the bell-clear magnificence of Dickey Betts in his prime.
Ellis said he wanted the guitar to sing on this album, and his achievement in doing exactly that rings beautifully throughout it. He’s backed by the celebrated Nashville producer and keyboardist Kevin McKendree, bassist Steve Mackey and drummer Lynn Williams. Trumpeter Andrew Carney and sax player Jim Hoke add extra texture to three of the songs. Together, they form quite a tight little unit capable of sounding like an army. Their ability to summon the subtle blues potency of Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield in “Don’t Bury Our Love,” tap into Jimi Hendrix for the grinding “Step Up,” and then distinguish that from the uniqueness of Stevie Ray Vaughan in “28 Days,” results in stunning entertainment. Closing with “Slow Train to Hell,” Ellis and the band stretch out on a blues structured from ZZ Top’s “Blue Jean Blues.” A brilliant way to fade the album away, it goes right to the heart of despair, and as well to the source of that little ol’ band from Texas and blues music in general.
But the real brilliance of “Devil May Care” lies in the fact that Tinsley Ellis’ own recognizable blues-rock intensity, and his southern spirit, come through loud and clear and at their best throughout it, despite the obvious homages. Ten 10s in a blues-rock extravaganza right here.
Up next: Tinsley Ellis talks about his new album and returning to the stage after a 22-month hiatus.
‘Devil May Care’
Label: Alligator Records
Release: Jan. 21, 2022
- One Less Reason 5:11
2. Right Down The Drain 5:00
3. Just Like Rain 4:30
4. Beat The Devil 3:50
5. Don’t Bury Our Love 5:19
6. Juju 5:02
7. Step Up 4:05
8. One Last Ride 6:11
9. 28 Days 4:00
10. Slow Train To Hell 5:15
All songs by Tinsley Ellis, Heartfixer Music, BMI
Tinsley Ellis, Guitar and Vocals
Kevin McKendree, Organ and Piano
Steve Mackey, Bass
Lynn Williams, Drums and Percussion
With Jim Hoke, Sax and Andrew Carney, Trumpet on “Just Like Rain,” “Beat The Devil” and “Step Up”
Produced by Tinsley Ellis and Kevin McKendree
Recorded and mixed by Kevin McKendree at The Rock House, Franklin, TN
Assistant Engineer: Yates McKendree
Mastered by Jim Demain at Yes Master Studios, Nashville, TN
Cover art by Steve Johannsen
Photo by Elaine Thomas Campbell
Packaging design by Kevin Niemiec
In memory of William Tinsley “Trey” Ellis III