Tinsley Ellis released a new album Jan. 14, and, yes, he sings on it.
Ellis left the major record label Alligator in order to more frequently make albums filled with whatever music he desires. The first record on Heartfixer Music was the all-instrumental “Get It!” This week’s release, “Midnight Blue,” is what he calls “regular.”
While regular means Ellis sings and plays blues-based rock ‘n’ roll, “Midnight Blue” is, in fact, extraordinary, and it includes plenty of new territory. Produced by Ellis, it has 10 original that some will call blues or blues-rock and some will say southern rock. The consistent element is the guitar work from one of the best players in the business. Ellis set a goal of making an album every year, including a regular record every other release. He’s a little ahead of that pace now with two new CDs in 10 months.
“I gauge almost all of what I do based on the reactions of fans who come up to buy CDs after we play because I don’t think you can go wrong making albums for your fans,” said Ellis, who cited fans’ requests for a live album, 2004’s “Highwayman,” and 2013’s “Get It!,” comprised of what a fan suggested, “Tinstrumentals.”
“A lot of people asked, ‘Are you going to sing on an album again?’ ” said Ellis, who already has plans for the next irregular record.
“I think (‘Midnight Blue’ has) some of Tinsley’s best writing ever,” said keyboardist Kevin McKendree, who has played on each of Ellis’s albums since 1997. “He seems to have become more free to write what he feels like writing rather than so much aiming it towards an audience.”
The album was recorded at McKendree’s studio in Franklin, Tenn., The Rock House. The keyboardist best known as the longtime band leader for Delbert McClinton mixed “Midnight Blue.”
Ellis has not enjoyed the mainstream success as have his fellow Georgia peers and pals the Allman Brothers, probably because he’s always been considered by most to be a bluesman instead of a more commercial viable rock star. Nevertheless, the first song from “Midnight Blue” to get radio play is “Kiss of Death,” a slow, string-bending, straight-ahead blues tune, the last track on the album. “See No Harm” is another pure blues. There’s also an unadulterated rock song, “That’s My Story,” which include the resonating verse “Life with you is hairier than ‘Planet of the Apes.’ ”
Another rocker, “Harder to Find,” which includes synthesizer, seems like a departure from Ellis’ previous work.
“On that particular song, my ’80s were showing,” Ellis said. “It is similar to when Eric Clapton had his ‘Journeyman’ album. A little more modern technology, but now it’s not modern technology, it’s retro. That particular song is as modern as I get. I’ve never had a song that quite like that. That’s probably my favorite song in terms of songwriting on the album. We didn’t know where to put that song because it was so different from all the rest.”
Sequencing the songs on the record was something new for Ellis, who decided to open “Midnight Blue” with a powerful track, “If the River Keeps Rising.” The song starts with acoustic guitar before exploding electronically. It’s like early Led Zeppelin with a southern rock bent.
Other departures are “It’s Not Funny,” on which Ellis picks guitar over New Orleans-flavored second line drums, and “Surrender,” a favorite of McKendree’s who said it has a Bonnie Raitt flavor.
“We took a different approach with each song,” said Ellis. “We recorded it to suit the song rather than make them all the same. We just let the songs dictate the way they were produced.”
The man who wrote “A Quitter Never Wins” is the antithesis of a quitter.
When he’s not touring, Ellis spends his days writing songs in his Tucker, Ga., studio. Many of his songs have been recorded by other artists, including Jonny Lang, who in the 1990s sold 1.7 million units of “Quitter Never Wins,” giving Ellis a platinum songwriting credit.
Perhaps too prolific and motivated to wait for lightning to strike again, Ellis is on his own now and on the move.
“We plan to play everywhere,” he said, including, he hopes, Lake Tahoe, during an upcoming West Coast tour.