Tinsley Ellis knows something about never quitting, as his most famous song (“A Quitter Never Wins”) promotes. He’s been at it, grinding out his blustery blues-rock for more than 200 gigs a year for as long as anyone can remember, actually over a quarter-century. That’s a lot of wear and tear, both on his vehicles and on the body and psyche of a righteous, rough-and-tumble guitarist who isn’t exactly reveling in the Rolling Stones’ or the Allman Brothers Band’s comparatively luxurious mode of transportation.
First with the Alley Cats, then with harpist/vocalist Chicago Bob in the Heartfixers and finally solo after signing with the feisty Alligator label in 1988, Ellis has bled Georgia blue, not coincidentally the title of his debut. The recently released Moment of Truth, his 11th slab of flinty blues and R&B-infused rock, follows the well-received Live! Highwayman, a long-awaited, unrelentingly scorching concert recording that funneled 25 years of road-tested material into an hour’s worth of paint-peeling intensity that ranks with some of the finest live albums of its genre.
Back in the studio for his first stab at original material since 2004’s The Hard Way, the Atlanta-based Ellis forcibly took the reins by producing himself for only the second time in his career. “I was able to draw from the producers I’ve had over the years,” he says, “from the experience working with them and the sometimes-bad news they broke to me about the things I do in the studio. Each one brought something different to the records; Eddy Offord was the best engineer/producer in terms of making it sound good. Tom Dowd was clearly the best arranger, David Z. the best vocal coach and Brendan O’Brien the best guitar solo coach. When I produce, I wear their hats to break the bad news to myself.”
Producing aside, being Tinsley Ellis the musician is a full time job, even on the rare occasions he’s off the road. His once makeshift basement studio has expanded (and moved) into a larger facility in Tucker. That’s where he puts in eight-hour days working on songs, in this case nearly 50 of them, whittling them down to the 11 that made the final cut on Moment of Truth. The music evolved over the course of a year with input from Alligator’s owner Bruce Iglauer (“I had some extra sets of ears in there,” says the guitarist). But the best, and ultimately most important, judge of Ellis’ music is the audience. “Most of the songs I had already performed live. The audience provides the sincerest form of feedback.”
Ellis, who typically chews through musicians as regularly as his van racks up miles (“the touring I do is not normal behavior,” he says, laughing), has been fortunate to keep the same core associates on this album, augmented in the studio by longtime keyboardist Kevin McKendree (Delbert McClinton). “The road band gives me a comfort zone, and the ‘ringers’ make it sound like a record.”
Atlanta’s Michelle Malone, no stranger to the rigors of keeping a career alive through constant touring, played the ‘ringer’ role, contributing key backing vocals on the emphasis track, “Tell the Truth.” “We had done festivals together and always talked about doing something,” Ellis recalls. “When the opportunity came up, she knocked it out in 15 minutes. What a voice!”
The downsides of the journeyman aspects of his job, in particular dependencies on alcohol and drugs, are tackled lyrically in “Get to the Bottom” and “Too Much of Everything.” “I’ve had so many friends go through it,” he sighs. “Some of them come out of it, some don’t. But it seems like it has been a big part of my life lately.”
“Knocking on the door of 50,” Ellis has abandoned most of the self-destructive behavior typically associated with his itinerant lifestyle. “When I was younger, the days and nights ran together. Now we get five or six hours of sleep a night. Back then, that wasn’t something we used to think about.”