Tinsley Ellis: Still Screamin'
The veteran blues-rocker dishes out some more hot licks

By Lee Valentine Smith

Tinsley Ellis has been a fixture of the Atlanta blues landscape for over four decades. First with the Alley Cats, then with The Heatfixers, continuing as an internationally touring solo act since the mid-'80s, Ellis has maintained a direct connection to the local scene and mentored a number of notable musicians along the way. Derek Trucks, Donna Hopkins and Michelle Malone all cite Ellis as an early inspiration.

In celebration of his latest album, the venerable singer-songwriter-guitarist-mentor will play a lengthy CD-release show on the night his latest release, Ice Cream In Hell, hits the shelves.

INsite caught up with the affable musician just before he flew to Fort Lauderdale to join a Blues Cruise with kindred spirits Taj Mahal, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

As an artist, can you feel any discernable differences between a cruise audience and a theater crowd?

If it's a theater-style show, you can do some slower songs. But on a cruise, sometimes they're standing by the pool or on the deck, and the goal is to keep 'em movin' 'n' groovin.' But I'm pretty good at reading the crowd. If it's a seated show, which most of my shows are now, we make it more of a concert set. I play a lot of places like the Winery, so it's good to have their attention and we can go back and do some old favorites. In Atlanta, we'll definitely play a lot of songs from the new CD. That's when the tour starts and then we'll do about 60 more concerts, all over North America.

At this point is touring a luxury or a necessity?

Well, you kinda have to tour. Especially with a new album out. We've sort of become the store and the rolling promotion team, sort of like a politician. So we're going out there, shakin' hands and kissin' babies.

What a great album title to tour behind. Until this one, I thought R.L. Burnside's A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey was the best blues album title.

(Laughs) Yeah, that's a good one. You know, when I told a few people the new title, some of them thought I was saying I Scream In Hell. I didn't even think of that when I named the record. So now it's kinda cool that it can be taken in ways I didn't even imagine.

Is this your 20th album?

We've been trying to figure that out and nobody can quire figure out how to count it. If you include the Heartfixers albums in the '80s, it's probably my 22nd record. But under my own name it's around my 19th one. I think. I've been with Alligator three different times, punctuated with trips to Capricorn, Telarc and my own label. The record companies kind of passed me around like a joint for a while. But I try to adapt with the times and we do the streaming and digital and all that. And now that vinyl is back, we can do that if it's under 45 minutes. This new one is on disc and digital, but no vinyl yet.

You were on Capricorn at the very end of its second incarnation, a strange time for any company.

I think I was their very last release, which is never a good place to be. In 2000, they were selling the label and I guess there were some acts who didn't get their albums released at all. But they put mine out and it was right place, wrong time. After that, I bounced around for a while and eventually formed my own label which I still do sometimes.

Are you licensing your own albums to Alligator now?

We have a deal where they put my albums out. They promote so well. Some labels just have no push at all, but you can't beat Alligator. If they like the record, they'll put it out. Some that I've made, they've chosen not to release.

What are their criteria for a project?

Well the instrumental album I did a while back [2013's Get It], they weren't interested in. So I released it through Landslide here in Atlanta.

You go way back with Landslide, to pre-Heartfixers days at least.

Oh yeah, it's around 40 years now. Michael Rothchild is an old friend and we've been working together for a lot of years. We've always been involved, no matter what label I'm at, with publishing and stuff. Really a lot of the stuff I do, I've been working with the team here in Atlanta for decades and decades.

Four pretty solid decades. That's a long time and a lot of miles.

Yeah, last year marked my fortieth year on the road. You know, it has been a long time. It's been a long hard climb - to the middle!

Now for year 41, you're doing it again.

Blues music is such a grass-roots thing. You can't count on commercial radio to help you out. Sometimes it does, and it has helped me in the past. But generally you've got to go out there, like I said, and be a politician to get that one vote at a time.

The Blues still isn't mainstream by any means.

No it hasn't been in the mainstream since Stevie Ray. Prior to that was the Allmans in the '70s. I consider them to be a great blues band. Before that was the British Invasion people who were influenced by the blues, people like the Yardbirds. But every now and then somebody will spike through. It's usually somebody who is young because pop culture is defined by youth and image, which means I'm screwed! Hopefully somebody will come along and make the blues a part of pop culture again.

But you've weathered all the fads and fashions. I remember when you played 688 and The Bistro, which were primarily punk and new wave.

Yeah I was doing the blues in the late '70s when people were wearing skinny ties and that's definitely not a blues thing. They were pogoing and listening to songs like "She Blinded Me with Science." Then Stevie Ray Vaughn came along and he was kind of the antidote for all that. A lot of us sort of rode his coattails, including myself.

The Atlanta club scene became a really good market for the blues around that time with places like the Harvestmoon and Fuzzy's leading the way.

Atlanta was one of the first places Stevie Ray played on tour and pretty soon Atlanta really came into play. It wasn't quite like Austin but people were looking for things like what he was doing. Then it gets based around a spokesperson for the genre. I don't really see that happing at the moment but everything changes. We didn't have the internet back then, so you could have truly regional sounds. Now you can be from anywhere and located anywhere.

Having seen and survived the many ups and downs of it, how is the local blues scene now?

The two hotbeds that a musician could break out of would be the Northside Tavern or Blind Willie's. I still try to keep up with what's going on and check out who is coming along. There's a guy from the Columbus area who is really good right now. His name is Jontavious Willis. He's a phenomenal acoustic blues music musician. He's probably the fastest-rising star in traditional blues right now. And he's only 20! So it all just keeps on going. We're all just passing it along. I think there's still something really beautiful about the process.

Tinsley Ellis hosts the CD release party for Ice Cream In Hell on Friday, January 31 at City Winery. Showtime is 8 p.m. and Mudcat opens. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta.

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