Mic Check: Tinsley Ellis detoured his creativity from the stage to the studio

Tinsley Ellis is hopeful that his rescheduled concert dates will be able to take place in spring 2021.

Credit: Regan Kelly

Credit: Regan Kelly

Editor’s note: With live music and concert reviews on hold due to COVID-19, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is focusing on how Georgia musicians are spending their time in our feature, Mic Check.

In January, Tinsley Ellis unveiled his 18th release, “Ice Cream in Hell.” It is his favorite album among a procession stretching across a 30-plus-year solo career, which is saying something for a guy whose oeuvre includes such stately blues-rock offerings such as 1997′s “Fire It Up” and 2009′s “Speak No Evil.”

But as Ellis and his band were in the familiar groove of touring the country to promote the new album, the coronavirus pandemic terminated their live shows. Ellis returned home, moved his equipment from his studio in Tucker to his basement, and even with his road routine on hold until spring, he’s kept the musical momentum going.

“I’m 63. It’s too late to change careers, so I’d better just stick with this job,” he said with a laugh.

Born in Atlanta and reared in South Florida, Ellis attended college at Emory University and has spent “the past 40 years moving up and down Clairmont Road.”

As as fierce guitarist and robust singer, he has worked with renowned musicians including Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Chuck Leavell, Peter Buck of R.E.M., so Ellis' standing as a mighty bluesman is unquestionable.

Atlanta bluesman Tinsley Ellis said the pandemic forced him off the road for the first time since 1979.

Credit: Ian Rawn

Credit: Ian Rawn

We checked in with the personable Ellis recently to talk about “Ice Cream in Hell” and how he’s diverted his energy from the road to the studio.

Q: You’ve said in the past that, “A musician never got famous staying home.” So what have these past six months been like for you with staying home as your only option?

A: I’ve been touring for 41 years solid. I graduated college in ’79 and have been on the road ever since. That’s kind of the blues way. We’re not on late-night TV, so we have to go out there and be grassroots. And that’s cool. It’s been different. I’ve never had six months off from performing since I was 15. But I’m staying busy. I’m recording and writing songs for my new album. Every Wednesday, I post on Facebook a new demo from the week — I call it the “Wednesday Basement Tapes.” It’s a helpful way to get feedback on the songs. I can kind of tell what people want, which helps because there’s so many of them I’ll have to choose, about 60-70 songs. But newsflash, they’re not all great! Most days, I go down (to my studio basement) with my coffee and fire up my amp and write songs, and by noon I’m kind of done. Then I putz around the house with my family a little bit. I’m enjoying all the new walking trails in Atlanta. And then I do a lot of connecting with friends on Zoom. I’m just waiting to see what happens.

Tinsley Ellis released his latest album, "Ice Cream in Hell," in January.

Q: What have you been listening to?

A: I love listening; that’s how I get inspiration for songs. I turn my computer on in my recording area and put on music in the morning. WRFG (89.3-FM) has their “Good Morning Blues” from 6-10 a.m., and I can hear the current stuff. If I’m driving around, I can listen to (B.B. King’s) Bluesville on SiriusXM or the Tom Petty Radio channel, which is a great one. I’ve listened to the new Wood Brothers and John Hiatt albums. Of course, I listen to all the stuff on all of the old blues labels — Chess and Stax, I have a big record collection. Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule and Susan and Derek. B.B. King.

Q: Besides touring, is there anything you miss about life these days?

A: It’s actually been the most creative period in my life since I was a college student and unable to tour and would just sit around the dorm room and listen to records and dream about one day being able to be a touring musician. I do miss it, but I don’t miss all of it. The best times performing are the two hours on the stage, so that leaves 22 hours to fill, and those hours can be very frustrating and annoying. It’s a lot of sitting around and everything is in pencil. But I tell you what, it beats the job that the guys who built the pyramids had. But I’m enjoying the creative period. I probably have enough songs for the rest of my career.

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