Legendary Guitarist Tinsley Ellis on His Love for Blues and Southern Rock and Touring with Marcia Ball

Tinsley Ellis playing one of his favorite guitars, a Stratocaster. (Photo: Reagan Kelly)

Ellis playing one of his favorite guitars, a Stratocaster. (Photo: Reagan Kelly)

Is Tinsley Ellis a traditional blues guitarist or a southern rock guitar blazer? Ellis has an affinity for both genres. And afterall isn’t blues the mother of many styles of rock? A hard working, extremely talented guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer, he was born in Atlanta and grew up in South Florida. Ellis has recorded 20 albums and is nominated for the 2023 Blues Music Awards in both the Blues Rock Album and Blues Rock Musician categories, presented by The Blues Foundation. 2022’s Devil May Care is his latest album.

Ellis is now playing a series of tour dates with another legendary blues performer, pianist Marcia Ball. Their Acoustic Songs and Stories Tour is coming to Moondog’s Pub in Blawnox on Sunday, March 26.

Ball’s music has been described as “romping Texas boogies, swampy New Orleans ballads and groove-laden Gulf Coast blues.” Her latest album, Shine Bright, produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, is full of her signature style of rollicking two-fisted piano, soulful vocals, and excellent songwriting. She’s backed by a very talented group of Texas and Louisiana musicians. In 2018, Ball received the 2022 Living Blues Award for Most Outstanding Musician—Keyboards. Both recording artists are with Alligator Records.  

Marcia Ball will be showcasing her impressive piano playing skills at Shrine Center. (Photo: Mary Bruton)

Marcia Ball will be showcasing her impressive piano playing and singing skills at Shrine Center. (Photo: Mary Bruton)

Ellis and Ball will each play a solo acoustic set, and to close the evening they will join forces and share some songs and stories together. Ellis will perform many of his most popular songs, plus Delta blues covers and classics by artists like Gregg Allman, Bob Dylan, and Leo Kottke, on his 1937 National Steel and 1969 Martin D-35 guitars. Ball will play piano and sing her raucous and touching original songs that are full of the characters and places she’s encountered in her life. 

Ellis spoke with Entertainment Central while he was traveling by car from a show in Seattle to concert dates in Colorado and Nebraska. He and Ball had just completed a string of tour stops from San Diego to Seattle. He started in Boca Raton, Florida three weeks ago and has crisscrossed the country by car since then. Ellis said he’s been enjoying touring with Ball and performing the acoustic side of songs for a change. He has an acoustic album in the works that will be released next year.

I mentioned to Ellis that I remembered him headlining the Pittsburgh Blues and Roots Festival here in Pittsburgh a few years ago. He said that he loves playing Pittsburgh and has a lot of respect for festival organizer, and owner of Moondog’s Pub, Ron Esser.

Guitars, Influences, and The Allman Brothers Band

When I asked Ellis how he would describe his guitar playing style he replied that it’s blues rock and he’s been equally influenced by blues artists like B.B. King and Muddy Waters, and rock bands like the Allman Brothers Band and Jimi Hendrix. He mainly plays a Fender Stratocaster and a Gibson ES-345, “like Freddie King used to play,” he said.

Devil May Care is my most Allman Brothers Band influenced album. They were my local band in Atlanta and South Florida where I grew up,” Ellis said. “I got on board with them while Duane Allman was still alive and followed their entire career, both watching concerts and buying albums. Then around 30 years ago they started letting me perform with them, letting me sit in with them and play.”

Ellis has even recorded a few albums with the famed Capricorn Records of Macon, Georgia, earlier in his career. Capricorn is the label that helped the Allman Brothers become superstars and one of the original studios that put southern rock on the map. Ellis recorded two live concerts at the renovated, historic Capricorn studios earlier this year. He said the shows were so successful, he is considering releasing the live performances.

When asked what it feels like when he plays the guitar, Ellis said, “It was my escape as a boy. I started playing when I was seven, and then in high school it turned into more of a thing where I was playing in bands. In college I barely made it out of college because I was playing so often. I started off with the guitar, it was an invited guest, turned into a friend, and then guitar turned into a constant companion, then guitar turned into an obsession, then guitar turned into an occupation. Once it was an occupation it could never go back to being any of those other things. It has been a burden at times, but I’m really enjoying the acoustic format so much.” He said of his 1937 National Steel guitar, “It started off to be something you lay in your lap and play Hawaiian music on. It’s got palm trees and stuff on it. Then blues musicians got a hold of it at some point, around that same time, because it makes a lot of noise. It turned from being a Hawaiian music instrument to being a blues instrument.”

One of the guitars Tinsley Ellis will be playing on his Acoustic Songs and Stories tour with Marcia Ball will be his 1937 National Steel acoustic.

One of the guitars Tinsley Ellis will be playing on his Acoustic Songs and Stories tour with Marcia Ball will be his 1937 National Steel acoustic.

Ellis said of his inspiration for his latest album, Devil May Care, “It was born out of the pandemic. I had a lot of free time. I was off the road for the first time for over a year, first time in my life since high school.” On his website Ellis explains, “There was a lot of time to experiment. In my downstairs studio I set up every guitar and amp that I owned, plus a Leslie cabinet, an old wooden Wurlitzer electric piano, an old Maestro Echoplex tape delay and 30 or 40 glass, steel, and brass slides. Experimenting with different gear set-ups inspired the songwriting. Plus, I was able to listen to more music than I had since the 1970s. My imagination was fired up!”

Devil May Care

During that period he wrote 200 songs and released some of them online. Based on the reactions of fans, he knew that he needed to create an album and get back on the road. He then went to Franklin, Tennessee’s famous Rock House recording studio with his friend and co-producer—and piano and organ virtuoso—Kevin McKendree. Out of the 200 new songs Ellis chose eight for Devil May Care.

When I asked if he was going in a little more of a southern rock direction with Devil May Care, he replied, “It’s always been a mixture [of blues and southern rock]. I think this one is leaning more towards my Georgia roots. I really don’t have any other birthright other than to play Georgia music. I’ll never be Chicago blues or Texas blues. I play music from the area I come from, which is Florida and Georgia.”

Cover artwork by Steve Johannsen

Devil May Care is an amazing album which feeds one’s need for both long blues rock burns and the sizzlin’ guitar crunch of southern rock. There’s not a bad track in the bunch.

One of this writer’s favorites is “One Last Ride.” I mentioned to Ellis that I loved the song and could hear some Allman Brothers’ elements in it. He thanked me and said that it is one of the songs he will be performing and speaking about when he and Ball play Pittsburgh. “One Last Ride” starts out with a very pleasing guitar riff and is soon joined by other scorching riffs. The first riff continues frequently throughout the song, supported by Ellis’s soulful, melodic, crystalline voice, and whirling organ, drums, conga drums, bass, and keys. Lyrics include: “It ain’t no use complaining about how it all went down but that’s OK / There ain’t no rear view mirror gonna help me see a brighter yesterday / It all went down so quickly / It left me mystified / All I’m hoping is one last ride.” After the last verse Ellis takes off on a long euphoric guitar run percussed forward by music from the accompanying instruments. “One Last Ride” is one of the best new rock songs I’ve heard in a while and it deserves to be a new classic.

Several other songs will make you want to eat a peach, too, including “One Less Reason,” “Just Like Rain,” and “Juju.” Looking for slow burning, more traditional blues songs? “Don’t Bury Our Love” and  “Slow Train to Hell” are two great choices. The songs “28 Days” and “Step Up” are somewhat evocative of Stevie Ray Vaughn with impressive guitar licks and pedal effects. The supporting band for the album is simply splendid. Other musicians on the recording sessions are 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.” Devil May Care is a fantastic demonstration of how blues and southern rock can keep evolving, especially in the hands of a master musician.

Tinsley Ellis and Marcia Ball are famed blues rock musicians so see them in a different way—acoustically—and gain insights into their songs and hear stories from their years on the road. Moondog’s Pub Sunday March 26, 7 p.m. 378 Freeport Rd., Blawnox.



Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central.

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