Home Read Albums Of The Week: Tinsley Ellis | Naked Truth

Albums Of The Week: Tinsley Ellis | Naked Truth

The veteran bluesman heads back to the Delta on this stripped-down acoustic set.

THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “According to Atlanta blues guitarist and singer-songwriter Tinsley Ellis, his new, first-ever solo acoustic album Naked Truth is both “a departure and an arrival.”

Ellis has been recording and travelling the world for over four decades, delivering his feral, guitar-fueled, original electric blues-rock to ever-growing audiences at concert halls, festivals, and clubs. Naked Truth is steeped in the folk-blues traditions of Muddy Waters, Skip James, Son House, Robert Johnson and even Leo Kottke. To the casual fan, this might seem to be a new direction, but for Ellis, it’s an extension of his music, as he taps into the raw essence of the blues. “This is a record I’ve always wanted to make, and one that my longtime fans have been asking for,” he says, noting he’s included an acoustic mini-set in his concert performances for years. In the last 12 months, Ellis has already performed over 100 solo shows, many as co-bills with his Alligator labelmate Marcia Ball. “I’m having so much fun playing these shows,” he says.

On Naked Truth (his 21st album), Ellis swaps his blistering full-band workouts for equally passionate, soul-searching acoustic folk-blues. His famed guitar chops and musical creativity are on full display throughout the album’s 12 songs, dominated by nine newly written originals. Naked Truth was produced by Ellis, with the foot-stomping cover of Son House’s Death Letter Blues produced by Atlanta musician Eddie 9V. The album was recorded live in the studio using Ellis’ beloved 1969 Martin D-35 (a gift from his father) and his 1937 National Steel O Series guitars. Whether intricately fingerpicking the Martin or playing hair-raising slide on the National, Ellis delivers each song with unvarnished intimacy.

Photo by Darin Back.

The opener, Ellis’ original Devil In The Room, comes from an expression Ellis’ close friend, the late Col. Bruce Hampton, would tell his musicians just before a show was about to begin (“We’re here to put the devil in the room,” he’d say). From the original, Skip James-inspired Windowpane to the Delta-styled Tallahassee Blues and the humorous Grown Ass Man, Ellis goes deep, singing and playing the blues’ honest truths. The inclusion of four introspective instrumentals (including a transcendent cover of Leo Kottke’s A Soldier’s Grave On The Prairie, a song he’s been playing live for almost 50 years) adds even more depth and substance to an album overflowing with riches. Each song carries the weight, experience and hard-earned wisdom Ellis learned over four decades on the road, infusing Naked Truth with an emotional authenticity that is palpable from start to finish.

Ellis has been immersed in music his whole life. Born in Atlanta in 1957 and raised in southern Florida, he acquired his first guitar at age seven, inspired by seeing The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. He took to guitar instantly, developing and sharpening his skills as he grew. Like many kids his age, Ellis discovered the blues through the back door of British Invasion bands like The Yardbirds, The Animals, Cream and The Rolling Stones as well as Southern rockers like The Allman Brothers. One afternoon after high school in 1972, he and a friend were listening to Al Kooper and Michael Bloomfield’s Super Session record when his friend’s older brother told them they should go see B.B. King, who was in town that week. Tinsley saw that show from the front row. After King broke a string and changed it without missing a beat, he handed it to young Tinsley. And yes, Tinsley still has it.

Less than three years later, Ellis, already an accomplished teenaged musician, left Florida and moved to Atlanta. He soon joined a hard-driving local blues band, The Alley Cats. In 1981, along with veteran blues singer and harpist Chicago Bob Nelson, Tinsley formed The Heartfixers, a group that would become Atlanta’s top-drawing blues band. After cutting four Heartfixers albums, Ellis was ready to step out on his own.

Georgia Blue, Tinsley’s first Alligator release, took the public by surprise in 1988, as press and radio brought his music to more people than ever before. His next four releases — 1989’s Fanning The Flames, 1992’s Trouble Time, 1994’s Storm Warning and 1997’s Fire It Up — further grew his reputation as well as his audience. (His song A Quitter Never Wins, a highlight of Storm Warning, was recorded by Jonny Lang, selling almost two million copies.) He backed it all up performing hundreds of nights per year.

Photo by Darin Back.

In the early 2000s, Ellis released albums on Capricorn Records and Telarc, returning to Alligator in 2005 with Live–Highwayman, which captured the fifth-gear energy of his roof-raising live show. He followed it with two more incendiary studio albums, 2007’s Moment Of Truth and 2009’s Speak No Evil. He self-released four successful albums on his own Heartfixer label before coming back home to Alligator again in 2018. That year, he released the fan favorite Winning Hand, followed by 2020’s Ice Cream In Hell just before the pandemic sidelined all touring. With 2022’s Devil May Care, Ellis embarked on another relentless, coast-to-coast tour, further cementing his reputation as one of the most prolific and exciting blues rockers on the scene.

Ellis has brought his music to fans live in person to all 50 states, as well as Canada, Europe, Australia and South America. He’s earned the love and respect of many of his fellow musicians, having shared stages with Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, The Allman Brothers, Warren Haynes, Oliver Wood, Buddy Guy, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic and more. Over the years, legends including Otis Rush, James Cotton, Gregg Allman, Jimmy Buffett, Son Seals, Koko Taylor and Albert Collins have invited Ellis to join them on stage. Mega-star guitarist Joe Bonamassa calls Ellis “a national treasure.”

Now, with Naked Truth, Ellis will bring his music directly to his fans. “Two guitars and a car,” he says of the simplicity of his North American touring situation. “When folks come to see me, I’ll have the guitars I used on the record with me, so what fans hear on the album is what they’ll get live. It’s not easy. Now I’m the whole band and there’s nowhere to hide. It’s scary every single time I go up on stage alone. But nothing could be more honest.”

Naked Truth is a revelation. Stripped of the electric fervor that defined his previous works, Ellis’ acoustic music carries a rawness that speaks directly from his soul. The songs unveil another side of Ellis, but one that is totally recognizable to his fans. His gruff, full-throated vocals intertwine seamlessly with the bare, acoustic arrangements, creating an album that is both timeless and immediate.”

 

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