CD Review: Tinsley Ellis – Naked Truth – 2024: Blues

Tinsley Ellis was born in Atlanta on June 4, 1957, and raised in Florida. He received his first guitar at age seven. He was inspired to learn to play after watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Tinsley developed his love of the blues as a teen by first listening to the British Invasion bands like The Yardbirds, The Animals, Cream and The Rolling Stones and the southern rockers like The Allman Brothers.

However, he was particularly inspired to pursue the blues after seeing B.B. King in concert. At that concert, B.B. broke a string and repaired the guitar without missing a beat and handed the string to Tinsley. Tinsley still has that memento.

By age 18 he was already playing gigs locally. By 21, he moved back to Atlanta and joined the Alley Cats, a hard-driving local blues band. Still in his 20’s, he recorded his first album with his band, The Heartfixers, with veteran blues vocalist and harpist, Chicago Bob Nelson. After four albums with The Heartfixers, he decided to pursue his own solo career and joined the Alligator Records family in 1988 with his first solo album, Georgia Blue. Over twenty albums, he has maintained his own style of blues rock, frequently described with adjectives such as incendiary, dazzling, feral, and… well you understand if you have listened to any of his albums released prior to this one.

But last year, he decided to change directions from his past releases. For that tour which involved over 100 shows and for this release, he moved to a stripped-down solo acoustic show featuring just his 1937 National steel guitar and his 1967 Martin Acoustic given to him by his father. About this shift of direction, he says “I think that in this format there’s a new depth to the emotion of my music. When it’s just you, your voice, and your guitar, you have to deliver raw, honest emotion to your audience. You can’t just give them volume, energy, and exciting playing. The audience has to feel what you’re putting into the song and has to believe you. When I play and sing in the solo acoustic format, there is truly nowhere to hide. I can’t hide behind a loud distorted guitar. I can’t hide behind a drum beat or bass line. It’s just me and my instrument stripped bare of the other players and their various instruments. In a way, it’s a form of confession. It’s the artist’s most honest musical statement of his or her songs.”

Having been present at one his shows last year, I found Tinsley’s approach for this effort to be totally revelatory and engrossing. His stage presence is enhanced as he stops to tell stories and add humor to his performance. Now his 21st album, Naked Truth, captures the essence of that performance with nine original songs and three covers.

The album opens with “Devil in the Room” with a Hill Country sound that may bring to mind R.L. Burnside as he says “I Ain’t got no gun, saddled up to run”. The Skip James inspired song “Windowpane” is a slow, moody song where he asks,” if you see my gal, send her my way…I really miss that gal, hope she will come back some day”. The first cover is Son House’s “Death Letter Blues”. He utilizes a much deeper voice to drive this song.

The instrumental “Silver Mountain” is another quiet, intimate song. Willie Dixon’s 1956 song, “Don’t Go No Further” was first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf. Here Tinsley gives it an upbeat, lighthearted approach as he declares “I got to love somebody, somebody got to love me”. “The Sailor’s Grave on The Prairie”, the third cover on the album was written by Leo Kottke in 1971. Tinsley captures Leo’s approach with some excellent slide work. Tinsley says that he has been playing this song intermittently for 50 years.

Next Tinsley laments his “woman left me and ran off to San Jose, left me with nothing but a stack of bills to pay, Left me with nothing but these “Tallahassee Blues”. “Stuck down in Florida with no ticket to get away”. The song sounds like it could have come from the Delta. He says that “Hoochie Mama” is the sweetest thing I have ever seen…you are the angel in the daytime, the devil in between”.

“Alcovy Breakdown” is an upbeat, bouncy instrumental. The old adage of close only counts in “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades” gets Tinsley’s humorous touch applied to his love life as she “gave her love to someone new”. He continues his humorous pitch as he determines she “just can’t stand serious love from a “Grown Ass Man”, and notes “my clown car is in the driveway, you won’t see me no more.” The album ends with a final instrumental, “Easter Song”.

Tinsley’s regular gruff voice blends well with his acoustic approach to the music and provides an emotional connection between him and his audience, whether it is on the album or in his concerts. As he says as he continues this tour, what you will see is just him with “two guitars and a car”. Buy the album, which is to be released on February 9th and catch his live performance. You will not be sorry.

Tinsley Ellis - Naked Truth

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