The Devil May Care - And So Should You
Tinsley Ellis has a great new album. I spoke to him about it - and about pandemic songwriting, a teenage Derek Trucks, grappling with loss, seeing BB King as a kid and more.
It wouldn’t quite be right to call Tinsley Ellis an old friend. We only actually met about three years ago when I brought him an advance copy of Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan to a show, but we’ve known each other forever. If you know, you know. We’ve traveled a lot of the same highways and byways and share a passion for a lot of the same music, from Son Seals to the Allman Brothers Band.
Tinsley is a great guitarist who’s been out on the road playing the blues and blues rock I love for a long time. And we have a lot more in common. The Atlanta-based musician was also close to Col. Bruce Hampton, Derek Trucks’ very first recorded performance was with him, on 1994’s Storm Warning album and we share many friends, including Kirk West.
Tinsley’s new album Devil May Care is terrific. On it, he shows more of the Allman Brothers influence than he often has and the collection of 10 songs is the product of him writing hundreds of demos throughout the pandemic in a weekly exercise shared with his Facebook followers. I’ve been listening to “Just Like Rain” off the album over and over. (A YouTube version is below.) That Tinsley wrote and recorded such a great album in the midst of these harrowing two years, where he not only muddled through the pandemic like the rest of us, but faced deep personal tragedy, is all the more impressive.
In September, 2019, Tinsley came to an Atlanta Barnes and Noble when Andy Aledort and I did a Texas Flood event there. He called us “keepers of the flame” - the exact phrase I’d use to describe Tinsley. I like him and the album so much that I decided to make him the first-ever Low Down and Dirty exclusive interview. Enjoy!
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Tinsley, congrats on Devil May Care. It’s a great album. It starts, as any great album must, with an excellent collection of songs. Did you really write over 100 to cull these from?
I wrote around 200 songs during my time off the road starting in March of 2020. Stylistically the songs we all over the place. I sent about half of the songs to Bruce Iglauer at Alligator, and we narrowed it down to the best 10.
Describe that process. Your weekly pandemic writing sessions were really fun to watch. Is that what you put in a place to be so productive, writing-wise?
I was so afraid of losing my guitar chops while I was off the road for the first time in 40 years. I decided that I would designate the morning hours 6 days a week as my time for songwriting. (I took Sunday mornings off to watch my news shows.) Every week I posted my favorite song demo on social media as "Wednesday Basement Tapes." The fans weighed in on those songs, and that definitely played into choosing the final 10 songs on the album.
The way you did the writing sessions was so cool, where you would show a guitar and amp and say you’d be writing a song using them. Did you write the song first and then just show them, or did you really pick the instruments and see what you came up with?
I definitely knew which guitar brand I'd use when I wrote and demoed the songs. I knew that I'd use a Gibson Les Paul or ES 345 for the songs with the Allmans feel. And of course, I used the Fender Strat for the songs with a more Hendrix sound. For the amps I used Fender Deluxe Reverb or Twin Reverb for the Gibson songs and Marshall's for the Fender songs.
We share a love of the Allman Brothers, and you can really hear them in a lot of your songs on Devil May Care. Was that any kind of plan, or did it just come out as you wrote and recorded?
It just came out of me naturally in the song writing. I grew up in Georgia and Florida, and the Allmans were "our band" back in the '70's. I was slightly too young to see Duane, but I saw the Brothers And Sisters lineup many times as well as all the lineups after that. It took me years to realize that I'll never be B.B. King or Muddy Waters. And that it's my birthright to play Georgia music.
“Right Down the Drain” is one of those ABB-influenced songs. It could have fit right into any Allmans album from Brothers and Sisters through the end of the Dickey era. Part of that is the slide part, and part is the chord structure, and the repeating riff. Can you break that apart at all?
I wrote and recorded that song with the Allmans’ version of "Can't Lose What You Never Had" (their cover of the old Muddy Waters song) in mind. That song mixes a traditional Chicago Blues form with the funky sound of Georgia R & B. We almost opened the album with that song, but in 1996 I learned from Tom Dowd (when he produced my Fire It Up album) that an album should always open with a song with a positive message. "Right Down The Drain" is about as negative of an image that I can think of!
Good point! It’s a great song, though. Discuss the influence and impact of the Allman Brothers on you and your musical vision, beyond the killer guitar playing.
The Allman Brothers Band is in a rare class of musical artists, much like Ray Charles or Willie Nelson, that are a "genre unto themselves". There's really no one that has ever blended all the different styles of American music in the way that they did it. There was even some British Blues mixed in with their sound. If someone were to ask me to describe what kind of music they played, I'd simply say "They played Allman Brothers Band music."
I think you did a little more multi-tracking of guitars than you usually do. I’m thinking first of all of “Right Down the Drain” where you are both Duane and Dickey! Did you enjoy that?
I enjoyed it very much. I guess one could say that I "hogged" all the guitar parts on the album.
“Just Like Rain” also has an Allman Brothers feel – this one more Gregg than Dickey. It reminds me a little of “Just Ain’t Easy,” one of the great, underrated songs in the ABB catalog. You have an acoustic guitar driving the rhythm, along with organ and electric piano, and a sweet, Dickey style guitar fill/lead, and horns… there’s a lot going on to propel a relatively simple song structure wise into something really great. (You can see I really like this song.) Can you describe the process a bit?
"Just Like Rain" started out as my attempt to write a song in the style of Muscle Shoals Soul music. I knew from the start that the song would include a horn section. The song ended up with more of a Gregg Allman feel. I always liked the way Gregg's solo albums mixed acoustic guitar with a horn section. I tracked the song on my old Martin D 35 acoustic guitar instead of the usual electric guitar. I overdubbed the lead guitar using a Les Paul through a Fender Twin Reverb amp so that it could have the most clean and pure sound possible. "Just Like Rain" is my favorite track on the album, and I'm very proud that Warren Haynes called to tell me that he liked it very much.
That’s great and not surprising! Tell me about the amp you own, that you bought from Thom Doucette, what you know of its history before you purchased it, and a bit of the history since you’ve owned it – including, I think, being used on Derek Trucks’ first studio recordings.
In the late '70's I was looking for a Fender Super Reverb so I could have an amp that had 10" speakers in it. Thom Doucette was living in Atlanta at the time, and he agreed to sell me one of the two Super Reverb's that he had used for many years as his harmonica amps. Over the years that 1967 Super Reverb amp has been used by many fine guitar players who either sat in through it with whatever band I was in at the time or used it as a recording amp. Stevie Ray Vaughan sat in once in 1981 and played through it. I've actually never changed the way he adjusted the settings on it (I could tell you these settings .. uh, but then I'd have to kill ya!) Derek Trucks used it (with volume on 10!) as a 14 year old playing on my Storm Warning album. I've always wondered which songs Thom Doucette used it on on Allman Brothers records. Did Duane or Dickey ever play through it? The amp has some history for sure!
When, where and how did you meet Derek at such a young age and how quickly was it apparent to you that he was a special talent?
I had already been friends with Derek's dad Chris for a while when he told me that Derek had started playing guitar and had gotten really good. We let Derek sit in with us in Jacksonville when he was 13, and he sounded so great. When we were about to record my Storm Warning album in 1994, Oliver Wood, who was our other guitarist at the time, said "T, we really ought to get Derek to play my slide parts on the album." It was very nice of Oliver to give up his slide parts to make the songs better. Derek absolutely nailed the parts of course.
Last year, you lost your son Trey. My deepest condolences to you and your wife. If you are ok talking about it, can you discuss how that loss impacted your songwriting or any other part of making the album?
The past two years have been really rough. First, the pandemic came along to rock everyone's world, and then in January of 2021 we lost our son Trey to opiate addiction. I'm still not over it, and doubt I will ever fully recover. They say that alcoholism and addiction is a family disease, so he probably got the damn thing from me. I've now been clean for decades, and Trey was trying to stay clean, but a relapse finally killed him. There's help out there for folks out there struggling with addiction, and I pray that they accept the help in time.
[1-800-662-HELP (4357) is a confidential, free, 24-7 information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders.]
Your life was changed seeing BB King as a teenager in Miami. Can you tell me about that?
When I was 15 my dad loaded up the station wagon with me and my friends to take us go hear BB King play a "teen matinee" at Marco Polo Hotel in North Miami Beach near where I grew up in Hollywood Florida. Someone had told me that since I liked Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield, I needed to check out "the cat they're all gettin' it from." My friends and I sat right up front and he absolutely blew our little minds. He broke a guitar string and gave it to us. We cut it up and I still have my piece of it. He talked to us in the lobby of the hotel after the concert for a long time and gave us post cards with his photo on it. I taped his string to the postcard. After that show I went to hear every Blues artist that I could. I saw Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters several times, and years later when I got to Chicago and signed with Alligator records I got to jam with Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins and many of my other blues heroes. I consider myself a rock and roller who plays the blues. I say this because rock and roll is my heritage, and blues is my love. This is a photo someone gave me almost 50 years later of BB playing that show!
Alan Paul’s last two books – Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan and One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band – debuted in the New York Times Non Fiction Hardcover Bestsellers List. His first book was Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, about his experiences raising a family in Beijing and touring China with a popular original blues band. It was optioned for a movie by Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Productions. He is also a guitarist and singer who fronts two bands, Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, the premier celebration of the Allman Brothers Band.