Tinsley Ellis Elaine Thomas Campbell photo

After 28 years with only one cancellation in 2020 (because of the pandemic), the North Atlantic Blues Festival (which won a “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award in 2002) is back and it’s better than ever with a powerhouse line-up of 11 acts guaranteed to have Rockland rockin’ down to the water’s edge on July 16th and 17th. I’ve had the pleasure of covering this beloved festival since it began in 1994 and am ready to continue that tradition with a recent chat I had with Southern blues-rock guitarist/singer/songwriter Tinsley Ellis. He and I have chatted quite a few times over the years and it’s always fun to reconnect with this talented and affable musician. When reached at his home in Atlanta, Georgia, Ellis was more than happy to tell me all about his latest Alligator Records release.
Ellis: I’m very excited about the new “Devil May Care” album and the fact that it was written entirely during the pandemic. We had been off for a year-and-nine-months and every tour we had scheduled had fallen through, so we just finally said, “Well, let’s start touring at the beginning of 2022 with the release of ‘Devil May Care’!” — and we’re very excited to be back on the road.

Q: I bet you are!
Ellis: And very excited about coming back for our third appearance — maybe fourth, but I think definitely third appearance — at the North Atlantic Blues Festival.

Q: Now, how do you go about preparing for this because you do have quite a bit of material to draw upon, this being your 20th album and all?
Ellis: Well, that’s going to be a bit of a challenge because we’re used to playing really long shows, and this show I believe is an hour, plus I’m going to be jamming with Tommy Castro. We tour together and each band will play a set and then we’ll play a mini-set together, which is what we’re gonna do at the festival. So I’ll definitely feature some songs off the new “Devil May Care” CD, but a lot of songs off the live album that was sort of a (pause, then chuckle), well, I don’t have any ‘greatest hits’ so it would be more of like a ‘best of’ songs that made it on the live “Highwayman” album.

Q: Now, you mentioned Mr. Castro, he’s another Alligator artist, too, is he not?
Ellis: Yes, we tour all over the country together.

Q: You couldn’t ask for a better person to tour with, that’s for sure.
Ellis: He’s one of our favorites to perform with and favorite to listen to, he’s probably the best band leader that I know, he’s really good at it.

Q: There’s a vibe I get from you: you know what you want to do and you do it.
Ellis: (Chuckle) We try … sometimes I zig and the audience zags, but in general we just kind of stay focused on doing guitar-driven, blues/rock music. I think that’s what people expect out of my show. So I pick songs off the latest CDs and songs off more of my popular CDs like “Storm Warning” and the live album, as well; and some surprises, too, like blues standards from time to time.

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Q: So, how do you choose blues standards? Are they ones that have special meaning for you?
Ellis: Those are chosen on the spot. I definitely know which songs I’m going to play off the more popular albums but the songs I’ve chosen on the spot, the old blues songs, are ones that can be fun, and we can play quite a bit of them, and we do.

Q: To remind people where the blues came from to begin with?
Ellis: Well, I love doing that because, Lord knows, I didn’t make blues music up, I’m a third or fourth generation, at best!

Q: You must have a lot of confidence in your band just to say, “Let’s do this one,” and have them go right along with it.
Ellis: (Chuckle) We’ve done a lot of shows already this year, almost 50 shows from coast to coast to promote the album, and this will be our second trip up to the Northeast, we’ve already been up there once, got as far as Boston but this will be the first time I’ve played in Maine in (pause), gee, I can’t tell you the last time I played in Rockland. So basically, this will be somewhat of a homecoming for us because it’s been so long, my drummer has family up there, too.

Q: That’s a homecoming, for sure. So what can folks expect from your appearance at the NABF this year?
Ellis: Well, like I said earlier, it’ll be songs off “Devil May Care” and some of the songs we’re known for, and then Tommy Castro and I got around the country, the tour is called “T ‘N’ T” — Tommy and Tinsley or Tinsley and Tommy, I’ve never really asked which T would come first (chuckle); but we’ve got a thing worked up: we’ve got some nice guitar harmonies worked up and surprises.

Q: Like what, if I may ask?
Ellis: We’ve really gone for it, each of us has called songs that the other one has to perform, so there’s some magic in it, as well.

Q: And I think the spontaneity of stuff like that not only enchants the audience but you guys, too. I mean, you’ve got to be interested to bring the audience’s interest into what you’re doing.

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Ellis: That’s true, and we definitely enjoy it and there’s a lot of laughter and good vibes. When Tommy and I play together we really don’t do any sad songs. I’ll do maybe one or two during my show but when Tommy and I play together it’s very much a celebration of our friendship and of our common music love.

Q: And you can’t ask for anything more than that, it makes the world go ‘round, if you want to look at it from that view point.
Ellis: That’s true — that’s very true.

Q: Is there anything that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?
Ellis: Umm, well, we always like to steer people towards the website and the social media, as well, which I’m very active in. But we’re going to be coming up a couple of more times this summer to do festivals, one in Boston and one in Pittsburgh, and because I know people that travel to the North Atlantic Blues Festivals can be from all over the country so they’ll read this and be able to see that, yes, we’re playing in their areas, as well.

Q: Is there anything, Tinsley, that we haven’t discussed that you think we should? This is your forum, after all.
Ellis: No burning desire (laughter) — basically just that I’m very excited to be touring again and very happy that Paul {Benjamin, co-founder/producer of NAFB} chose to bring the “T ‘N’ T Tour” to Rockland.

Lucky Clark, a 2018 “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award winner, has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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