“Red clay is what you see here in Georgia,” says Tinsley Ellis of the inspiration behind his new album, Red Clay Soul. “That’s what the ground looks like. I wanted an album that depicted the sound, look, and feel of the region.”
Saturated with that ambiance, the disc brings together Ellis’ signature heart-crushing lyrics, stinging guitar, and a classic R&B sound.
How did the album come together?
I wrote a lot of songs. Some are eight years old, others new as last year. Then I brought in my longtime studio collaborator, Kevin McKendree, to play keyboards and co-produce. He wanted to do the album live in the studio, which scared the hell out of me because I’ve been piecing things together with a bit of success over the years; lo and behold, we recorded this with hardly any overdubs. It has the most earthy guitar tones I’ve ever had because I left the pedals at home – just cranked the amps and went back to how I did it in the ’70s and ’80s. I’m happy with that.
It has the sound and feel of everyone being right there, playing together.
That was the goal. I wanted time in the studio to fix things. I said, “It gets kind of wild.” But Kevin said, “Good. That’s what I like about it (laughs).”
Did you plug straight into the amp?
Mostly. There’s some wah for background on “Hungry Woman Blues” – I wanted that Johnny “Guitar” Watson rhythm sound – using a Real McCoy Picture Wah, which is one of the quietest wah pedals. And I gave “Estero Noche” a little help with a Nobels ODR-1, an inexpensive but very cool overdrive – very open-sounding, not all crunchy in the midrange like a Tube Screamer. If you combine it with an amp on 10, it’s a really big sound. I used a Fender Deluxe at every volume setting from barely on to all the way up. It sounded huge.
Do we hear a lot of your ’67 Gibson ES-345?
Half the record was done on it. That’s my desert-island axe, as long as that island has an amplifier (laughs). Its Varitone can dial in all kinds of kooky tones. The other guitar was my ’59 Strat. That guitar has mojo. If I didn’t have those two guitars, I don’t know if I could stay in this line of work.
On “Estero Noche,” I used a newer Les Paul Standard with pickups made by Nico’s PAFs, in Denver. He designed them to be like the ’58 and ’59 Les Pauls I wanted to sound like.
How did you become The Heart Fixer?
In the early ’80s, Chicago Bob Nelson and I were listening to songs for a band we were forming. We heard “Heart Fixing Business,” by Albert King, and thought it would be great to call the band The Heart Fixers. Later, I used the name for my publishing company, then my record company. It’s a tip of the hat to Albert.
Some of your most enduring work is about unrequited love, heartbreak, and relationships.
Relationships are definitely worth singing about. The Beatles’ early songs were about love, and I guess I’m stuck in that era. Relationships are what first made man want to beat on a log and burst into song. I may seem peaceful on the outside, but I’m screaming on the inside. One of the reasons I write songs is to tell my stories, not someone else’s.
This article originally appeared in VG September 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.