Tough Love is the latest CD from veteran Georgia-based blues rocker Tinsley Ellis on his own Heartfixer Music label, distributed nationally by Landslide Records. Produced by Ellis, Tough Love marks the third release on his own imprint (launched in 2013 with the all-instrumental Get It! CD, followed by last year’s Midnight Blue), and showcases his continued growth as an expressive songwriter in a variety of shades of blues and roots styles.
Backing up Ellis’ tough vocals and stinging guitar work on the 10 all-original tracks are several former long-time members of Delbert McClinton’s band: keyboard whiz Kevin McKendree (Brian Setzer), bassist Steve Mackey, and drummer Lynn Williams (John Hiatt). Recorded at McKendree’s Rock House studio outside Nashville, Tough Lovecombines first rate musicianship with Tinsley’s expert production guidance, surely the mark of an experienced craftsman, whose lessons learned from gifted mentors such as legendary producers Tom Dowd and Eddy Offord have resulted in sonically superb music.
“This album just flowed out of us in the studio, and that’s a good thing for a blues album to do,” says Ellis about the recording sessions. “Making a record is all about capturing a vibe in the studio and the vibe was great during these sessions. Each song had a different groove. We used an arsenal of vintage guitars, amps, drums and keyboards to make the songs sound more quirky. You can’t go wrong making an album for the fans, and that’s what we tried to do with Tough Love.”
The new album demonstrates Tinsley’s most-creative and versatile effort yet in a lengthy career of highly-acclaimed albums, revered as much by fans and concertgoers as critics and radio station programmers. The catchy lead-off track, “Seven Years,” sets the tone for a great musical journey, followed by the rollicking shuffle groove of “Midnight Ride,” which Tinsley describes as “a guitar conversation between Freddie King and Albert Collins” (with Ellis playing both parts).
“Give It Away” features Ellis in a more acoustic setting, complete with Dobro and vocals that recall Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard in timbre. The Dylan-esque “Hard Work” also tips a guitar pick to JJ Cale, while “All in the Name of Love” sounds as if it could have been recorded in a 1970s Hi Records session in Memphis, with Kevin McKendree channeling Charles Hodges’ organ grooves and Jim Hoke/Steve Herrman guesting on soulful horns. “Should I Have Lied,” another song with guitar influences from one of Tinsley’s main mentors, Freddie King, is a plaintive soul-drenched ballad; and the Jimmy Reed-influenced “Everything,” complete with Ellis’ recording debut on harmonica, are just a few of the other standout tracks in an album full of highlights.
With Tough Love and ongoing non-stop touring, Ellis will bring his monumental guitar work and intensely powerful vocals to rock and blues fans all over the world, letting his songs and his guitar do the talking.