It’s easy to be presumptuous about country music, but it takes in a wide range of artists, many of whom are not bound by the restrictions of genre. Take Robert Ellis for example. The Houston songwriter released what was, by any reckoning, one of the finest albums of 2011 in the form of Photographs, a record that was by design a half-and-half split of affecting folk songs and country-styled classics. The tangible, nostalgic poignancy of the folk side of the record was attention-grabbing, and the outlaw country spirit of the other was a liberating nod to the country genre. Ellis defined himself as an artist who unwilling to be shackled to genre like so many of his contemporaries.
Ellis played End of the Road Festival that year, unassumingly playing a tent in front of a hundred people while Alabama Shakes were wooing listeners (and sometimes drowning out Ellis’s acoustic set) on the main stage. He mentioned how he’d been doing the festival rounds with the Shakes and always seemed to be getting drowned out by them, but no-one in the tent worried about that, because he delivered a lovely set against the dusky Dorset backdrop, showcasing the melancholia but sweetening it with the good time country fun. And that’s the essence of Ellis as a songwriter and performer, easy-going but serious, grandly talented but fundamentally unpretentious.
When it came to recording a follow-up to Photographs, Ellis’s tendency to explore his own songwriting vision led him into unexpected territories on The Lights From the Chemical Plant, with a Paul Simon cover (Still Crazy After All These Years) and a decidedly jazzy sensibility nestling alongside what you’d consider the more traditional folk-country territory of the title track. It’s an album of contrasts and one that richly rewards listeners prepared to leave their old-time country preconceptions at the door. The lighthearted referential nostalgia of TV Song is rich in Ellis charm (“Oh Betty Draper, I wish my wife was less like you..”), while the shuffling swamp blues of Good Intentions comes on with a woozy mosquito buzz and rich gothic undertones. Appropriately enough, Steady as the Rising Sun feels like a musical companion piece to the Paul Simon cover, given a country makeover.
Perhaps most intriguing are the pair of epics on the album, Bottle of Wine, a languorously dark piano ballad that comes over like a rustic Bridge Over Troubled Water for toxic lovers complete with a winding saxophone solo and Houston, a rambling meditation on home and memories which explores all kinds of unexpected jazz textures in its final third. It’s a funny thing to be so used to mainstream songwriting progressions that we’re momentarily hamstrung by artists reaching out into unconventional territories, but it’s surely something to be richly applauded. As if to prove the point, Ellis then drops a classic bluegrass-infused hoedown stomper in the shape of Sing Along. It’d sure be nice to see the look on a major label record executive’s face if one of their artists rolled up with their new album and played them those two songs back-to-back.
Ellis the songwriter doesn’t really deserve reducing to a soundbite. Suffice to say that watching him play live is as simply pleasurable as listening to his records is fascinating. The album closer on the new record, Tour Song, is a Townes Van Zandt-esque take on the conflict between touring and being a good husband (“to hang out in some shitty bar then spend ten hours in a car”) and the insecurities of the travelling musician. The least we can do is go and see him play, right?