For her third CD release, singer/songwriter Tawny Ellis re-created herself as an alt-country girl. Ellis’ earlier stuff is harder-edged, from Blondie-esque pop to flat-out rock, but Evolve or Die is moody, twangy Americana.
How did Tawny Ellis pull it off? Because she’s very, very good.
Evolve or Die (think a goth Patsy Cline, or the Emmylou Harris/Daniel Lanois collaboration Wrecking Ball, and you’ll get it) brings the Los Angeles resident to Savannah Friday night for a performance at the Guitar Bar.
It’s Ellis’ first live show here, but she’s been to Savannah before. She just doesn’t have any memory of it.
“My father was in the Air Force, and he was stationed in Savannah when I was born,” she says. “I was less than a year old when we moved to the Philippines.”
So let’s call Friday’s concert a homecoming. “Every time I tell someone my story, they say ‘Savannah’s amazing!’ I really wish I’d been back. I do a lot of traveling, but somehow it’s never happened. So I am so excited.”
Although Ellis grew up in Ohio, New Jersey and Utah (that’s where she graduated high school before relocating to California), her extended family is in Louisiana and Mississippi. “So I’m definitely a southern girl,” she says.
“Throughout the years I have played a lot of different styles of music, but I think growing up with my father from the Deep South - he played a lot of Hank Williams, he played a lot of Conway Twitty, and Waylon Jennings - I think it just got in my blood. Because I always sort of dabbled in it, but when I decided to make this record, everybody who’s known me my whole musical life said ‘This is it.’
“That made me really happy, because it just felt so natural, you know? I feel like that was a real natural way for me to go.”
Along with a handful of originals that showcase Ellis’ dusky vocals, Evolve or Die includes covers of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams” (the Patsy Cline standard), Red Simpson’s “Endless Black Ribbon” and the Bill Mack classic “Blue,” which was LeAnn Rimes’ first hit (and yes, Ellis does the yodeling vocal leap, beautifully).
“My influences stretch all the way from Emmylou Harris to Bob Dylan,” she says. “I love Patsy Cline – there’s so many influences, it’s hard to just pigeonhole it into one. I think a lot of people have a hard time doing that as well.”
There is, of course, a point to the record’s title, Evolve or Die. That’s what Ellis is doing.
“Every year, it’s either you get older or you die,” she explains. “I kind of feel that way about music. I don’t really have a choice. It’s like an expression that has to happen for me.
“Once I felt that real connection to this style of music, when I started to write in that genre the songs just came so easily for me. The stories just sort of came through. It was a real strong fit, and I think it has to do with the fabric of where I came from.”
The title track has been used in the film A Woman in the West, a drama featuring some of the cast of HBO’s Deadwood. Writer/director Jeremy Dylan Lanni is a family friend of Ellis and her life partner and musical collaborator, Gio Loria.
“He (Lanni) was actually just over at my house as I was writing this record,” Ellis says. “We just played it for him – he stood up, walked over and hugged me and said ‘That’s the song for the movie!’ It was just sort of a kismet situation.”
Ellis and Loria spend much of each year on the road, playing shows and marveling at new (for them) parts of the country. She loves the freedom that comes with being an independent artist.
“I’ve had the development deals with big record companies, and it’s sort of out of your hands and out of your power and control,” Ellis explains. “They decide what they like.
“Of course the market is flooded. But I also think the opportunities are so amazing in the independent world. Because if you do have tenacity and you do feel like this is what you have to do, there are so many ways to do it. You can pool your resources, and ultimately you find a way to play your music. You get a grassroots following, and there it is.”
Where: The Guitar Bar, 348 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 33
Phone: (912) 236-5199
Artist’s Web site: www.tawnyellis.com