William Lee Ellis,
God's Tattoos
(Yellow Dog, 2006)

God's Tattoos is the most recent album by the remarkable, Memphis-based acoustic guitarist and songwriter William Lee Ellis. Ellis's music starts from a base in country blues, then expands to embrace -- always with grace and nuance -- gospel songs, old hymns, revival folk, jazz and echoes of Japan and Brazil. Over time he has evolved from a folk-bluesman somewhat reminiscent of Paul Geremia to an explorer of a broader musical landscape, though Ellis retains a reassuringly steady and rooted sensibility. The changes are not radical and jarring but comprise the deeper wisdom that comes from the discovery of the mystery that lies beneath what we think we already know.

I reviewed Ellis's previous CD, 2003's Conqueroo, in this space on 17 June 2006. I liked that recording a whole lot, as well as another CD (The Full Catastrophe, also 2003) that his label was kind enough to send me. My impression is that Ellis -- whose father Tony was a fiddler in Bill Monroe's fabled bluegrass band and who had a classical musical education before he was introduced to blues -- is so fully mature in every way, and not just as singer and guitar player, that he simply does not have bad music, misconceived art, or half-baked ideas as available options.

This time around, heavyweight producer Jim Dickinson has joined him, to add an extra dimension to the sound. On God's Tattoos, drawing on original compositions and venerable traditionals, Ellis focuses almost entirely on spiritual matters -- inspired by his strong Christian faith, of a decent and liberal bent not to be confused with, say, James Dobson's -- and employs words and sounds with precision, eloquence, insight and compassion. I first heard this album in my car as my wife and I were driving to the funeral of a relative who had died suddenly under tragic circumstances. Ellis's music spoke to the questions that were hanging over all of us affected by the sad event.

Possibly for that reason, I cannot listen to Tattoos with a wholly objective ear, but still, I can't imagine a soul so dead as not to be taken up by the Ellis original "Dust Will Write My Name." There is also a simple but riveting reading of the hymn "Here Am I, Lord Send Me," learned from Mississippi John Hurt's memorable version but with its own great, open heart. The oddly named stream-of-consciousness instrumental "When Leadbelly Walked the River Like Christ" feels like a crack in the universe through which an otherworldly vision has been glimpsed.

by Jerome Clark
12 August 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.