Guitar slinger, songwriter, and vocalist Jeff Ellis has some miles under his belt. He’s been a police officer in South Charleston, West Virginia. A training officer for the 528th Special Operations Support Battalion (Airborne). A drill sergeant for the Army Reserves. He now works at the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Fort Bragg, NC, commuting home to his family once a month.
A man that busy isn’t prone to wasting time, and his new record Vacancy Hearts is a compact, concise, and compelling collection of country-tinged, full-throttle rock and roll. Lacing together soulful front-porch balladry, deep-woods holler boogie, crunching guitars, and Ellis’ penetrating vocals, this is a record built for the road.
Today Ellis has shared the title track of the album. “The idea for the song, ‘Vacancy Hearts’ originated from a line in another song I’d previously written for the album called Doors He Could Open that reads, “while on the outside with a vacancy heart, Lora developed problems of her own,” Ellis says. “The “Vacancy Heart” phrase stuck with me, and I thought it would make for a good song or album title (or as it turns out, both). One sunny Saturday morning in early 2019 while making the scenic drive up WV Route 2 to Bud Carroll’s studio in Point Pleasant, West Virginia (Mothman Territory!) and meditating on the phrase, I started to imagine a love story in which a “Bad Blake” type character falls for a younger, Susan Sarandon-looking woman working the front desk of a roadside motel. The music I envisioned for the song was somewhere between Dylan’s ‘Time Out Of Mind’ and James McMurtry’s ‘Complicated Game.’ I had the whole song pretty much finished in my head by the time I arrived at the studio; I just had to pick up a guitar and write it down.”
Vacancy Hearts was written predominantly during that time period, though some of the tunes are much older. Tells Ellis, “’If the Devil Has a Name’ was written in the midst of a heroin epidemic, when I was working as a cop. I saw mothers and fathers overdosed in cars with babies strapped into car seats in the back, screaming their lungs out while mom and dad lay lifeless in the front seats. I saw children taken away from their parents by CPS because mommy either had to go to jail or rehab. Arguably worst of all, I saw a corrupt, broken system that helped create addicts and then offered no treatment to cure them.”
Crafted to fit together like a collection of short stories, the songs on Vacancy Hearts stand on their own. Yet, taken as a whole, these tales of loss and suffering, love found when least expected, and burdens laid down speak to a deep understanding of the human condition. “Everyone is trying to fill that hole inside them with something,” says Ellis. “Be it drugs, love, sex, exercise, travel, God, what have you. Sometimes happiness is achieved, sometimes tragedy ensues. Such is life, but it often makes for good stories.”
Recorded at Bud Carroll’s studio, Trackside Recordings, in Point Pleasant, WV, Vacancy Hearts featured Ellis on vocals, guitars, harmonica, and keys, Carroll on guitars, drums, percussion, vocals, bass, Phil James on keys, and Rodney Crihfield on bass. It was produced by Ellis and Carroll.
“When I was a kid, I used to love riding around with the car windows down, blasting out the latest from Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice In Chains, and the like. You could just let those records play from start to finish” says Ellis. “That’s the kind of album I wanted to make, where the listener goes on a journey from beginning to end”. Despite living through things most artists just write about, Ellis manages to retain a deep passion for life and contagious optimism. The record is infused with a sense of urgency; Ellis wants us to wake up to the world around us, confront our demons, and put them down together.
Photo Courtesy: Jeremy Burns