Robert Ellis Shoots Straight in Americana

For a guy with a voice that drips of a Southern twang and a dash of Willie Nelson, you’d just assume that Robert Ellis would have that drawl in conversation.

Nope. Ellis is a straight shooter and a what-you-see-is what-you-get kind of guy.

“I write songs about people and about relationships,” he says when describing his approach to songwriting. “They’re simple enough songs that you can sing along to. They’re accessible. It’s folk pop. I don’t know. I tell people to go listen to it.”

Over the summer, Ellis sat down with CMT.com to talk about his Whiskey Wednesdays gigs at clubs in Houston and Austin, his song “Friends Like Those” and his ambitious career goals.

CMT: Congratulations on your nomination for emerging artist of the year at the Americana Honors and Awards. How does that feel?

Ellis: Yeah, I’m super excited. The other acts in the category, Alabama Shakes in particular, are kind of huge right now, so it’s a little intimidating. So I don’t have much aspirations of winning. (laughs) But I’m really honored to be in the same category of those folks, especially Dawes. They’re, like, my favorite band. They’ve been working their asses off for the past couple years, so it’s an honor to be in the same category.

Can you tell me about Whiskey Wednesdays and what it was like for you as a musician?

It was awesome. It was amazing. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours it takes for everyone to get to the point of mastery, and I think those were the 10,000 hours for me and my band. We did four hours every Wednesday night of classic country — some of the most well-written, best songs ever. So it was kind of a chance to dissect those songs from a songwriting standpoint but also learn how to execute them on a live level and how to become a powerful live band. It was kind of like going to school for us.

A school that allows you to drink?

Yeah. You know, we got real hammered and learned how to play under all kinds of crazy conditions and people really loved it. It was one of the first times that I’ve played shows where people really danced. It was very inspiring.

Is there a moment from Whiskey Wednesdays that stands out?

They’re all a little bit hazy, actually. (laughs) You know, there were some great ones. Especially around the holidays, we started out just me and my friends jamming at this bar. There were maybe 10 people there the first night, next week maybe 20. Over the course of, like, two months, somehow it became this really big thing. Then by the time the holidays came around, there were nights when there were 500 people crammed into this little tiny shithole of a venue. There was one night in particular that I remember, we were playing our second set, and the crowd was shoulder to shoulder. As big of a crowd as I had ever played for. There were literally people crowd surfing to country music. There were people getting lifted up. There were beer bottles just getting smashed. I think that’s the first “oh, shit” moment where I was really like, “This thing’s gotten to be a really big deal.”

Who do you look to for inspiration — lyrically and musically?

A bunch of different people. Paul Simon is probably my biggest influence. Willie Nelson is a huge influence, too. A lot of country stuff, old country stuff. Not really a fan of modern country music as much. There are a couple songs that are good. But overall, Merle Haggard and Willie. I love George Jones and that really influenced and really informed this last record, <I>Photographs</I>, especially. Then more general songwriters like Paul Simon, Randy Newman. People that are less genre-specific, more just pop stuff I’m into.

What was the inspiration for the song “Friends Like Those”?

In a literal way, that song is about my friend Jason, who is my cousin and best friend since we were little kids. It’s about him moving away after we had lived together for a long time. But as I started writing it, it became a more general homage to all the friendships I had when I was younger and now. It’s kind of a commentary of what I feel like it means to be a friend in the long-term sense. Especially with traveling, leading separate lives and that kind of thing. It became about how I feel about all those friends I don’t necessarily get to see or be close with anymore.

What do you hope to accomplish musically in the next couple of years? You’re really starting to hit the ground running with the nomination.

Essentially, I want to play all these stages. One day, I think people like Willie Nelson and Paul Simon are good examples. I want to be a big pop singer. I’d like to sing my songs for as many people as possible at some point. Over the next few years, I’m just going to keep working, just keep busting ass. I’m really happy to get the recognition that I’ve gotten. A lot of hard work went into this. I feel like if I keep working and keep making music, something will hopefully go right.

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