Home is Where the Rock Is: A #WVmusic Chat with Jeff Ellis

Jun 30, 2016

Since the show began almost two years ago, A Change of Tune has highlighted some of the best up-and-coming artists out of these West Virginia hills with podcast-y chats ranging from Tyler Childers to Ona, Bud Carroll to Coyotes in Boxes and beyond.

But those interviews have been a bit infrequent, and since West Virginia Day was this month (and with A Change of Tune’s second birthday on the horizon), we thought we’d do something special: 30 days, 30 brand new #WVmusic interviews that range from Morgantown alt-rockers and Parkersburg singer-songwriters to West Virginia music venues and regional artist management and beyond, all of which contribute to this state’s wild and wonderful music scene.

And for our final #WVmusic chat, we are chatting with Kanawha-by-way-of-Logan County multi-instrumentalist Jeff Ellis. After playing in a number of local bands over the years (including Harvest and Guinness Clarke’s Wine) and releasing more than a few solo records, Jeff is ready to show the world his new band and his new sound, but not before giving us an idea of the number of #WVmusic people who have helped him along the way.

Jeff Ellis and 40 Days’ new release is Modern Time Blues. Hear more #WVmusic on A Change of Tune, airing Saturday nights at 10 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. And for more #WVmusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic.

Jeff Ellis and 40 Days perform at The V Club in 2016.
Credit Melissa Stilwell Photography

Interview Highlights

On his love for music:

I always wanted to be a musician, since I was probably 11- or 12-years-old. I’ve played music, I’ve written songs, and I’ve always strived to be better. Ultimately, I would love to do that for a living and make enough to support a family on that. But as Ian Thornton and Todd Burge have said in earlier interviews, if music is the only thing you’re doing, you’re going to have a hard life. You’ll have a good time, but it might be short-lived and very stressful.

I made a decision early on, at 17 as a matter of fact, that I was going to have a dual career. It’s actually the only reason why I joined the Army Reserve instead of Active Duty. Army Reserve, I can do my one weekend enough, go do some Active Duty time, make enough money to where I could still make music, and still work a part-time job. And that worked out for a while. Time went by and, 18 years later, here I am.

On balancing his life with the Army and his career in music:

I’ve got to spend a year in Austin, Texas. I’ve got to spend a year in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I’ve spent too many years in Iraq and Kuwait and places like that. But each time I go do this, I’m able to save up a fairly good amount of money so when I come back, all the songs I’ve written during that time period, I’m able to go into a studio, I can fund it myself, and I can hire and pay the musicians. And it gives me a chance to play in those areas that I normally wouldn’t get to. So in that regard, it’s worked well. But there have been a lot of sacrifices.

In 2002, for example, I had a chance to go out and do a demo with Raine Maida from the band Our Lady Peace. I was stationed at Fort Bragg at the time, and I met him in Columbus, Ohio, and slipped him a demo a couple weeks before. The stars aligned, the dude calls me, and he was supportive of the songwriting. Then he shoots me an email and asks if I would want to go to California for a weekend and record a demo. So I go to my command at Fort Bragg and they’re like, “Our Lady who? No, we’re not going to give you a four-day pass to go out and make a demo with a rock star.” That sucked real bad [laughing].

On Active Duty, it was almost impossible to have a dual career. I would book these shows, but then at the last minute, they would tell me I couldn’t go.

Bud Carroll and Jeff Ellis have known each other for quite some time.
Credit Melissa Stilwell Photography

On Jeff Ellis and 40 Days’ band name:

I didn’t want it to be The Jeff Ellis Band because we had done that before with different people, so I wanted this to be distinct. I told the band to come up with a band, and everyone started putting names in the hat. Someone threw in 40 Days, which is actually a song I had written years before. I was raised in a Baptist Church, and 40 Days is significant for times of trial and temptation throughout the Bible. That was always the one I tried to shoot down just because it had been the song title, and I didn’t want it to be the band name. I was thinking about The Heartbreakers, but that was already taken [laughing]. But everyone voted on their favorite band name, and I was outvoted.

Huntington-based artist Jimbo Valentine designed Jeff Ellis and 40 Days' new album artwork.
Credit Jimbo Valentine

On his new release Modern Time Blues:

A lot of the songs were written in a police cruiser, I’ll start with that [laughing]. I try to write songs that I think are interesting, and usually those come from real people who I’ve met that get turned into characters and real events that get somewhat fictionalized. A lot of the stuff on this record are real events, real people that I’ve come into contact through police work or military work that I just had to write about. Writing time is hard to find, by the way, when you have two kids, which is why I do most of it in a police cruiser [laughing]. I had a bunch of songs and took them to Bud Carroll. Thematically and sonically, this is probably the strongest record we have done.  

On his music career goals:

Two of my goals in life were to play Mountain Stage and to meet Bruce Springsteen, and I’ve knocked those two out. He has no idea that he met me, but he shook my hand at a concert, and I was like, “I’m not washing this hand for a week.” But I was fortunate enough to do Mountain Stage, and then I got to do it again, which was phenomenal. If I got to meet Tom Petty now, the trifecta would be complete.

Music featured in this #WVmusic chat:

Jeff Ellis and 40 Days- “On the Right Road Now”

Jeff Ellis and 40 Days- “Poor Penny”

Jeff Ellis and 40 Days- “Never Enough”

Jeff Ellis and 40 Days- “So. Charleston City Beat Blues”