When it rains, it pours. This usually carries a very negative connotation, but for local girl, Melissa Ellis, it can only mean one thing – A whole ‘lotta’ good happening all at once! For the last year she has successfully made her living as a full-time musician, playing at various venues from Knoxville to Nashville, gaining momentum in her rise. This month alone she is celebrating the release of her second CD, “Just Me”, at The Blind Zebra Sports Bar & Grill July 16 from 7 to 11 p.m., and a week later she will be headlining a concert at the Historic Palace Theater July 23. To top it all off, she has just signed a book deal for her novel, “ShadowShifter,” with Passionate Writer Publishing. Life can’t get much better in her eyes.
Like many singers and songwriters, Ellis got her start singing in church and the rest is history in the making. With a style that has been referred to as “Southern Soul,” it may come as a surprise that Ellis is a transplant southerner, raised by two Midwesterners. At the age of 16, she caught the eye of local theater director Jim Crabtree of the Cumberland County Playhouse while performing in a high school play. From there, she was regularly found on stage at the Cumberland County Fairgrounds, political functions and, of course, at the Cumberland County Playhouse. But it wasn’t until 1994 when she took on the role as Denise Sanders in “Smoke on the Mountain” that a young girl’s dream started becoming a reality. Meeting every challenge that came with the role including acting, she became more than a singer but a musician at that time.
“I was raised on old gospel and bluegrass gospel, so it was a good thing that ‘Smoke’ was a bluegrass gospel musical. I already knew almost every song in the show, so that freed me to focus my efforts on playing guitar, mandolin, banjo and upright bass,” she said.
Ellis continued with “Smoke on the Mountain” as she attended college studying both music and theater. She even took part in the regional tour when she wasn’t in class. While living in Knoxville, she began dabbling in the bluegrass scene and even fronted the Melissa Benjamin Band for a few years. In 2008, she met Lewell Molen of MoJo Recording Studios in Greenback, TN, and was offered her first opportunity to record.
“I’m a Christian and there has never been any doubt in my mind that my musical gift is from God. I had always said that if I was ever given a chance − just one chance − to record a full length CD, I would make it a Gospel CD,” she said.
And that’s exactly what she did. In March 2009, Melissa released her debut CD which featured many familiar gospel-grass pieces as well as her own rendition of “Blue Bayou.” She also penned one of the songs about her hometown “Crossville,” which was adopted in April 2010 by the city of Crossville as the official song.
With a strong jazz/blues and soul style, her music has been set apart from the rest. Some may remember her from other local productions such as D-Squared with Dennis Donald as well as with Country Western performing artist Tommy Dee Davenport.
In her shift from Bluegrass to her “Southern Soul” music, she is finally able to use her passion for jazz, blues, soul and pop. She cites artists like Brandi Carlile and Norah Jones who have inspired her greatly in this current chapter of her musical journey. Her song “Southern Spitfire” has been slowly becoming a hit, often being requested by fans when she plays out, so it was inevitable that it would make the cut on her latest CD that she co-produced with Terry Ashburn, “Just Me.”
“‘Just Me’ is very special to me. No major labels. No fancy recording studios. No studio musicians. No extra background vocalists. I do it all. The whole CD is just me – with a little help from a few friends in production,” she said.
The CD is full of some of her favorite hits as well as two of her own songs, “Southern Spitfire” and “Boy Next Door”.
“My life here in Crossville has inspired me so much that you can find it in almost every song I write and sing. Even my novel, ShadowShifter, takes place right here on the Cumberland Plateau. It’s a young adult paranormal romance. Very Twilight meets Crossville, TN, but with werewolves and more horror. I love my hometown, clearly!” she said.
On July 23, Ellis will be taking the Palace Theater stage to give an intimate performance of her own music as well as a few popular covers of yesterday and today, showcasing her talents not only on vocals but on guitar and piano. With a top-notch band supporting her (featuring the Rev. Landon Amonett of Cookeville, Matt Clyde of Murfreesboro, and another Crossville musician, John Johnson), Ellis will be bringing a well blended concert of pop, blues and soul. That night she will also have her CD, “Just Me,” readily available for purchase. “Just Me” can also be found at Dat Pro Audio. Tickets are currently on sale at the Palace Theatre. Call 484-6133 for more information.