The Prodigy: Lindsay Ell Part of the Next Generation of Great Country Guitarists
There's a downside to dedication. Great actors, athletes, musicians, computer programmers -- greatness comes at a cost. It's rare you find someone so far ahead of his or her competition with much of a social calendar. While others were having drinks or taking in a movie, artists like Lindsay Ell were at home, practicing.
I just lived and breathed it. I woke up and played guitar, I got home from school and I played guitar. On the weekends, I’d never went out I just played guitar.
The 25-year-old says it was her father who first put a guitar in her hands. She and her brother started on piano and kept up their classical training throughout childhood. But at age eight, Ell decided it was cooler to play Shania Twain songs on guitar than piano, and her dad -- a guitarist and mandolin player of his own -- was happy to help.
"From there on it just became like another limb of my body," Ell tells Taste of Country. "I just lived and breathed it. I woke up and played guitar, I got home from school and I played guitar. On the weekends, I’d never went out I just played guitar."
Within a couple of years she was penning her own songs. By her mid-teens, rocker Randy Bachman (the Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive) took notice, offering to produce her debut album. At 19, she was sharing a stage with blues legend and guitar master Buddy Guy.
Within a decade, Ell had gone from learning what the ivory knobs do to trading licks with some of the best ever. Did all the hard work alienate her from classmates? Sort of, Ell says.
"I really had no social life growing up," the Canadian-born 'Shut Me Up' singer confesses during a break from the road. "I was just focused, I knew what I wanted and I knew that it was going to come at the sacrifice of a few things, like being able to go out with your friends. So, I was on a mission and now I'm kind of the same way."
To be fair, Ell isn't socially awkward. She says meeting new people and performing have helped her find comfort in crowds and probing interviews. But she'd rather be alone picking a guitar, or maybe cleaning her house. She has a few writing sessions planned during the break, but says she mostly hopes to just catch up on laundry.
Chase Bryant, Frankie Ballard and Hunter Hayes are three country newcomers often named when people start talking about the next generation of great guitarists, and Ell is quick to pay compliments to all three. However, it's the women -- see Ell, Clare Dunn, Sarah Zimmerman from the Striking Matches -- that might be bringing the most heat.
"It's cool for females," Ell admits. "We're starting to get noticed a little bit."
"I would say, as a girl, I kind of need to fight for it a little harder sometimes," she adds. "To gain that credibility and to really get looked at on the same level so people won't say, 'Oh, she plays great guitar for a girl.' They'll say 'She's a great guitar player.' Because there's a difference -- huge difference."
Ell attended the University of Calgary after high school, recorded two solo albums independently (including one called 'Alone') and then moved to Nashville permanently at the age of 21. She'd traveled back and forth across the border a few times before planting her flag. Oh, and somewhere in there she got a Masters Degree from the University of Berklee.
Grants and performing money helped her get started before she signed with Stoney Creek Records (Randy Houser, Thompson Square). Her debut single was 'Trippin' on Us.' 'Shut Me Up' -- a rare song she cut but didn't write -- is the follow-up, and songs like 'What?' and 'Not Another Me' are favorites during live shows.
Both of her radio singles have done better on Canadian country radio than American, but Ell doesn't sound discouraged. That's another thing that separates her from the stereotype of a teenage prodigy. There's no sense of entitlement. Instead, one finds an overwhelming sense of ... normalcy.
"When I first came to town, I came with me and a guitar and said, 'I'm going to do this. Nashville is where I need to be, and this is what I need to be doing,'" she recalls. In a way, the distance between her hometown and current home has shaped who she is. About 2400 miles separate the two, and she's made that drive on more than one occasion.
"Doing that drive is just such an experience, from a spiritual, physical to a mental thing. And it really changes you, it puts you in that position of following your dreams and taking a stand of who you are and who you want to be and what you want to do with your life."
Keith Urban and the Band Perry are two artists Ell has spent time on the road with in the last two years. The long drives are more crowded now -- usually with bandmates or a crew to support her. The Nashville community has welcomed her, she says. Even though she only has a few close friends, she knows everyone around her is cheering her on as her song climbs the charts, or as she begins another blistering solo.
At the end of the day, however, you'll still find Ell alone. She'll probably have her Gibson in her hand, or maybe an acoustic. In her words, "As an artist, sometimes that's where the best creativity comes from."
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