At the 1992 concert commemorating Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary as a recording artist, Johnny Cash introduced the trio that would perform Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” as “three women making a big impact on country music today.”
One of the three—Cash’s daughter Rosanne—had already by that point made a significant impact on country music, but in retrospect, it’s hard to say exactly what impact the other two had. One could say that Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin are branches on the tree that later sprouted Brandi Carlile, a pop-country singer-songwriter branch that can be traced back to Linda Rondstadt and, earlier, Patsy Cline. The 90s were a big moment for women in that tradition; notable examples in addition to Carpenter and Colvin were Jewel and Nanci Griffith.
Minneapolis singer-songwriter Ellis lands squarely on that branch, and a listen to her 2010 disc Right on Time might feel like a time warp right back to 1992. Ellis’s debut disc, in fact, was released in 1996; Right on Time is my introduction to the artist, and since its release it’s been sitting in my iTunes tugging occasionally but insistently at my ear.
An occasional dip is probably the best way to experience the album, which has a sameness of tone that makes it a bit of a long haul to hear straight through. That said, it’s a pleasant tone; the disc is well-produced, spotlighting Ellis’s strong voice and confident, unobtrusive guitar playing. She’s a flat lyricist, but her songs have a way of holding your attention. There are no anthemic melodies or dramatic dynamic shifts—they just keep taking turns that seem slightly unexpected and somehow very right.
Right on Time is a quiet, and quietly effective album. My advice is to follow my lead and mix it in to your song shuffles. Let Ellis come up on you by surprise, and sooner or later you’ll have a moment such as I did tonight, when a song like the understated title track suddenly hits you with unexpected force.