Billy Joel’s infamous “Piano Man” has finally met its challenger: the Texas Piano Man. Robert Ellis, known on stage as the The Texas Piano Man will bring his talent and uncanny stage presence to Chicago March 28 dressed in his all-white tuxedo and Stetson.
The Texas Piano Man will play at the Old Town School of Folk Music (4544 N. Lincoln Ave.) for his “Texas Piano Man” album tour. In a phone interview with The Phoenix, Ellis said whenever he plays in Chicago he leaves the stage knowing it was a great show.
“It’s nice to play in big cities where people are enthusiastic,” Ellis said. “We’ll play in Chicago and then we’ll play in a smaller town to a crowd a fourth the size. Chicago’s always the high point.”
Ellis grew up on a ranch outside of Houston in West Columbia, Texas with a musical family and an idea to change what is means to play Texas music. Ellis’ mom played piano and taught classical music and his uncle chopped on the mandolin and bluegrass guitar while he grew up. This introduction to music gave him the exposure he needed to fall in love with guitar in middle school.
“There are … huge artists in Texas who maybe someone in Chicago has never heard of, and they can play every weekend,” Ellis said. “There’s a very Texas ethos where we have our own heroes. There’s Texas music charts. I’ve always felt maybe a little outside of that. I always sorta felt this thing where I could play to more people in New York than I could in Dallas.”
Ellis’ music, while still Texas, transcends the typical Texas red dirt stars and places him in a category with Liberace. Liberace’s piano playing style, elegant outfits and almost majestic stage presence inspired Ellis’ development of the Texas Piano Man stage presence, according to Ellis.
“If you listen to the stuff I’m making and if you listen to what other people consider Texas music, they might sound very different, but I don’t think they’re different,” Ellis said. “The energy is still Texas. I have this wacky idea that Willie Nelson wasn’t really Willie Nelson until he came along. Nobody sounded like him.”
Ellis said when he sang “I’ll Fly Away with Willie Nelson on stage for several of Nelson’s shows in fall 2016 it was a momentous moment in his career and life.
Ellis said whether in his day-to-day life or musical career he wants to have as much fun as possible. He said he wants his shows to be an experience people look forward to, that is fancier than what they usually do.
“As far as the Texas Piano Man character, I want that character to be better than me,” Ellis said. “When I put that tuxedo on I want to feel a certain confidence and power I maybe don’t feel as Robert Ellis.”
“Texas Piano Man,” released Feb. 14, includes 14 tracks meant to bring life into the music. Ellis said while his past albums, “The Lights from the Chemical Plant” (2014), “Photographs” and “Robert Ellis” (2016) represented who he was, “Texas Piano Man” is his most real album to date.
“This music is very loud in a way that my other music hasn’t been,” Ellis said. “The piano this is percussion instrument that drives rhythm in a way the guitar doesn’t.”
Songs “Fucking Crazy,” “Nobody Smokes Anymore” and “Passive Aggressive” use light-hearted lyrics and upbeat, whimsical piano chords and rhythms to speak to the realities of life and relationships. “Go ahead and say something you can not take back/or bottle it all up inside/out in the open is no place to hide” calmly falls off Ellis’ lips as he plays the piano as though butterflies are fluttering through the springtime air.
“I put the song ‘Fucking Crazy’ first because I feel like it really kicked down the door came out swinging,” Ellis said. “I like the meaning of that song because it’s very confident and it doesn’t apologize. And I think placing a song first that has the F-word in it 20 times really sets the tone for the record.”
Ellis said, as he played with his eight-month-old, “Father” is the song which speaks to him most since he didn’t recognize the complexities of being a parent until he became a father.
“Until you have kids it just doesn’t occur to you how your parents felt in moments, like when he has his first word, or he started sticking his tongue out the other day,” Ellis said. “Suddenly [my parents] aren’t these old-time, grown-up people. It allows you to be a little forgiving because you see how hard this shit is. It’s made me appreciate my mom so much more.”
“Father” is a slow ballad written as a letter to a father who wasn’t around for much of his child’s life. “Well, I have got so many questions / Did you think that I’d be better off not having you around? … And why you had to drive away and never turn around?” The sobering song ends with “I wanted a father, but I’ll settle for a friend,” repeated four times in an increasingly more pleading tone until Ellis’ voice fades.
Ellis and his grand piano can be seen March 28 at 8 p.m. at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Tickets cost $22 and can be purchased online. Don’t be alarmed, the website isn’t under cyber attack, but Ellis is making a joke at the fact that most websites pretend they aren’t there to sell a product.