Robert Ellis Orrall Gets Personal in New Paintings, Albums

Robert Ellis Orrall has had notable successes as a songwriter, singer and record producer. But during the past three years, he’s also become a painter. His first one-man show — “I Was Born Less Than Perfect” — just opened at Jackson’s Coffee & Tea in Nashville, where it will remain on display through April.

As a painter, Orrall uses the name “R. Ellis Orrall,” hoping in so doing, he says, to separate himself at least somewhat from his better-known music persona.

There are 14 paintings in the exhibit, all dealing with episodes from Orrall’s middle-class childhood in Lynnfield, Mass. Spare, flat and cartoon-like, the pieces are brutally confessional. Painted into each picture is at least one caption or label (and often more) explaining precisely which juvenile fear, phobia or fixation is being depicted. A few of the works are infused with sly, self-deprecating humor, but in most of them, the remembered pains are still fresh and raw.

To date, Orrall has completed 51 paintings. Those on exhibit are done in acrylic on canvas board, plywood and various other surfaces. “I Always had a Buzzcut” is painted on a large circular steel saw blade.

Orrall, who began his musical career as a pop artist, first gained widespread attention in Nashville as the co-writer of Shenandoah’s No. 1 hit, “Next to You, Next to Me,” in 1990.

Two years later, and then signed to RCA, Orrall scored his first solo country hit, “Boom! It Was Over,” which went Top 20. He charted two more singles — neither as successful as the first — before pairing up with fellow singer/songwriter Curtis Wright to record for Giant as Orrall & Wright. The duo put two singles on the lower levels of the chart before splitting up.

While continuing to write songs — including “What Else Could I Do” (for Rhonda Vincent), “What’s It to You” (Clay Walker) and “The Swing” (James Bonamy) — Orrall also turned to producing. He co-produced two albums for Michael Peterson and is currently working with the group Yankee Grey.

Rather than chase other record deals, Orrall has contented himself with creating his own albums — all intensely personal — and giving them away to friends and admirers. So far, he has released two collections in this vein. The first, Mistakes, dealt with stresses in his marriage. Gravity, the followup, continued the theme, but in a less “linear” way, he says. The third album of the series, Steffle/Flanders, is now in progress . It will be, he explains, an investigation of “what makes us who we are.” He recently moved his songwriting to Peermusic and is exploring posting his albums on the company’s Digitalpressure website.

Orrall’s latest undertaking was writing and illustrating the children’s book “Counting Sheep”, for which he is now seeking a publisher. It was inspired, he says, by the title song of Collin Raye’s new children’s album on Sony/Wonder. Of course, Orrall wrote the song.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to