Lady Belts the Blues
The four words "drastic change" and "Marcia Ball" have never really fit well together in the same sentence. The Louisiana-bred piano player has lived in Austin for decades; has performed with the same bass player, Don Bennett, for 18 years; and has been with the same roots-music label, Rounder Records, since the 1980s.
Well, scratch that last one.
It's a shocker, to say the least: The belle of boogie-woogie piano says the ink has just dried on a new deal with high-profile blues label Alligator Records. Ball and Alligator honcho Bruce Iglauer discussed the idea for years, but the courtship was not consummated until mid-July.
"I'm really interested to see how I'll fit in," says Ball. "You know, there was a long time when all of Bruce's acts were of a certain age, and most were black. But he's gradually broken those lines over the past few years with people like Delbert McClinton, Johnny Winter and Roy Buchanan. I guess you could say I'm just about old enough for him now."
Perhaps the time was right for such a big career change: It was preceded in January by a mini-shake-up in her band with the departure of some longtime players. Most notably, guitarist Chris Miller quit to join Houston-cum-Austin alt-country band the Hollisters (Ball has filled the vacancy with Pat Boyack of Dallas).
But the switch to Alligator is a symbolic change, too. It indicates that Ball is finally being placed properly among her peers, and that Iglauer is going public with his respect for the accomplished singer/songwriter, who happens to be a damn good six-foot-tall piano player. Maybe if she wielded a Stratocaster rather than a Yamaha P150 electric grand, it would have happened sooner, but Ball isn't one to dwell on the details.
"Whatever it is, I'm happy to be somebody's new thing," she says, adding in the same breath that her first choice as producer will be Doyle Bramhall Sr.
For eons, it seems, critics have focused on Ball's ability to keep alive the syncopated New Orleans boogie-woogie of the legendary Professor Longhair, while generally ignoring the fact she has always been equally at home with legendary blues players. This, despite the fact that Ball won the 1998 W.C. Handy Award (the Grammy of the blues) for Contemporary Female Vocalist of the Year, and was nominated in both the vocal and blues keyboard categories this year. Consider also that (arguably) her two best albums are her bluesy collaborative vocal efforts: Dreams Come True (Antone's), with fellow Austinites Lou Ann Barton and Angela Strehli, and Sing It! (Rounder), with blues/R&B belters Tracy Nelson and Irma Thomas.
Perhaps the ultimate sign that Ball had graduated to the big leagues came even before her signing with Alligator; perhaps it came in 1999 when she joined the likes of B.B. King and Della Reese in Performance at the White House, the nationally syndicated PBS television broadcast. Performing in a tent on the White House lawn -- a tent with carpeting, air-conditioning and chandeliers -- was memorable for the Texas native, a definite feeling of standing in high cotton.
Ball's musical voyage began as a gangly girl who started formal piano lessons while living along the Texas-Louisiana border. (She was born in Orange, Texas, but grew up in Vinton, Louisiana.) At the same time, she was exposed to the sounds of ragtime and was beckoned by those Crescent City chord changes.
These days, she's happy to see kids in their twenties carrying on the Allen Toussaint/ Professor Longhair tradition, even if she has never had the kind of narrow focus that her connection to New Orleans might suggest. After all, she swore allegiance to the Daughters of the Gulf Coast R&B Republic when she moved to Austin in the 1970s. Once settled in Austin, she began to crank up her career, hanging out at Antone's with Muddy Waters and Pinetop Perkins while honing her craft as a songwriter. She downplays the idea that her success came from being a sort of musical hybrid; she maintains, simply, that it was because she loved to jam.
"I've always maintained that if you're willing to work hard and put in the time, you will achieve success," she says. And once you get there, you can pick and choose your spots. Ball has reduced her gigs from 175 to about 130 a year. You can still catch her every once in a while at the Monday-night blues jam at Antone's, and she plans to reunite with Barton and Strehli for a concert in November in Austin. She may even reunite this weekend at the Satellite with younger brother Van Mouton, who has been known to join the band on scrubboard at Houston gigs.
Ball's last solo release for Rounder, Let Me Play with Your Poodle, touched on almost everything from honky-tonk to jump blues. The focus at Alligator will be narrower; it will concentrate on bluesy vocal performances and lyrics, downplaying Ball's ability to beat the hell out of the 88s.
Alligator's Iglauer has watched Ball grow from an authoritative interpreter of New Orleans and Texas blues/R&B into a songwriter who can deliver a ballad that really strikes a chord. "This is a great signing for Alligator," he says, "and Marcia will be a priority for us."
The label has a history of supporting bluesy Texas piano players. It was less than a year ago, on September 9 in fact, that Houston-born Katie Webster, one of Alligator's best-known artists, passed away. Ball says she's up for the challenge of being the latest Texas pianist to pull up a bench at Alligator, the great blues label. After all, she says, all her artistic endeavors, whether boogie-woogie piano or poetry, should help her sing the blues.
"I've never been one to confine writing to my songs," Ball says. "Sometimes my poems eventually turn into song lyrics, sometimes into fiction, or sometimes they remain as little observations. I've always said writing is writing, no matter what. It's like saying I shouldn't play classical music on the piano anymore. All of your artistic expression feeds itself."
Though her dues-paying, baby-done-me-wrong days are long behind her, Ball has stored up enough memories for all the blues ballads Alligator could care to eat up.
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