It’s a little difficult to hear the official 2018 Texas State Musician of the Year on the other end of the phone. There seem to be a lot of voices and activity going on in the background, and Marcia Ball sounds surprised about the pre-arranged call when she answers.
“Well, I guess now is as good a time as any to talk to you!” she chuckles. “Right now, I’m walking onto the grounds for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival! There’s an awful lot of people!”
Singer/songwriter/piano queen Ball is not scheduled to perform her own set there across the state line in Louisiana until the next day. But she loves soaking in the atmosphere and the people of Jazz Festival.
“Today’s our day to just go walk around. This is the thinnest crowd. It’s kind of the locals’ day,” she says. “Hey, it’s pretty loud where I’m at. Let me call you right back!”
When Ball does reconnect a few minutes later, I ask if she has any official duties as official State Musician, an honor that began in 2003 and has previously gone to cut-in-stone Lone Star legends like Willie Nelson, George Strait, Billy Gibbons, Lyle Lovett, Billy Joe Shaver, and Jimmie Vaughan.
“Oh sure, I get a crown, an official seal, and the stationary,” she laughs, noting that she asked one previous recipient where they got their stationary, and to her surprise, that person has actually gone out and done so!
“In reality, though, I got nothing. No duties, no obligations, and no privileges,” she says. “And the way I run my mouth, they’re likely to take it away from me before the year is out.” Not bad for a girl born in Orange, Texas and raised in Louisiana who set out for San Francisco in 1970 to pursue her musical dreams. But when her car famously broke down in Austin, she decided to stay in the city – permanently.
She will be performing a free show at Discovery Green on May 24, with Houston electric bluesman the Mighty Orq opening.
Ball’s new release, Shine Bright (Alligator Records), is her twelfth solo studio record, in a discography that also includes collaborations, live records, guest appearances, and a much-beloved 1972 LP Freda and the Firedogs (Ball, of course, was Freda). But in her mind, it already stands apart from the others for the overwhelming concept hinted at in the title track.
“I did start with a concept. The whole premise of the record is to perform random and aggressive acts of good and celebrate those who do them. That’s what the title track is about, and it mentions people I adore. And I wrote ‘World Full of Love’ with Kimmie Rhodes, because that’s what we’d like to see happen today, especially with what’s going on,” she says.
“I often speak out about things, but couch it in a nice dance tune, so it’s a bit more subtle,” she says. “This time, I was a little more up front with what I wanted to do. It’s not negative. But it’s aggressively positive.”
In the title track, Ball namechecks personal heroes like Ann Richards, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even the recently departed Stephen Hawking. Backup vocalists Carolyn Wonderland and Shelley King add a bit of Girl Power throughout the record. As if to even further drive the theme home, the front cover shows a silver-jacketed ball atop a piano wrapped in aluminum foil. And on the back she poses as the Statue of Liberty.
The most out-there political song is “Pots and Pans,” a line which comes from the late liberal political humorist/columnist Molly Ivins. She often opined that real political and social change would not come until people got out in the streets banging pots and pans to raise hell. Ivins even gets a shout out in the song’s first line.
“Oh good golly said Miss Molly/What’s happenin’ in our land?/We seem to be goddamn set on destruction/Dishonesty and ignorance working hand in hand/It’s plain to see we can’t become accustomed.”
Ball and Ivins were also personal friends, and would meet each Friday at Austin’s La Zona Rosa bar/music venue with a group of like-minded compadres to discuss politics and down maybe a margarita…or two…or three. Eventually, the meetings moved to Ivins’ house, but ceased when she died in 2007 at the age of 62 from breast cancer.
Ball can only wonder with relish what her pal’s tart pen would have made of current events in the United States and the world and the presidency of Donald Trump. “Those Fridays were exceptional,” Ball says. “I miss Molly a lot.”
Shine Bright also includes a fair number of songs not laden with meaning either overtly or subtly, including more typical Ball-esque tales of partying and heartbreak like “I Got to Find Somebody,” “Life of the Party,” “Too Much for Me,” and “Take a Little Louisiana.” It’s all stirred in Ball’s sonic gumbo of blues, Cajun, soul, R&B, boogie woogie, country, roadhouse, and even some Latin/Caribbean-tinged sounds.
Things have, of course, changed a lot in the record industry since Ball first began her career. And for contemporary blues artist like Ball or Alligator label makes Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, Tommy Castro and the Painkillers, or Tinsley Ellis, records are mostly sold at live concerts for an audience demographic who may think of catching fish when they hear the term “streaming.”
“It’s all different how people buy or don’t buy music, and it’s harder to make money selling records,” she says. “In fact, I wonder if this will be the last record I do that comes out as a physical CD. Most people don't even have CD players in their cars anymore!”
By now in the conversation, the background noise is getting louder and it’s harder to hear Ball among the music and excited, chattering voices in the background. She has to stop our conversation several times when it’s clear she’s being approached or having to talk to others – her distinctive skunk’s white streak in her hair making Marcia Ball hard to miss among this crowd.
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But she says it’s not overwhelming, and she enjoys her encounters on the Festival grounds.
“Oh yeah. I get a lot of hellos and it’s great, when I walk around and people stop me and tell me how much they like my music,” she says, before having to get off the line. “Though sometimes I feel like I’m almost pandering!”
Marcia Ball plays May 24, 7 p.m., at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney. The Mighty Orq opens. Free. Call 713-400-7336 or visit discoverygreen.com
For more on Marcia Ball, visit MarciaBall.com