Like her fingers that rove so energetically over her piano keys, Marcia Ball seldom stays still.
As with other brilliant musicians, Ball constantly searches to find that new sound, to entertain an audience, to write a kind of song she’s never written before. She’s a tireless performer, delivering her rousing blend of blues, country, rock, jazz, and ragtime night after night. Last year she played between 100 and 120 gigs—”that helps keep the lights on,” she laughs. On New Year’s Eve 2015, she headlined the show re-opening Antone’s, Austin’s premier blues club, and she’s just returned from a little over a week on Delbert McClinton’s annual blues cruise in the Caribbean, where, according to McClinton, she’s a staple.
Her new album, The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man (Alligator Records) dropped in the fall, and now she’s back on the road, filling clubs, honky tonks, and halls with her signature soulful shouts and her boisterous piano rolls, punctuating her performance with a country shuffle or a touching ballad or a barrelhouse rocker.
Ball’s new album illustrates her deep comfort with every musical style as well as her abilities to turn in a stunning song that keeps listeners singing long after the record has finished. With this album, she says, “I’m at this point where I have a band I really enjoy playing with, and they’re the same band that travels with me. Also, the producer Tom Hambridge is someone I’ve wanted to work with a long time, and I got to do it here.”
The album opens with a boisterous tune that tells the tale of this love affair between the tattooed lady and the alligator man, delivered with Ball’s signature bluesy growl and supported by her New Orleans-style piano. The song pulls us into the album with its seductive tale and its romping rhythms. “That title track just came,” Ball reflects, “sometimes songs just walk up on the porch and say ‘hi’.” The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man confirms Ball’s curiosity and versatility as a songwriter. “Can’t Blame Nobody but Myself” is a shuffle. “It’s the first song I wrote for the album,” she says, “and I’d never written a shuffle before and wanted to write one.”
Lest we think that Ball is all fun and games, she turns serious on a couple of songs. “Human Kindness,” opens with gospel-inflected chords that lead into the reflection that “this world is what we make it/every day/we can try to save it/or throw it away” and then rues the state of humankind these days: “all this separation/the walls we have made/we’ve got the same dreams/we’ve got the same plans.” By the time the heavenly strains of the chorus kick in—the voices of Shelly King, Carolyn Wonderland, and Amy Helm—Ball moves us from despair at the human condition to the hope that we can indeed repair the torn fabric that we’ve ripped because that power lies within us; all it takes is a little kindness, love, desire for justice: “we’ve got to raise our voices up for our fellow man/when we open our hearts the light comes shining through/human kindness flow from me and you.” “I always need to find one serious song,” Ball muses, “and on this album it’s ‘Human Kindness’.”
Although Ball’s rumbling piano chords might be what first grabs us, it’s her writing that sustains us. “The most important evolution for me as an artist,” she says, “is becoming a songwriter.” Ball says that while she grew up always playing piano, the writing came a little later. It was around 1980, after she’d already put out a country album, Circuit Queen (Capitol) in 1978, that she found a drummer and bass player to work with. “I started writing, in earnest, not long after that, and Soulful Dress (Rounder, 1983) was the first album where I was singing songs I had written.”A
Rodney Crowell once said that “talking about songwriting is like doing card tricks on the radio,” and Ball confirms that she can’t, nor does she necessarily want to, uncover the process of writing songs. There are no rules, she points out. “You cannot separate the words from the melody: can you say “On the Road Again”?” And, she’s never been able to make an appointment to go into a room and write songs all day. “You sit in front of a piece of paper until blood appears from you,” she laughs, “and I can’t do that.” Ball can, in fact, write most anywhere: “I’ve written entire songs in the driver’s seat, and I’ve written them in the passenger seat.”
For Ball, songwriting is much more fluid and dynamic, a kind of evolving question. “I am an eavesdropper; I listen to the world around me and pick up phrases and ideas. I read and I read all kinds of stuff; it may be some poetry that I read that drives me to write.” Ball mentions Crowell—”he has these great lyrics” and Texas singer-songwriter Carrie Elkin as writers she admires. Like other songwriters Ball draws on her experiences when she writes. “I write about personal experiences, and we all do that sometimes to exorcise our demons,” she muses. But she also writes songs—like “Human Kindness”—that express her feelings about the way of the world. Audiences who’ve come to hear her good time barroom blues aren’t always comfortable when she lights into a song that deals with politics or religion or events around them. “You know,” she laughs, “as singers, we’ve all been told to “shut up and sing”—which if you notice is impossible—but we’re minstrels and we’re commenting on events.”
Ball co-writes many of her songs, too. She and the band’s guitarist Michael Shermer penned “Human Kindness” and “The Squeeze is On” on The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man. “One of my best co-writers,” she recalls, “was Stephen Bruton; I called him my song doctor,” she laughs. On her previous albums, she’s also written with Gary Nicholson: “If you go into a room with Gary, you’re gonna come out with a song.” Delbert McClinton has also been a huge influence on her career as a songwriter, Ball says. No matter the process or the circumstances, she emphasizes, “where there’s great writing, it’s a great song.”
Although Marcia Ball’s musical influences run very deep—her father was a composer, her grandmother played ragtime and Tin Pan Alley songs—”she always had a lot of sheet music”—and her aunt played Gershwin and the pop music of the ’50s—she heard her true calling when she was 13 and went with her aunt and cousin to New Orleans and saw Irma Thomas. “She just blew me away and caught me totally unaware,” Ball recalls, “and once I started my own band, the first stuff I did was Irma’s.” “I grew up at a great time for rock and roll,” she recalls, “and when I was in high school, soul music was big. Plus, I’m from south Louisiana where people like to dance to Cajun and zydeco.” All of these ingredients Ball poured into her music, mixing up a steaming pot of musical gumbo that nourished and sustained her and to which she added even more spices when she left home for college in Baton Rouge at LSU.
Around the time Ball saw Thomas, she also wanted a guitar badly, and her parents gave her one. Though she’d been playing piano since she was four, it was hard to carry that off to college so the guitar went with her to Baton Rouge. Around 1968, hippies started making their way into the LSU scene, and “my roommate and I were immediately attracted to them,” Ball laughs. “I was playing rock and roll, and started singing in a cover band doing Janis Joplin and Grace Slick songs.” A couple of times, Ball says, she thought about quitting music and focusing on her English major, but “both times music won out,” she says.
Ball arrived in Austin in 1970 when the music scene was burgeoning and migrating in the direction of “hippies playing country music for other hippies,” she laughs. “There were all these great clubs; we had Antone’s, One Knight, Armadillo World Headquarters. Kenneth Threadgill had this gas station that he made into a bar, and Janis Joplin played “Me and Bobby McGee there in the summer of 1970. And we had Doug Sahm, who walked all sides of the musical lines.” During these heady years, Ball started to add some new ingredients to her soul and blues stew, playing country and country rock with Freda and the Firedogs. “I sang “Me and Bobby McGee with them; I mean, I had been ‘busted flat in Baton Rouge’ so I knew what it was like.”
In 1975, Ball reached what she calls one of her turning points. “I could join a band, start a band, or go do something else,” she laughs, “so I started my own band. For the first time it was up to me what musical direction I’d take; I knew I was going to go back to my roots.” Maybe it took a few years to arrive fully at what today is Ball’s signature soul stew, but her vision was clear: “sing in the style of Irma Thomas and sing the songs of Allen Toussaint,” she recalls. She released a single in 1975 that illustrated her ability to straddle both worlds: the A-side was Patsy Montana’s “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” but the B-side was Thomas’ “Done Got Over.”
By 1978, Ball herself had done got over country, and she never looked back as she migrated to the music she loved best on her next three records: Soulful Dress (1983), Hot Tamale Baby (Rounder, 1986), and Gatorrhythms (1989). The latter two established her squarely in the New Orleans Professor Longhair jazz and blues school of music, and she solidified that standing even more with the gorgeous Dreams Come True—”that’s still one of my favorite albums,” she says—which she recorded on the Antone’s label with her dear friends Lou Ann Barton and Angela Strehli. Ball signed with Rounder Records in 1983 and, with the exception of Dreams Come True, recorded six albums there over fifteen years, from 1983 to 1998. On her last album with Rounder was a fitting close to her time there, for Ball had the chance to sing with Thomas, with whom she has since many times, and with Tracy Nelson on Sing It! “Rounder had always wanted to do a record like this, and Irma and Tracy were with Rounder; it was a thrill for me.”
Ball moved on from Rounder to Alligator Records, releasing her first album on that label in 2001, Presumed Innocent, and since then she’s released another seven albums with the label, including her newest one. “I had good years at Rounder and they were making the kind of music of which I was a part, but they started headed in a little different direction from where I was headed; sometimes you have to go try something new, and Alligator is dedicated to the kind of music I play; for Bruce Iglauer, that’s his life.”
While the blues have been good to Ball, she recognizes that “it’s always been a subgenre. But, I tell you,” she says, “blues fans are the most loyal ones out there; we have blues societies and festivals that keep the music alive. However, we’ve lost that first generation of bluesmen and blueswomen, and we need to continue give our nod to the original players. It’s important to carry that style forward.” Ball shares that among her greatest influences are Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Etta James, Mickey Newbury—”a fabulous songwriter”—Dan Penn, and Ray Charles—”I could sell my soul to the devil to get Ray Charles’ voice,” she laughs.
Above all, it’s human kindness that permeates Ball’s music, her songwriting, and her attitude toward life.Her encouragement of other musicians, especially young musicians, her straight-to-the-heart lyrics whether in a rousing blues stomp or a gospel-inflected anthemic ballad, and her dedication to delivering soulful music from her heart to ours clearly adds to the deep wealth of this music we call blues and soul.
“I’ve been very fortunate in the people I’ve worked with, and I’ve been able to figure out how to put the right people together to play music with. I hope I’ve been able to add to the lexicon of this music we listen to.”
Visit Marcia’s website at www.marciaball.com
Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2016
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. writes about music and music books for No Depression, American Songwriter, Country Standard Time, and Wide Open Country.