Play, Ball, in Carbondale
CARBONDALE – Back in the early 1970s, shortly after she’d moved to Austin, Texas, Marcia Ball played piano in a band called Freda & the Firedogs. “It was hippies playing country music for other hippies,” Ball laughed at the memory of those times.But Ball also sees that something a bit more meaningful was going on in those hippie-fests. Ball and her mates were taking a distinctive piece of fading American culture and resurrecting it for a new audience. “It was similar to the Rolling Stones, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers giving American kids the blues back, giving them back their heritage,” Ball said. “When I got to Austin, everyone was exploring that new old thing – to play classic country music, but play it for a new generation.”By the mid-’70s, Ball had moved on to a new thing, away from country music. But in a way, she was still doing the same old thing – taking a slice of America’s music culture and putting it under the spotlight in a way that connects it to contemporary listeners. Only instead of the music of Johnny Cash and Ernest Tubbs, Ball had moved onto the sounds of James Booker, Professor Longhair and Dr. John – the tradition of New Orleans piano r&b.This time the sound stuck. This past March, the 62-year-old Ball released “Roadside Attractions,” which closely follows the style of the past dozen or so albums she has released in the last three-plus decades – rollicking, rootsy and stomping, the kind of music that starts playing when a movie character steps into a Bourbon Street bar. Ball may not be one of those artists who drastically rethinks their musical direction every few years, but over time, there seems to have been less and less need to do so: “Roadside Attractions” is up for a Grammy award, the fourth album of Ball’s in a row to be so honored. This year, she received the Living Blues Awards for female blues artist of the year and for most outstanding musician in the keyboardist category.Ball was raised in Vinton, a small-town in southwestern Louisiana, fully aware that her native region was rich with music. Ball’s grandmother and aunt both played piano – stride and Tin Pan Alley styles – and at age 5, Ball was joining the family tradition, learning what she calls “kiddie classical.” Along with music to play, there were musicians to watch; at an early age, Ball was familiar with such Louisianans as zydeco icon Clifton Chenier, the Cajun family ensemble the Balfa Brothers, and blues guitarists Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Lonnie Brooks. “Even if you didn’t become a musician, you knew there was a great world of music there,” she said.On the national scale, Ball paid attention to the keyboardists. “I was always aware of Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Ray Charles,” she said. “If you were paying any attention to music then, you knew what those guys were doing.”As much as she appreciated what was coming from her home turf, Ball had other styles to explore. While at Louisiana State University, where she studied English, she was in a band that played “screaming rock ‘n’ roll.” Moving to Austin in 1970, she did what most everyone else in Austin was doing, playing a progressive form of old country music.But when Freda & the Firedogs came to a halt, a switch turned in Ball. “I settled back on my beginnings,” she said of getting into Louisiana r&b. “I always knew of that tradition. I just didn’t know how deep it was. I really started exploring what I grew up with – Louisiana r&b, soul music.”Ball concludes that short history by saying, “That’s 42 years in a nutshell,” and there is plenty of truth in the idea that Ball’s musical history can be summed up in a few quick sentences. She hasn’t veered off into any unusual or unexpected corners. But Ball’s music, while easily condensed into the r&b category, covers a fairly wide range of moods. “Roadside Attractions” has a touching story ballad about her grandfather and his attachment to the Louisiana bayou (“This Used to Be Paradise”); a Professor Longhair-inspired piano workout (“We Fell Hard”); a thick, slow blues about bad love (“Mule Headed Man”); and a magnificent foot-stomping, hand-clapping gospel blues with the uplifting message of finding happiness right in front of you (“”That’s How It Goes”). Ball also draws on ’60s girl group music, honky-tonk, swamp pop and big band swing.”I’ve learned more and more about the great piano players – not only the New Orleans guys like James Booker, but Otis Spann from Chicago, Memphis Slim. I love Ray Charles, of course, and Nat ‘King’ Cole and Duke Ellington and Count Basie,” Ball said. “There’s a whole world of music to use as a jumping off place.” She added that she also keeps an eye on pianists younger than herself, including Diana Krall, Jamie Cullum, Diane Schuur and Ben Waters. “Always, always, listening to new and old. I dig forward and backward.”Ball believes that the way she has helped move the Louisiana r&b piano tradition forward is by adding a touch of Austin, which has been her home for 40 years. “Living in Austin has been great for being a songwriter,” said Ball, who wrote or co-wrote all the tunes on “Roadside Attractions.” “The level of lyric writing is really high. To live in a town where Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark play, Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin … and if I got stuck, I could call Stephen Bruton” – the late Texas musician who was a key collaborator with Kris Kristofferson and others.Of her approach to songwriting, Ball said, “Kind of what I do is make an audience dance. But part is also to make them think.” Of the collection of songs on “Roadside Attractions,” she said, “I think it had a lot to do with personal stories it’s telling. With writing songs, it’s just about what you’re ready to tell. Things just bubble to the surface and become songs.”Having come out of a deep musical tradition, Ball hasn’t seen a need to invent a new one. For 40 years, she’s been making her mark by building on something that already existed.”I think my growth has been in trying to add to the body of work that is American r&b,” she firstname.lastname@example.org
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