A Cajun In Cowgirl Country

Marcia Ball found Texas' musical mix oddly familiar

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click to enlarge FAMOUS TEXAS TOLERANCE: Transplants like - Marcia Ball find Texas' musical borders largely - unguarded. - JOHNNY MEDINA
FAMOUS TEXAS TOLERANCE: Transplants like Marcia Ball find Texas' musical borders largely unguarded.

Texas. Yeah, yeah, we know, already. Big music state. Bob Wills. Willie. The Flatlanders. Fucking Pantera. The Toadies. Old 97s. Spoon. DJ Screw. The Weary Boys, and if you missed 'em when they were in town a couple of months back, it's your loss. S.R.V., The Impossibles, Slobberbone, Butthole Surfers, The Buck Pets. I could go on, but everybody else already has. The former republic is well known for a lot of things, and good music of every stripe is right up there.But not all these legends are local, and therein lies one of the state's secrets to success: like Nashville, Hollywood and other music meccas, Texas hotspots attract tons of artists from other climes, and some of them are even good. But more importantly, they bring their own influences in when they come, and Texas just seems naturally tolerant of new flavors in the aural mix — some would say inexplicably so, given its reputation for reactionary attitudes regarding other cultural aspects.

When Marcia Ball moved to Austin in the early '70s, the singer/pianist/songwriter had already been indelibly inspired by the East Texas swing and sultry New Orleans blues and horn-infused R&B of her Louisiana upbringing. She came from a region long familiar with mixing Americana roots and country with blues and swampy groove, having produced famous names from the Winter brothers to Janis Joplin. And in her new home, she found a music scene that already enjoyed a reputation for embracing such eclectic styles.

"The breadth of the music that we're describing, it's not just a Louisiana thing. It goes definitely all the way west to San Antonio, down to the border," she says. "People were doing the same kinds of things that I grew up listening to. It was like coming home in a way … I just felt like it had something familiar."

Ball is known to fans as a writer and performer of a big, bawdy, piano- and brass-driven blend of country swing and jazzy blues, of sophisticated roadhouse stompers and dynamic balladry. Though her adopted hometown is unarguably a supportive background, and she flirted with psychedelic rock as a late-'60s college student with the band Gum, she asserts that the seeds of her chosen oeuvre took root while she was a young fan taking her cues from the Louisiana radio stations.

"A lot of it is that, the New Orleans stuff, old Fats Domino stuff with the big horn section. But also, I always loved a cross section of music. I like Louis Jordan a lot, for one thing, and that sort of stuff influenced me. I also liked Bobby Bland, the [legendary Texas blues label] Duke-Peacock stuff," says Ball. "I like horns, and I think that is a result of growing up where I did. The ideal band, as in 'who are you going to go see?', would be like The Boogie Kings, a big horn band.

"Being a piano player actually led me to New Orleans music, but even when I was playing western swing and all that stuff, I was thinking and writing and doing rhythm and blues."

Her ballsy, earnest and elaborative style has become inimitable over the course of 25 years and some 11 albums, but Ball has always taken pains to share the spotlight with the artists and seminal American styles that influenced her. She was recently featured with some serious music icons for cinema legend Martin Scorsese's lauded celebratory PBS series The Blues, in the Clint Eastwood-directed installment Piano Blues, and one of her most critically acclaimed releases, '98's Grammy-nominated Sing It!, saw her collaborating with inspirations Irma Thomas and Tracy Nelson (Mother Earth).

Ball says there are worse things an artist could be than a catalyst for music fans to discover great work that came before, but adds that serving as an inspiration herself doesn't exactly fall short of rewarding, either:

"Absolutely. And I also hope that young musicians see us and decide this is what they want to do, or if their children see us and decide they want to play piano or saxophone, that's great. That's a wonderful side of things, one of the great possibilities of my life."

The subject of spotlighting possibilities seems to play into the songwriter's motivations on any number of levels. For too many music fans, knowledge of the blues or country — and other American genres, for that matter — begins and ends with what they're exposed to via an ever more shortsighted, profit-driven mainstream entertainment industry. The last guy to cop the most recently watered-down version of a great Delta chord progression and add a hook becomes the de facto sound of the style. Pedestrian fans at large are more and more hard-pressed to experience the artists who brazenly melded rockabilly to folk-blues, or jump-jazz to a honky-tonk twang. While Ball is by no means a struggling unknown, most of the folks who get hipped to music by Big Media probably aren't familiar with much of her work. Still, she has a large, loyal following among adventurous roots-music pundits, and the fans she's won taste all the sweeter, to mangle a metaphor, because it's obvious they were looking for something more in the first place.

"We're a niche kind of music, and I appreciate the fact that people will come and give us a try even though we're not being force-fed to them," she says. "I'm glad they come and search us out. A lot of times they're brought to us — their friends who've seen us before just make them come, drag them out."

And if she has anything to say about it, fans will be dragging their friends out to hear a new old twist on southeastern juke-joint sounds for a bit longer. While Ball, at 53, considers songwriting the most personally gratifying part of the process, she's not ready to leave the road, or even the stage, just yet.

"It's a slowish month, with the holidays, and we stay home more and play out less, and I'm just going crazy," she says with a laugh. "No, I like to go out and play. I'll work the road until I can't anymore."

Marcia Ball's latest album, So Many Rivers, was released in April.

Contact Music Critic Scott Harrell at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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