It should come as no surprise to those who have heard Marcia Ball’s unique blend of Texas soul blues and New Orleans R&B that her deeply authentic music is rooted in her equally authentic upbringing. “I drew musical inspiration from my childhood in Louisiana,” recalls the veteran pianist, singer and songwriter in a recent phone interview. “My grandmother was a piano player, and my aunt played piano as well. They put me in piano lessons when I was young. It was what the women in the family were supposed to do, I guess.
“Later, when I was 13 years old, I saw [legendary Louisiana vocalist] Irma Thomas sing for the first time, and she just blew me away, she caught me totally unawares . . . but once I started my own band, the first stuff I was doing was Irma’s. I didn’t actually discover the great New Orleans piano players until the early ’70s, after I had already been in several bands playing rock n’ roll and country, but when I found out about [New Orleans piano great] Professor Longhair, once that happened, I knew I had found my direction.”
And from where does the Texan angle in Ball’s music spring? “I’ve been livin’ in Austin since way back in the early ’70s,” explains Ball. “And Austin was already an oasis even back then, ’cause it was the kinda place you went to if you were from the south and wanted to stay in the south–but also wanted to feel some kinship with people that had kinda counter-cultural leanings. And people still migrate to Austin to do their music or whatever, although unfortunately the powers that be are working hard to destroy that. In fact, what we really need in Austin, as far as I’m concerned, is another good oil bust; we really need the bottom to fall out to save our quality of life. Our standard of living is way up there, but our quality of life has just gone to hell lately.”
Of course, if the desired oil bust came during the summer months, Ball would miss it completely–as that’s when she serves her unique musical gumbo from hither all the way over to yon during a formidable season of non-stop national touring. (Ball notes that she sensibly keeps to the south during the colder parts of the year, but continues to play an equally heavy slate of regional gigs). The years of road-work are finally reaping dividends in this era of increased appreciation for so-called roots music or “Americana”: Ball now finds herself in heavy demand nationally during festival season, when a scheduled set by the statuesque (six feet tall in flats) and highly animated (she’s been described as “the secret love child of Miss Manners and Little Richard”) singer-pianist can virtually guarantee concert promoters a successful day at the gate.
Ball and her band will be displaying their fiery musical wares locally next Monday night when they set sail from Riverside Park in Troy for a Summertime Blues Cruise concert. It’s not the first time Ball has played such an unusual venue.
“It’s been really fortunately for us and all of our peers that many of the summertime music events–festivals, cruises, whatever–have gotten to be roots music oriented,” she notes. “Whether they’re folk-like festivals or blues cruises or more loosely structured community good time parties, there always seems to be a spot for me and my peers. And there’s many, many more events like that out there than there used to be; I mean, even far-flung parts of the country have zydeco festivals now, and since we’re out there workin’, we’re gonna be available for ’em!”
One of the downsides of Ball’s rigorous touring schedule is that it keeps her from spending as much time in the studio as she’d like: her latest album, Let Me Play With Your Poodle, is only her fifth since she debuted with the country-inflected Soulful Dress in 1983.
“I’m gettin’ up in age,” she says, laughing. “And I just can’t wait so long between records any more. I mean, at this age, if you put out a record every five years, y’know, you ain’t gettin’ anywhere. I wanna be like Tony Bennett and have like 60 or 70 records some day, not just six or seven. And who knows, maybe someday I will . . . the general response to Poodle record has been really great so far, people seem to like it, and we’re almost in serious danger of charting as many, many Americana and triple-A [adult album alternative] stations have been picking it up.”
One spin through the disk makes it clear why those radio formats are eager to work the disc. Let Me Play With Your Poodle brims with all the catchy, soulful Texas-meets- Louisiana musical gumbo for which Ball is known, while the superb ensemble performances on her poignant originals and well-chosen covers provide Poodle with more punch, depth, balance and accessibility than any of Ball’s prior records.
Poodle’s breakthrough track may well be Ball’s soulful take on Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927”. While the song has long been a staple of Ball’s concerts, it almost didn’t make it onto the new record. “I really, really hesitated to record a cover of that song,” Ball notes. “And for all the right reasons, I think: Randy Newman does it quite well himself and a lot of other people down in Louisiana have done it, most notably Aaron Neville, and it should be a hard n’ fast rule that nobody covers Aaron Neville! But I guess in the end I just kinda bowed to the wishes of my fans who like to hear that song and like to hear us do it, so I’m particularly glad that one’s going over well now.”
While many of Ball’s original songs feature heart-rending lyrics that seem to be just as authentic as the music that frames them, Ball confesses that she’s less tragic blues princess than creative writer. “My songs are often reflecting someone’s reality,” she says. “It’s just not necessarily mine. I mean, I know that a lot of people make momentous decisions based on moods, based on emotions–but I’m just not one of those people. I think that, y’know, maybe I should eat a bite or take a nap before I decide to leave my husband. Or maybe I should just write a song about it instead. I just don’t really have a lotta angst.”
An inquiry about the listing of “great poodles past and present” in Poodle’s liner notes does reveal one source of heartbreak in Ball’s life, however. “Yeah, one of those poodles was ours”, she answers. “But the poodle died. My husband and I have a deal that neither of us can go do anything about getting another dog without having the other one there to talk ’em down, ’cause we don’t need another dog in our lives . . . but I have to say that I think both of us are feeling a little poodle lonesome at this point.”
Ball’s quiet for a moment, but it doesn’t take long for her inner optimist to return. “Believe it or not, people are tryin’ to grow truffles down here in central Texas,” she enthuses. “And me an’ my husband are thinking ‘Well that’s good, ’cause people are gonna need poodles now!’ So I think we’re gonna have us a poodle ranch down here . . . and when that next oil bust comes to Austin, well, then we’ll be absolutely poodle rich!”