FEATURE: Marcia Ball - Asheville, Raleigh
By Brian Turk
If you’ve been counting, this is Marcia Ball’s 50th year in the music business, and it might be her best year yet. She was named the Texas State Musician of the year in 2018 and will be inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame in October; alongside Los Lobos and Ray Charles. Ball is also touring on the heels of a new Album, “Shine Bright”, which was released on April 20th. Ball has led her own band since the early 1970s and has consistently toured her entire career, taking her New Orleans boogie-woogie style (with a Texas swagger) to honky-tonks and concert halls around the world. NC Music Magazine recently had the pleasure of chatting with Ball and she filled us in on her musical roots and new album in advance of her shows in North Carolina next month.
Marcia Ball grew up across the street from the local dancehall in Vinton, Louisiana, surrounded by music in many ways. “The Catholic hall in my hometown had dances every Wednesday night all summer”, recounted Ball. “Even before I could go there, I could just listen to the music through the bedroom screen, like I say in one of my songs.” Her one grandmother, who lived nearby, got Ball started on piano lessons early. Ball also visited her other grandmother in New Orleans frequently. Since she lived near the border of Texas and Louisiana, the sounds of both regions melded through Ball’s fingertips.
The big stars of the time were Fats Domino, Little Richard, Ray Charles, and Jerry Lee Lewis; all piano players, but also all men. Although Ball was inspired by these artists, she never imagined that she could front her own band, or be in one for that matter, until she saw Irma Thomas for the first time. “The first concert that really blew my mind was when I was 13”, shared Ball. “My cousin and I went to the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans for a big package show, and it was the first time I became aware of Irma Thomas. I honestly don’t remember who else played that night, but I remembered Irma.” Seeing a 20-year old Irma Thomas on the stage, leading a band of her own, hit Ball like a lightning bolt and it may have been the spark that set Ball ablaze. “Irma was pregnant the first time I saw her”, explained Ball. “I had never seen a band with a woman fronting it and I sure hadn’t seen one doing it pregnant. I mean, this was back in 1962 or so. It was pretty far-fetched. Before that, I didn’t ever imagine that I would or could lead a band as a woman.”
Six years later, Ball was leading a band in Baton Rouge, playing a lot of Irma Thomas songs. Ball moved to Austin, Texas a couple of years later and joined a band instead of leading one. “I joined a band that was part of the progressive country movement here, which really took hold and put Austin on the musical map in the early 1970s”, said Ball. “After that band broke up I had to decide whether to join a band, start a band of my own, or do something totally different with my life.” Since Ball was pregnant at the time, she figured it would be best if she could decide when and where she played, so she started a band of her own. She also went back to her musical roots. According to Ball, “The music that fed my piano playing abilities and allowed me to grow was the music of New Orleans”.
According to Ball, in the 1970s in Austin, “There were just a handful of women playing or singing at all.” Ball was working in an industry filled with men and she broke new ground with each mile she toured. Once Marcia Ball took her seat behind the keyboard, and elegantly crossed her legs (as any “lady” in a dress would), she commanded the audience's attention with her confident voice and powerful playing. “We were playing roadhouses and honky tonks” shared Ball. “We had a great circuit going.” That “circuit playing” mentality has never faded for Ball and she has logged millions of miles over the past 50 years, bringing the vibe of Louisiana dancehalls and Texas honky-tonks wherever she goes.
Marcia Ball’s new record “Shine Bright” isn’t a departure from her signature style, but there is a clear message in some of the nine songs Ball co-wrote. There are a lot of tracks that will make you dance, there are a couple of soulful ballads, and (according to Ball), there are a couple of tracks that are political. “I wanted to encourage people to perform acts of aggressive good”, shared Ball. “I wanted to be hopeful in what I consider desperate and dire times for our country. We need to create higher levels of generosity and thought.” Even Ball’s “political” songs sound like a party, because Ball’s most passionate mission is to make us dance and, in hard times, dancing is part of the solution. If you want to shimmy and shake, like you are in a steamy roadhouse way west of here, get in front of Marcia Ball and let her heat things up for you while your cares melt away.
Marcia Ball will be playing two shows here in North Carolina next month:
Friday, June 22, 2018
The Grey Eagle - Asheville, NC
Saturday, June 23, 2018
The Pour House Music Hall - Raleigh, NC