PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
February 21, 2006

Marcia Ball's Bluesy Gumbo

by Jim Newsom

Marcia Ball was up for a Grammy earlier this month for Live! Down the Road, her most recent recording on the Alligator label. She was nominated in the “traditional blues” category, along with Maria Muldaur, John Hammond, Hubert Sumlin and B. B. King, who won for his all-star 80th birthday album. Comparing her grouping with the “contemporary blues” nominees---Buddy Guy, Solomon Burke, Robert Cray, Delbert McClinton---I wondered what the difference was between the two categories.

“I think it’s just the flip of a coin,” Ball said from her home in Austin, Texas, the day before the awards show. “I think they take ten artists that fall into the category of the blues and just split ‘em up. It’s very arbitrary; it doesn’t make any sense to me.”

What does make sense is Marcia Ball’s way with the blues. She’s put together her own blend of driving Texas roadhouse and rhythmically rockin’ New Orleans funk that builds on its sources while coming out vibrant and alive. She brings that distinctive musical gumbo to the American Theatre next Tuesday night.

She first started simmering her musical stew in Vinton, Louisiana, just east of the Texas border, where she grew up in the 1950s and early ‘60s.

“There was a piano teacher in my hometown,” she remembered, “and she was an old, old lady. It was a small town, and she taught what I call ‘kiddie classicals.’ I learned to read music, and I learned about Beethoven and Bach and Chopin, things like that.

“But the reason piano stuck with me was the piano players in my family, and the piano in my home. It wasn’t something that only I did; it was something that my grandmother did, and my aunt did and my cousin did. The piano was a gathering place. In addition to those lessons I was getting, my grandmother had wonderful old Tin Pan Alley sheet music; my aunt had more contemporary show tunes. So there was music to enjoy.”

But it was the earthier, blues-derived music that was in the air and on the airwaves that captured young Marcia’s attention, much as it did many aspiring musicians of her generation:

“That was on the radio and on records that my brother brought into the house, and in the dancehalls. My part of the country is a honky tonk part of the country. All the people from Texas would come across the river into Louisiana to go dancing. There were many, many bands there. My part of the country is where Janis Joplin grew up; Johnny and Edgar Winter grew up there. It’s right across from Beaumont and Port Arthur--- George Jones and the Big Bopper, and people like Clifton Chenier.

“On that state line, you had to be 21 to drink in Texas, and Louisiana was always much looser. So we had all the nightclubs; we had all the bands. You could go as a teenager. We had dances when I was growing up at the Catholic Hall, and that was across the street from where I lived.”

She began to perform herself when she went off to LSU, but it was landing in Austin in 1970 that set Ball’s career in motion.

“The first thing I ever sang was folk music with a friend in college,” she said, “and then psychedelic rock-n-roll in my first band in Baton Rouge. And then country in Austin---we were hippies playing country music for other hippies. We called it progressive country---like Commander Cody, The Byrds and The Band. I was right in the middle when Austin became a center for that. That was all in the process of joining other people’s bands and following other people’s leads.

“In 1975, I started my own first band, and started playing more piano than I had in the past. I realized that if I was going to explore that further, the piano players that I loved and the music that I loved the most was all coming out of New Orleans. And that includes Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard---they were definitely tangential parts of that whole thing.”

She watched as Austin became a music Mecca, with singer-songwriters like Shawn Colvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, country legends Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker, and blues guitar gods like Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Thirty years after starting that first band of her own, she still manages to keep her music fresh and invigorating.

“There are several factors,” she replied when asked how she does it. “One is that the New Orleans rhythm & blues style, which pretty much describes what I do, is broader than your typical blues. It encompasses blues, but it’s so much more rhythmic. It’s got all the New Orleans R&B stuff, plus Cajun and zydeco and what they call ‘swamp pop’ now, the sort of music with an accordion. And the other is that being in Austin, the quality and level of the songwriting here is remarkable, so in order to keep up with that, you have to really try to be more lyrically expressive. There are so many wonderful songwriters here that you couldn’t just throw something off.”

Since the hurricane double whammy of last fall, Marcia Ball has been intensely concerned with the fate of her native Gulf coast region.

“We’re five months into it now,” she said, “and there’s about a third of the city that appears to be relatively normal, and about two-thirds of the city that’s totally ruined. Even in the middle and upper-middle class areas, the services are not being attended to. There’s no electricity. They’re not getting help on the federal, state or local level. And I’ve got to tell you, I blame the top. New Orleans has no tax base any more, so even local money’s not flowing. They had things promised from the top and Lord knows where that went. And now it’s a dead letter as far as Washington is concerned, apparently.

“People are cleaning out with wheelbarrows and shovels. It’s not just in New Orleans---It’s from my hometown where Rita hit all the way to Mobile.

“It’s stunning what hasn’t happened.”

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