Art Talk Monday: Marcia Ball

This week's Art Talk Monday is written by John Emory, Jr., President of the Dixie Center for the Arts Marcia Ball is a woman with a reputation. The Texas-born, Louisiana-raised pianist/vocalist/songwriter is famed worldwide for igniting full-scale roadhouse rhythm and blues party every time she strolls on a stage. The next stage in her lineup is Dixie Center for the Arts on Thursday, September 13, at 7 pm. Ball’s groove-laden New Orleans boogie and rollicking Gulf Coast blues have made her a one-of-a-kind favorite with music fans all over the world. But she’s also a master at transfixing her audience with an emotionally rich, passionately sung ballad. The Boston Herald says, “Ball plays masterful, red hot tracks from the Texas-Louisiana border. Her voice can break your heart with a ballad or break your back with a rocker.” On her new CD, Roadside Attractions (her fifteenth solo recording), Ball’s songwriting is at the forefront. It’s inspired from her years on the road and from insights gained from everyday life, making it her most autobiographical album.

According to Ball the new CD is the one she was born to make. “Roadside Attractions is my most personal album yet. It’s full of short stories and tall tales. Not every word is true, but close enough. The songs reflect forty years of travel and a lifetime of experiences. So off we go, touring the cosmos, weaving and lurching, distracted by every concrete dinosaur and giant strawberry along the way. It’s a great life set to music.”

Born in Orange Texas in 1949 to a family whose female members all played piano, Ball grew up in the small town of Vinton, Louisiana, right across the border from Texas. She began taking piano lessons at age five, playing old Tin Pan Alley tunes from her grandmother’s collection. From her aunt, Marcia heard more modern and popular music. But it wasn’t until she turned thirteen that Marcia discovered the power of soul music. One day in 1962, she sat amazed while Irma Thomas delivered the most spirited performance the young teenager had ever seen. According to Ball, “She just blew me away; she caught me totally unaware. Once I started my own band, the first stuff I was doing was Irma’s.” In 1966 she attended Louisiana State University, where she played some of her very first gigs with the blues-based rock band called Gum.

In 1970, Ball set out for San Francisco. Her car broke down in Austin, and while waiting for repairs she fell in love with the city and decided to stay. It wasn’t long before she was performing in the city’s clubs with progressive country band called Freda and the Firedogs, while beginning to hone her songwriting skills. It was around this time that she delved into the music of the New Orleans piano players, especially Professor Longhair. “Once I found out about Professor Longhair,” recalls Ball, “I knew I had found my direction.”

When the band broke up in 1974, Marcia launched her solo career. Discovering and honoring her own sound, she released six critically acclaimed titles during the 1980s and 1990s. In 1990, collaborating with Angela Stehli and Lou Ann Barton, she recorded her hugely successful Dreams Come True. At the end of 1997, Marcia finished work on a similar “three divas of the blues” project. The CD Sing It! was released in 1998 and was nominated for a Grammy Award. She’s been featured on leading television and radio programs, including Austin City Limits and NPR’s Fresh Air and Piano Jazz.

Since the release of her Alligator debut Presumed Innocent in 2001, Ball has received more popular and critical acclaim than ever before. 2003’s So Many Rivers continued the push forward, with Billboard declaring, “Ball is a consummate pro, a killer pianist, a great singer and songwriter. Powerful. Righteous.” Of the 2005’s Live! Down the Road, The New Orleans Times-Picayune said simply, “Bayou boogie has a queen and her name is Marcia Ball.” Billboard said, “Peace, Love & BBQ is a welcome ray of sunshine. This is a potent batch of tunes, highlighted by Ball’s keyboard mastery.”

Living the life she loves, Marcia Ball has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. With her new album Roadside Attractions and a long list of high profile tour dates, Ball will bring her blend of Texas roadhouse boogie and Louisiana swamp blues to fans around the globe. “What’s not to like about Marcia Ball, asked The Austin Chronicle. Clearly, in whatever city she performs or wherever her songs play, there is no better roadside attraction than the foot-stomping, soul stirring music of the great Marcia Ball. Reserved tickets for the September 13 Ruston concert sponsored by Cowan Financial Services are available by calling the Dixie Box Office at 255-1450.