Marcia Ball has been on the road, playing good-time music, for as long as she can remember. “When the hippie culture started emerging, I dropped out of college and got a chance to play piano in a rock and roll band,” Ball said from her home in Austin, Texas. “I’ve been at it ever since.”
Ball is a lively singer, formidable piano player, and a songwriter with an impressive back catalogue.
The songs on her latest album, Shine Bright, display Ball’s hard-to-classify style, a blend of blues, progressive country music, New Orleans second-line strut, zydeco, Texas roadhouse boogie-woogie, and down home gospel, with a few Latin rhythms tossed in to sweeten the pot. “Every record’s a reflection of all that I am and all the music I love. I like to put a little bit of everything into each album. I don’t put out that many records, but when it’s time to make one, I have a burst of creative energy. Some songs I write just before I make the record, some I have saved up. I’m always making notes, even if I don’t complete the songs. I write shit down, then, when the time comes, I can knock out the material I need.”
The album includes “Life of The Party,” a Latin groove driven by Ball’s sprightly piano and backed by horn fills borrowed from Mexican mariachi bands. “When the Mardi Gras is Over” is a syncopated bit of New Orleans rhythm and blues, and “World Full Of Love,” is a smoldering, gospel-tinted love song that showcases Ball’s soulful singing and piano playing. Steve Berlin, the sax player from Los Lobos, produced the album at studios in Austin and Louisiana.
“The core players are the guys from my band — Don Bennett on bass, Eric Bernhardt on tenor sax, Mike Schermer on guitar and Mo Roberts, our new drummer. They’ll all be with me at the Freight. Steve’s a wonderful producer and his sensibility works well with mine.
“I wanted to use my old friends from down in Louisiana, and some of the material cried out for that Louisiana bayou influence. There’s a studio down there, Dockside, on the Vermilion River, outside Lafayette. My friend Eric Adcock, who plays Hammond B3 on the record, set up the studio for me and found the other players we needed. He brought in Lee Allen Zeno, a bass player I’ve worked with off and on for 30 years, and even arranged the catering. When we were recording, we ate a lot of good food.
“We played together in the studio, live, then overdubbed the horns. I sent the musicians a tape of the songs we were doing, with my basic arrangements, and let them create their own parts. That way, when we start recording, we’re ready to go. My horn player, Eric, is a great arranger. He writes out the music and does the horn charts. It’s a real group effort.”
The singer credits her family for her musical taste. She started classical piano lessons when she was five and never stopped expanding her interests. “In high school, I quit lessons, but my grandmother had sheet music of old Tin Pan Alley songs and my aunt played pop music beautifully, so I had classical and pop growing up.” After her first band broke up, Ball decided to move from Louisiana to California, but her car broke down in Austin. “It was an amazing place to be in the ’70s. I got into a band called Freda and The Firedogs, playing progressive country music. That established me in Austin. When I started my own band, I started writing songs and working my way back to the Louisiana styles I grew up with. Around 1980, I went over to the R&B side. Eventually Texas and Louisiana merged to become my style.
“Austin has been amazing to me, both as a musician and an individual. It was fun to live here in the ’70s and ’80s. There were great music clubs like Antone’s, The Armadillo, Soap Creek Saloon, The Saxon Pub, places that gave us opportunities to play and brought in every major act that would fit in a venue with under 1,000 people. Antone’s booked every blues person alive, so we got to play with them and meet them. Austin still has a very cooperative music scene. It’s competitive, but people help one another and share their information and resources.”
Ball’s main goal has always been to get people up and dancing, but she’s never shied away from putting the concerns of her audience to music. A couple of tunes on her latest album, Shine Bright, have implicit political messages, but they’re both set to up tempo grooves.
“I have topical tunes sprinkled throughout my repertoire,” Ball said. “On my last record, The Tattooed Lady and The Alligator Man, I wrote a song about financial inequality called ‘The Squeeze Is On.’ On Shine Bright I have two political things. The title track was inspired by something I read a few years ago. I want people to shine bright and to go out and perform random, aggressive acts of goodness. I want folks to be inspired by people who have done good and tried to improve their own lives and the lives of the people around them. ‘Pots and Pans’ came out of a conversation I had with my friend, Molly Ivins, the political writer. She said: ‘Nothing’s going to change until we get out in the streets and start banging on pots and pans.’ You just need to set the political songs to a good dance beat.”
Ball is still on the road for almost a hundred days out of every year. Her record sales are strong, but touring is still her main source of income. “I’ve never been much of a wild child, so I sleep as much as I can and take good care of myself. We do some rehearsing between tours, mainly to learn something new, or refresh something old that we haven’t played in a while. We have about 60 songs that we can do anytime, but if we don’t do a song for a while, I’ll get everybody together to work it out. We try to knock the crowd out every night, and we still do.”
Marcia Ball & Sonny Landreth, Feb. 19, 8 p.m., $34-42, Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-644-2020, TheFreight.org.