A Honky-Tonk Song
Earl Poole Ball
The jukebox is playing,
a honky-tonk song.
One more, I keep saying,
and then I'll go home.
What good would it do me,
I know what I'll find.
An empty bottle, a broken heart,
and you're still on my mind.
One more time the disc spins 'round, a laser processing the zeros and ones from raw, digital data into the Byrds' heartbreaking "You're Still on My Mind," from their seminal LP, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman blend their seamless harmonies on the George Jones weeper, and a sparkling pedal steel gives way to the honky-tonk piano line that drives the song, courtesy of Mr. Earl Poole Ball. For months, the buzz around Austin has been, "Oh, Earl Poole Ball, the guy who played piano on Sweetheart of the Rodeo," but there is much more to the 58-year-old Ball's story than that one admittedly great achievement. With 40 years' experience and a pedigree that includes work with Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Ricky Nelson, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and a 20-year tenure with Johnny Cash, there's quite a bit more.
Earl Poole Ball is a big man, with a genteel Southern accent and soft-spoken ways. His movements are slowed somewhat by a bad back, and his glasses and pompadour give him the appearance of a social studies teacher or Baptist deacon. His modest manners and quiet, gentlemanly demeanor are broken occasionally by a loud and satisfying laugh that comes from somewhere down near his shoes. Since moving to Austin in June, he's been holding down regular gigs at the Continental Club, Ego's, the Saxon Pub, Ginny's Little Longhorn, Poodie's Hilltop, and Donn's Depot, accompanied by bass players Bill Campbell and Teri Coté, and either Lisa Pankratz or the Derailers' Mark Horn on drums.
The Ball story goes back to Columbia, Mississippi, when a favorite aunt began teaching him piano at age eight. By high school, he was playing in a four-piece hillbilly band at American Legions and local VFW halls, banging away on whatever out-of-tune piano happened to be in the joint. That soon led to a regular gig on the Jimmy Swan TV show in Hattiesburg and a short-lived marriage, with Ball hitchhiking the 30-or-so miles from Columbia to Hattiesburg. Soon, Southeastern Mississippi proved too limiting. "My father gave me a $100 bill, a new suit of clothes, and a one-way bus ticket to Houston," says Ball. "He said, "Son, you've got to get out of Mississippi.'"
En route to Houston, Truman Capote's stepfather tried to separate Ball from his $100 and convince him to invest in a chain of penny scales to put in drugstores (Ball resisted). The sink-or-swim move found Ball hooking up with his old band at Houston's Silver Dollar Lounge, where he befriended Mickey Gilley. Gilley showed Ball how to re-string a piano, as well as how to mike a piano with a fiddle pickup ("that was when I bought my first Fender amp, about 1961 or so"), and eventually co-produced a Ball album with Kenny Rogers' brother Leland.
Playing Houston provided little more than a hand-to-mouth living ("I was killing rats with a microphone stand in my apartment when the rat poison didn't work"), and after three years, Ball bought a '57 Chevrolet and headed west to Los Angeles along with pedal steel man Dick Stubbs. He soon found himself playing L.A.'s Aces Club, as well as joints in San Bernadino and Fontana. About that time, Ball also made his first movie appearance.
"Eddie Hodges called me and said they were doing some kind of movie called Country A-Go-Go in a deserted mine shaft in Las Vegas," he recalls. "I wound up being the piano player in that, and met up with Gram Parsons and drummer John Corneil there."
During his ongoing residency at the Aces Club, Ball met guitar titan Joe Maphis, who was just one of dozens of country & western music legends attracted to the club by the extended jam sessions; Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller, Hank Cochran, and Parsons all played with Ball at one time or another. In between gigs at the Aces and contract work composing songs for Hollywood's Central Songs, Ball met up with drummer Jerry Wiggins.
"About that time, Jerry went to work for Buck Owens, and he told Buck that I played great rhythm and he needed to hire me to come in and work the sessions," Ball remembers. "One night, Buck called and my wife said, "Some crazy sumbitch called here and said he was Buck Owens, so I just hung up on him.'"
Fortunately, Owens called back, which led to Ball's playing on a number of sessions with the Buckaroos, including the those that yielded hits such as "Got You on My Mind Again," "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass," and "Big in Vegas."
Putting his foot in as many musical doors as possible, Ball eventually landed session work with Gram Parsons' short-lived International Submarine Band (reuniting him with old compadre John Corneil), thus laying the groundwork for future work with Parsons, most notably on Sweetheart of the Rodeo and the Flying Burrito Brothers' Burrito Deluxe album. Ball's piano-playing was becoming so renowned, calls began coming in from the unlikeliest of quarters.
"Phil Ochs did some country tunes; it was called Phil Ochs' Greatest Hits, and he had an Elvis-type suit on the cover," explains Ball. "He wanted me to put the band together with the guy that did the arrangements for the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album. We lined up Don Rich on fiddle, Jimmy Bryant on guitar, J.D. Maness on pedal steel, and Jerry Wiggins on drums for it. I was working with Michael Nesmith, Gram, the Byrds, Buck, all at about the same time. The song, "Don't Bogart That Joint My Friend' by the Brotherhood of Man? That's me playing piano on that."
Surprisingly enough, being on the cusp of the country-rock movement left Ball rather unfazed.
"I was with the Byrds one day when Roger McGuinn was singing this song about Ralph Emery, "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man,'" he remembers, "and he explained how Emery got all upset back in Nashville about them. Me, I was just caught up in the fun of doing all this stuff. It was a real creative time for me. I knew that the way they made their records, took their time, that they were learning as they went along, and I was glad that they were into the music that I was already a fan of and knew how to play.
"Gram Parsons was very outgoing, a very easygoing kind of guy," continues Ball. "He was very committed to trying to bring this kind of stuff, country music, to a wider audience and younger people. Just a few weeks before he passed away, he wanted me to begin working on a new album. I arranged to take off, go back to California, but I didn't hear from him for about two weeks. I tried to call him and nobody answered, and then I heard on the news that he had passed away."
By 1969, things were being shaken up at Capitol Records, and word came down that Ball was being transferred to Nashville. Reluctantly, he packed his bags and headed east again. He took his place as a house producer alongside such heavy hitters as Billy Sherrill and Larry Butler, and was soon assigned to Freddie Hart, on the heels of Hart's hit, "Easy Lovin'." It was a bit of a test, producing an album by a singer who had just had a monster hit, but Ball's session yielded "My Hangup Is You," which occupied the No.1 slot on the country charts for six weeks. The partnership yielded two more No.1 hits.
While in Nashville, Ball struck up a partnership with songwriting legend Harlan Howard -- having made his acquaintance through Buck Owens -- and spent much of his time playing around town and doing independent session work for Atlantic. Through Howard, Ball eventually met up with Johnny Cash, though it was two years later, in 1977, that Ball left Capitol and began a partnership with the legendary Man in Black that endured a full 20 years of road and studio work.
Ball produced Cash's landmark 1977 LP Rockabilly Blues, the last such production chore he would assume. Ball stuck by the singer until Cash's decision to retire from the road in 1997 due to the debilitating effects of Shy-Drager syndrome. Cash had begun to slip during the last six or so months that they toured together, and the diagnosis of the rare neuromuscular disorder made it impossible for him to keep up the pace he had labored under for decades.
"I was touring with Johnny Cash, doing shows, but he was starting to wind down," Ball relates. "We had a meeting about six months before and decided we'd work a couple more years, pay some bills, and then he'd be in good shape when he retired. But he just couldn't last that long."
It was Ball's partnership with Cash, actually, that led his career in another direction entirely when film director Peter Bogdanovich expressed interest in using "I Don't Think I Can Take You Back Again" for his lightweight 1981 comedy, They All Laughed. The director needed a country band, and convinced Ball into the production. The muse wrapped itself around him, and Ball began taking acting classes; almost immediately, he found himself in a TV movie with Cash and Brenda Vaccaro, the underrated The Pride of Jesse Hallum. The two appeared together again in 1983's fact-based Murder in Coweta County, starring Andy Griffith as a businessman convinced he's gotten away with murder and Cash as the lawman determined to get him. With music on the back burner and acting taking the fore, Ball moved back to California in 1986 to pursue more movie roles.
"By this time, my songwriting career was in the pits because I was taking acting classes and concentrating on that," he says. "I mean, I could go around L.A. and play, but there was very little support for the kind of music I wanted to do, not like there is here, anyway. By that time, I'd gotten older, too, and that's a very youth-oriented culture out there, as far as music goes."
He continued acting, taking a role on the long-running daytime drama The Young and the Restless, and later teamed up with Bogdanovich again for a feature role in 1988's Texasville. He shared the screen with Samantha Mathis and River Phoenix (as well as Sandra Bullock, K.T. Oslin, Trisha Yearwood, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Pam Tillis) in 1993's The Thing Called Love, and then wrapped up his acting career with The Naked City: A Killer Christmas, in which he played an evil Santa Claus pursued by lawman Scott Glenn.
Events in L.A. conspired against Ball in the months before he decided to move to Austin: Cash was forced to retire; his mother passed away; his old friend, steel player Dick Stubbs, died; and another old friend from Mississippi died from an aneurysm. Those travails, along with the fact that the smog-and-grime milieu of Southern California had become too much to endure, prompted Ball to migrate to Branson, Missouri, for a short spell. He held down a stint opening for Roy Clark, but the Branson environment left a lot to be desired.
"I was working in this dumb show," he recalls, "and they didn't want to let me off to go do this Johnny Cash tribute show in New York, so I just had to tell them to find somebody else to open for Roy Clark and quit -- that was their attitude. It's just part of the weirdness of that place. It's not a place that I need to be."
Longtime acquaintance Dale Watson wore Ball down and eventually convinced him to take the plunge and move to Austin. He's found no lack of things to keep him busy since, playing regular gigs in bars around town, recording with the Hollisters, and exploring the Austin way of life.
"I can relax here," Ball notes. "I couldn't relax those last few years I was in L.A. It was just too much of a daily struggle to even get out of the house, and to feel like trying to accomplish something. Everything was so diffuse, like, "What can I really possibly hope to accomplish here?' I just wish I'd have come here before all the rest of them did, so people don't think I'm one of them too!"
Them, of course, would be the horde of Golden Staters descending on Austin during the recent techno-boom.
"I'd been contemplating this move for several years," Ball continues. "Once, I told Doug Sahm I was thinking about moving and he just said, "You might as well, everyone else is.'"
Ball's time to relax and play Central Texas beer joints may be soon interrupted, though, as the possibility of a tour of Japan and Australia with the Flying Burrito Brothers may unfold in the very near future. Which isn't surprising in the least; Ball can unreel stories that would make your jaw drop. Stories such as when he was working on the song "Far Behind" with Jason & the Scorchers, and guitarist James Burton just happened to drop by the studio to show some licks to Scorchers' guitarist Werner Hodges. Stories like when Burton offered Ball a slot in Elvis' Vegas show band, and he declined because he'd just started producing with Capitol. Stories like playing piano in a hotel room upstairs from Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Killer pounding on the ceiling and shouting, "Here I am tryin' to make love to my wife, and I cain't because I hear me playing upstairs!" Naturally, Lewis came up and the two played for hours. The stories go on and on and on.
It's early on a Friday night at the Saxon Pub, and Ball is holding court -- the happy-hour slot. The magic he works on his Kurzweil digital piano echoes Lewis, Moon Mullican, Bill Black, Charlie Rich, Floyd Kramer, and a half-dozen other players -- without mimicking any one of them. It's a simmering, rolling, honky-tonk metier that flows like water and is as natural and unforced as putting on a shirt. Bass player Bill Campbell perches stoically on a stool and supplies the bottom, while drummer Mark Horn watches and follows. A middle-aged man in the audience has a one-on-one with Ball, requesting songs that show nearly as full a knowledge of country music as Ball himself. The sparse, early-evening crowd gives its rapt attention and shows its appreciation for Ball's unassuming expertise, and behind the keyboard, Ball seems utterly relaxed and in his element.
"I guess everywhere I've been and everything I've done has been what I was supposed to do, to lead me up to being here right now," he says. "The time wasn't right for me to be here any sooner. Every little complication that I've managed to overcome, I needed for my growth. Because I'm hardheaded, and I had all these lessons I needed to learn to get to a point of peacefulness and trust and gratitude.
"So, now I'm just looking forward to whatever's gonna happen next, and it's good to feel this way. I didn't feel this way my whole life; it's just been the last two or three years that I've had this feeling of purpose. I guess that's my big philosophical statement for the day."