Marcia Ball's Cheers

Searching for an appropriate way to sum up the essence of the Soap Creek Saloon, Marcia Ball likens it to the fictional Boston bar where everybody knows your name.

"Soap Creek was kind of like my Cheers," says the longtime Austin pianist, singer, and bandleader. "I knew I could go there and I'd know the bartender, the doorman, the regulars, everyone."

Instead of Carla, Norm, and Cliffie, Soap Creek was populated by an assortment of wild 'n' wooly Texas characters. (Surely, there was at least one Woody.) Lots of "hippies with cowboy boots," Ball remembers, citing one fan in particular whose Afro was so big his cowboy hat kept falling off. Then there was the bartender's dog Blue, as symbolic of Soap Creek as cigar-store Indian Tecumseh was to Cheers.

"James White from the Broken Spoke told me later he couldn't get over how that dog had the run of the place," Ball laughs.

The club's character was equally defined by its remote location. Ball remembers how the unpaved road leading to Soap Creek would "turn to snot" whenever it rained, and chuckles even today at owner George Majewski's ongoing crusade to convince then-Travis County Commissioner Ann Richards to shell out for some improvements. Even its eventual fate mirrors what happened to Austin at large.

"We felt like it was way the heck out of town," notes Ball. "Now it's in the heart of West Lake."

Ball, who headed up chug-a-lug R&B outfit Freda & the Firedogs in those days, played the club at least twice a month for years, but says it was other people's gigs that stand out the most in her mind. Her list of favorites is a familiar one: Doug Sahm, Alvin Crow, Delbert McClinton, Freddy Fender, the Cobras, and visiting Louisiana royalty Professor Longhair and the Meters. One especially fruitful night brought the Rhythm Rockers down from Michigan and introduced Austin to saxophonist Mark Kazanoff, guitarist Ronnie Earl, and bassist Sarah Brown.

"It was a great scene," Ball says. "Austin in the early Seventies was a very mellow place."

Though the physical Soap Creek is long gone, taking with it that idyllic image of carefree hippies smoking pot and drinking Pearl, Ball is the first to point out that those days haven't entirely vanished.

"My gigs are still the same way," she smiles.

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