Spangles and High Heels
Long, Tall Marcia Ball
"I got $75, who'll give a hunnert?" bawls the auctioneer, holding up a purple-and-gold LSU golf-club cover on a small tent stage piled with propane gas grills, ice chests, gardening tools, camping equipment, home décor, outdoor swings, and Adirondack chairs. "Seventy-five once! Seventy-five twice! Sold!
"To Jude Guidry for $75!"
The auction tent is doing big business at the Fireman's Fair in Thibodaux, La., this small-town slice of Americana on Bayou Lafourche. The florid names of the carnival rides lure kids and kids-at-heart as much as the games on the midway: Ride the Golden Dragon; brave the Inverter. Toss a penny in the bottle, and win an Avril Lavigne poster. Step right up, folks -- a quarter a ball, three for 50 cents, and eight balls for $1. No Leaning on the Counter.
Amid the carnival smells -- popcorn, cotton candy -- a cast-iron pot of reddening crawfish bubbles by the food court. Gumbo, hot dogs, a barbecue sandwich, maybe some "freedom fries," a curious sentiment in these French-blooded parts where names tell the story: Robichaux, Bourgeois, Hebert, Jeansonne, Broussard. In this deeply Cajun portion of Southern Louisiana, everybody knows everyone.
Behind the stage, fair headliner Marcia Ball drives up in a long, white car. She opens the door, swings one long leg out, and is immediately mobbed by a group of well-wishers. They're not just fans, either -- it's a family reunion. Ball's mother, brothers, aunts, nieces, in-laws, and "dozens of cousins" all greet the singer.
In her fourth decade as an entertainer, Marcia Ball has riches beyond money to show for her career. There are her nine albums, hundreds of thousands of miles of touring, and enough Grammy nominations and Handy Awards to make a mother proud. With a new disc, So Many Rivers, currently in stores, Austin's piano queen has put in enough work for several lifetimes, and if her present pace is any indication, she's got many miles to log. Better still, she's having -- pardon the pun -- a ball.
"I am blessed, and I am grateful," beams Ball. "Good kids, good husband, nice life. It's been grand. And I don't know what to attribute that to. I don't regret not having 'more' success. I wouldn't want to be anyone else."
"May I say," explains Ball, standing at her kitchen counter slicing avocado for a green salad, "that I never named a band. Because why would I name a band 'Chicken Lips'?"
Inside her comfortable stone house near Barton Springs in South Austin, a confluence of art and knickknacks adorns the walls and shelves in and around the kitchen and dining area. It is husband Gordon Fowler's paintings, however, scattered hither and yon, that win the eye's gaze. His work bears the instantly recognizable touch of a professional.
Over 6 feet tall in heels, "Her Tallness," as Ball is affectionately called on her Web site (www.marciaball.com), is spending a few days off the road in a summer packed with dates promoting her new album. The touring will take her to Europe at least twice before 2003 is out, she and her band having been there twice this year already.
The knife she holds cuts easily through cold chicken breast. A shock of white hair bursts out of her otherwise dark, sleek hair. She's oh so slender, but carries herself with a refinement that's in no way intimidating, especially to her dog Sonny Boy Williamson. The Australian shepherd is Ball's most devoted subject, especially when food's involved.
"Except for the Misery Brothers!" she pauses, continuing her discourse on band names, "which was a joke. I did name them."
Whatever the origin of the band's name, playing in Chicken Lips prepared Ball for "that fateful night" when she walked into the One Knite and found Dub & the Dusters onstage. The young singer talked her way into sitting in with the band, which included a college student named Bobby Earl Smith.
"I sang 'Me and Bobby McGee,'" recalls Ball, and it was a most auspicious performance. Three weeks later, she and Smith had a new band: Freda & the Firedogs.
That was 1973, and the cloud of cosmic dust kicked up by the insurgent folkies in cowboy hats soon settled onto a scene alternately called progressive country and redneck rock. With albums by Michael Murphey, Rusty Wier, Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, Doug Sahm, and Billy Joe Shaver all appearing at the same time that year, there was no question cosmic cowboys were the new sheriffs in town.
The Firedogs weren't so much cosmic as they were a bell-bottomed bag of folk, folk blues, country blues, country rock, and rock. In those days, South Lamar was bookended by the Broken Spoke on the edge of town at Ben White and the Split Rail at Riverside, where fast-food restaurants sit today. The Firedogs' legend was born just in time to be forever associated with progressive country.
"I thought we had it made the night we were standing behind the Broken Spoke about to play," recalls Ball of the Firedogs' big moment. "We'd finally made it to the Spoke."
The legend died July 4, 1974, at Willie's Picnic in Bryan. An ill-fated attempt by Jerry Wexler to record the Firedogs for Atlantic went awry over contracts (see Nowhere But Texas). After the Firedogs recording fiasco, Ball joined a traditional country band called the Bronco Brothers.
"Playing country music for country people wasn't what I hoped it would be," admits the singer 30 years later. "They wanted a jukebox. They didn't applaud; they wanted to dance; they wanted Top 40. I played obscure traditional and electric stuff. It wasn't as musically or personally satisfying to be in that band. And I wasn't the star. I was the chick singer."
The Bronco Brothers were dispatched, and Ball formed the Misery Brothers. Gigs were played around town because only bands like Alvin Crow, Asleep at the Wheel, and Jerry Jeff Walker toured. Ball had another reason for wanting to play close to home, one she hadn't shared with her new band: She was pregnant.
She gave birth to son Luke in 1975, performed on Austin City Limits and at the Broken Spoke, was a top draw at the Soap Creek Saloon, and was managed by Soap Creek's Carlyne Majer. Ball also recorded a single that sang volumes about her developing style. One side featured Patsy Montana's "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart," the first song by a woman to sell a million copies on the country charts. It was backed with Irma Thomas' hanky-waving hallmark, "Done Got Over."
Ball's choice of music was a bellwether. Patsy Montana had pioneered country music, but the little-known song from New Orleans' R&B singer Irma Thomas was most unexpected, even for a B-side.
"[The future] wasn't going to be country for me," insists Ball, paying all due respect to the venerable genre. "It was going to be R&B, New Orleans style. I've always loved the boogie-woogie/Little Richard stuff and knew what it did to audiences.
"I discovered that the older you get in the blues, the more revered you are. And I like the clothes better. I didn't want the cowboy shirts; I wanted spangles and high heels."
The cowboy mystique hung on Ball like a too-short Nudie suit. Capitol Records signed her and released the country-flavored Circuit Queen in 1978, but her heart wasn't in singing about rodeos and big rivers. Already, Ball was polishing her Professor Longhair and working the boogie-woogie sound she'd always loved into her songwriting.
Growing Up Cajun
The harmonious weave of both country and Bayou boogie in Ball's repertoire was natural given her "dual citizenship." In 1949, when Millard and Hope Mouton of Vinton, La., were expecting their second child, the closest hospital was in Orange, Texas, just over the Sabine River and across the state line. Marcia Mouton was born Texan by circumstance and grew up Louisianan by luck.
The Moutons were musical by heritage. Her grandfather founded the Breaux Bridge town band, her grandmother played piano, and her father played baritone sax in the Vinton town band. Marcia's fascination with ivory 88s came naturally at an early age.
"There were players in the house, players in the living room," motions the pianist, "all playing to get out of housework. Playing to best my cousin, playing for fun. As far back as I can remember hearing boogie-woogie, I liked it."
Hope Mouton, whose sisters were named Faith, Love, and Charity, kept a tight rein on the house; Marcia observed a bedtime curfew until she went away to college. It was a quiet childhood; even with the uneasy rumblings of the civil rights movement, Ball recalls a coexistence not understood by those outside the South.
Summer brought freedom in the form of a job as a lifeguard at the local pool. "I'd open the pool at 8am, put James Brown's Live at the Apollo on the stereo, and fall in the water." It was a chance encounter with a friend of the family that liberated young Marcia Mouton for good.
The friend was a folksinger from Houston, who also taught kindergarten. Without her guitar handy, she played tunes on the Mouton's piano that were nothing like the 78s Ball grew up hearing or the 45s her older brother wouldn't let her touch. When she heard "Puff the Magic Dragon," that was it.
"I wanted a guitar so badly," she laughs. "And finally got one when I was about 13."
The guitar moved with Ball to Baton Rouge when she was 17. A hip college roommate and the youth movement of the times expanded her world experience, as did joining a band. A broken heart inspired her first songwriting.
"I dropped out of school and fell in with the wrong crowd -- musicians and yippies," recounts Ball. "Joined a band named Gum."
A year later, Gum's bubble burst. One player moved to San Francisco, another to Austin. Marcia married her sweetheart Bob Ball in the spring of 1969, traveled the country in a VW camper, and in 1970 relocated to Austin.
"There are several turns I didn't take," says Marcia about her somewhat arbitrary choice of Texas. "I sometimes wish I'd gone to USL in Lafayette -- I might have stayed in school longer. Then I would have been there for the rebirth of French and Louisiana culture. In my dream, I'd still be playing music, but I'd be singing in French and playing accordion."
Ball's dreams did not presage her extreme good fortune in jumping genres. She's never considered herself avant-garde, even when Freda & the Firedogs were redneck royalty, and she was the most prominent female vocalist in Seventies Austin.
Dreams Come True
"I've fallen into a lot of 'holes' of timing," she laughs. "When I lived in Baton Rouge, Slim Harpo was right across the river -- living there. I moved here after Janis was here and gone. Moved to Texas during the Louisiana renaissance and Professor Longhair's career was being revived."
That said, at the end of the Seventies, Marcia Ball was in the right place at the time. Locally, no one else was doing New Orleans-style R&B in the late Seventies, and even fewer were prepared for the cowboy's sweetheart to trade her Stetson for Mardi Gras beads.
"There's nothing country on Soulful Dress," points out Ball's longtime bassist Don Bennett (see sidebar, p.52) of his employer's first solo recording after Circuit Queen. "In fact, that was always the first question when anyone auditioned back then. 'Is she still playing country music?'"
If 1983's Soulful Dress didn't answer that question, Hot Tamale Baby in 1986 and Gatorhythms in 1989 did. So did Dreams Come True, the critically praised "girl group" album Ball cut with Lou Ann Barton and Angela Strehli and released in 1990.
The life on the road Ball began in earnest in the Eighties stepped up in the Nineties, as she took more frequent trips to Europe and Scandinavia. She became a regular at New Orleans' annual Jazz & Heritage Festival and on the festival circuit in general. She also became serious about community: Ball continues to be a featured performer at countless benefits and fundraisers between Texas and Louisiana.
Blue House and Let Me Play With Your Poodle were recorded in 1994 and 1997 respectively, but in 1998, Ball tried the girl group again. This time, she was singing with another formidable voice, Tracy Nelson, as well as Irma Thomas. Sing It! was as acclaimed as Dreams Come True, and in Ball's own way, it was payback to Thomas for being a musical guiding light.
Around this time, Ball upped her professional profile another notch by becoming a featured performer on Delbert McClinton's annual blues cruise in the Caribbean.
"She's a staple on the ship," affirms McClinton, "because she's so damn good."
McClinton doesn't just toss the words out, either. He's a contemporary who speaks from five decades of experience on the same honky-tonk circuit and with the same long climb to career success.
"Think of a cruise," explains McClinton, "a group of unconnected people with their separate lives, and some of them come aboard thinking, 'Something wonderful's gonna happen.' My cruise is seven days in the Caribbean where you get to drink too much, eat too much, have too much fun. People get to hang out with the musicians and discover that they're regular people. Marcia's one they all wanna meet and talk with."
So Many Rivers producer Stephen Bruton says it's easy to cruise with Ball in the studio.
"I knew if I got the right cast assembled in the studio, it would be really special," he offers. "It's my job to turn the facets so you see and hear a different side of Marcia.
"Not only does she have chops and fire, she gets up there and hits it. She aims for the back wall, every night, tries her very best all the time, and there's not a person in the world that can't take their hat off to that."
Delbert McClinton does just that.
"Marcia's a survivor," he emphasizes. "There's so many people that come and go in this business. It's a hard life, and to stay with it, you've got to be committed. You don't just say you're committed; you are committed.
"You can't live without it, it's your life. No matter how bad you may feel one night, you don't say, 'I don't wanna do thisí' because you gotta. That's the world where Marcia lives."
"Seventy-five going once! Seventy-five going twice! Sold! To Mr. Bobby Robichaux for $75!"
The winner of a lamp struts to the auctioneer as the audience cheers, and it's on to the next item, a mobile tool chest.
"I got a $100 bid here, looking for $125. Who'll gimme $125? One hunnert-twenty-five in the back! One hunnert-twenty-five, looking for $150. Who's got $150? I got $150!"
Golden sun melts into the Louisiana horizon as Ball strides out to her piano. Standing by the microphone as Don Bennett introduces "long, tall Marcia Ball," the singer smiles as the crowd whoops and claps in recognition and delight. Fans Johnny Carroll and Elizabeth Webb, at the front of the stage, have been at 10 of her past 11 shows and lead the cheering as she glides from old favorites to new offerings.
Through their eyes, this is a freeze-frame moment for Ball, an illustration of how far she's come, and it paints a portrait of dogged persistence and deeply felt conviction about giving back as much as you get. The long haul from sitting at the One Knite to headlining for thousands qualifies as success by any definition.
It's also a good audience for So Many Rivers, her ninth solo recording. Ball only performs a few of its 14 tracks, but "Honeypie" and "Foreclose on the House of Love" are received as well as old favorites like "Big Shot" and "Hot Tamale Baby." Ball's famous second-line syncopation is right at home in this part of the Pelican State.
And Rivers is off to a swimming start, selling 15% more than Ball's last prize for Alligator Records, 2001's Presumed Innocent. Remember, reminds Ball, this is a market that's 20% smaller than it was two years ago. It doesn't daunt Marcia Ball; it's a challenge.
"We're going to go out and sell this sucker," proclaims the singer. "We're gonna play those songs 60 times this summer in 60 different places. With the hard work of the guys at Alligator, lots of press and radio interviews, and the continued existence of blues societies with their newsletters and reviews that promote them to their fan base. That's how we sell a record. And playing festivals."
A handsome couple with deeply tanned skin and careworn hands that betray a life of hard work jumps up to dance every song. Oblivious to the others around them, they sway to the sounds coming from the stage.
"Please kiss me," sings Marcia Ball, so the man leans over, suavely dips his partner, and kisses his partner long and deep.