Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Cajun influence

Marcia Ballís music is born on the bayou and goes straight to the heart

Express Staff Writer

Marcia Ball “is just plain fun,” said Kristine Bretall, Performing Arts Director for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts.
Courtesy photo by Mary Keating Bruton

    In the old days of a two-newspaper Houston, I relished mopping the floor with the sweat of my competition. But sometimes, when I needed a break from the mayhem and murders implicit in a weekend covering the police beat, I would turn my antagonist into an accomplice by calling a musical truce.
    That meant one of us buying the other a six-pack, jumping in one or the others’ company cars and merging our crime coverage from a parking lot at Rockefellers on Washington Avenue with the scanner down low and the windows lower so we could hear both the music being played inside and enough radio traffic to get where we needed to in order to keep our jobs.
    It was on one of these evenings back in the early 1990s that I was introduced to Marcia Ball.
    We didn’t have to be able to see her to feel her influence through the walls of that juke joint with such energy I would swear the gravel was popping in the driveway like hushpuppies do in hot grease. And when she mellowed to a melancholy moment, tears formed appropriately in time.
    The Austin-based Cajun has put a lot of those moments into audiences coast to coast, and she’ll be leaving an impression here when she performs at the nexStage Theater in Ketchum on Saturday, Feb. 22, at 6:30 p.m. as a guest of Sun Valley Center for the Arts.
    Ball recently got off a stint on the singer-studded Sandy Beaches cruise in Hawaii to 2 inches of snow in New York, which to many performers would pose a threat to their pipes.
    “I basically have this croaky voice, so I can get away with quite a bit,” she rasped in a buttery drawl during a recent phone interview.
    It’s hard to imagine that voice in a 5-year-old, but that’s when Ball’s piano playing began, playing old Tin Pan Alley tunes from her grandmother’s collection at her home in the little town of Vinton, La. Born into a family of piano players in Texas, and being so close to New Orleans, Ball was exposed to lots of great music, but soul captured her back in 1962 when she witnessed Irma Thomas, the most spirited performance she had ever seen.
    As she’s said in countless interviews since, “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, Ball attended Louisiana State University, where she played some of her very first gigs with a blues-based rock band called Gum.
    Ball fell in love with Austin, Texas, after her car broke down there in 1970 and she found she’d landed in a musical mecca that encouraged her creativity. Dabbling with different styles, once she refocused on the piano players from New Orleans—namely Professor Longhair—she knew she’d found her direction.
    It’s no wonder that today she sits as the winner of nine Blues Music Awards—including five for Best Piano Player of the Year, and travels with a reputation of raising roofs and tearing down walls with her emotional brand of New Orleans boogie, roadhouse blues and passionate ballads.
    As USA Today wrote of Ball, she’s “a sensational, saucy singer and superb pianist … where Texas stomp-rock and Louisiana blues-swamp meet.”
    Ball says her enthusiasm has never waned, because “if you can’t have fun doing this, there is no help. It feeds my soul.”
    Traveling so much has limited her time “humming and writing and being locked away with my piano making songs,” but she is plotting a new release in the spring.
    “I’ve got some ideas. I need a song that is topical or important to me. Once I feel like I have that under my belt, then I can write the rest of it.”
      She’s also ready to inspire the next wave of women.
      “I’m ready for it, come on. Take over. I’m happy where I am, but I’m really excited about the wonderful young singers and players among us.”
    Using her music, in part, as a crusade, her last album was about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. Of that album, “Roadside Attractions,” she said it was the album she was born to make.
      She said she relies on “a batch of circumstances” to shape her direction.
      “I do songs that make me think about situations, but I always remember what Bill Campbell (a band member) said to me a while ago. He said, ‘Slinky, if you can make them dance, money will become a space problem.’ My mission is to make people dance.”
    And that’s largely how her shows are guided.
    “We just start comfortable,” she said. “If they are there, we presume they have an inkling of what we are like. We just try to draw them in and hold on.”

Have a ‘Ball’
When: Saturday, Feb. 22, 6:30 p.m.
Where: nexStage Theatre in Ketchum.
Tickets: $50 for Sun Valley Center for the Arts members, $60 for non-members.
How: Go to or call 726-9491.


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