Marcia Ball Knows the Blues, Loves the Blues and Lives the Blues
At 64, Marcia Ball could well be considered the queen of Texas blues. No other female performer has captured the transcendent mixture of swampy, New Orleans style piano blues and the more acoustic form exemplified by the likes of Lightnin' Hopkins better than Ball.
Over a career that has spanned nearly half a century, Marcia Ball has consistently released stellar album after stellar album. Her most recent effort was 2011's Roadside Attractions, a Grammy nominated tour de force that many critics have labeled as her best release ever. Speaking from her home in Austin and in anticipation of tonight's show at the Kessler Theater, Ball was kind enough to talk with DC9 about the evolution of the blues and why it's important to keep the blues alive.
How long have you lived in Austin?
You were born in Orange, Texas. Where the hell is that?
Orange is down is Southeast Texas by the Louisiana state line. It's close to Beaumont and Port Arthur.
How many people live there?
Orange is pretty big, but I am actually from Louisiana. There was just no hospital in my hometown, so that's how I got born in Orange. My hometown only has about 3000 people in it.
What did you do for fun?
Mainly for fun I played out in the yard. When I was 17 and graduated from high school I went to LSU.
Two of the many labels your music has been given are swamp Blues and Texas blues. Are there legitimate differences between these sub-genres of the blues?
Well, they are all different. There is a difference in every category that you mentioned. A lot of what I do is because I play the piano. It's based on a New Orleans style of rhythm and blues, a style based on Fats Domino and Professor Longhair. There is a certain influence of the Cajun accordionist Clifton Chenier.
The blues seems to transcend many musical genres. Does it evolve and is it important to keep blues music relevant?
It definitely has evolved. There are so many genres of the blues. You have Memphis blues and Kansas City swing and jump blues and boogie-woogie. There are just so many types of the blues. But yet they are all the blues. I don't think you can say there is only one form of country music. There are really so many.
But the blues is considered the only true American music.
That's what they say and that could be. It definitely came from the Mississippi delta. It also grew out of the African rhythms and experiences.
One blues great, Bobby Bland, recently passed away. There doesn't appear to be any great blues artists entering the scene to replace these legendary figures.
People are always looking for the next big thing and in Austin we have this fellow named Gary Clark, Jr. It's hard to say whether the person who is getting the most attention is the truest to the blues or whether it is people who are striving away at little clubs in Austin. We have a house band at a place called the Legendary White Swan. They are not really drawing a big old crowd. It's hard to say whether the people getting the most attention are the true players of the blues, the standard bearers. They might just be the most publicized.
You play Antone's in Austin quite often. Is that the best venue in Texas?
It's one of half a dozen of my favorite clubs. It's one of the longest lived clubs.
You come to Dallas often as well. You've played at the Granada Theater and now you are playing the Kessler Theater. Have you experiences here been positive?
Oh yes, always. It always has been. We have played there so many times over the years. I think there used to be a place called Whiskey River. The Granada and the Kessler both have been really fun gigs for us. I appreciate that they both book us and then ask us back.
Why do you think Austin has that reputation as the center of Texas music?
I don't know. Austin has been that way since the first time I got here in 1970. In the late '60s and early '70s, the university attracted a lot of people who happened to be musicians. More musicians came because those other musicians were already here. It was a liberal place. It wasn't a big city and it was inexpensive to live here. There were writers here as well as musicians and teachers. It was an attractive place to be. Dallas was already a big city. It wasn't built around a university. It didn't have that feel about it. Austin just had a leg up on creativity.
Austin has changed so much.
Yes, it has. But everyone says that the traffic is worse than where they came from, but that's not true. I promise you. People from Dallas like to say that, but that's not true.
You were once in a psychedelic rock band called Gum. Do you still keep up with those guys?
Yes I do as a matter of fact.
Is there any recorded evidence of this band?
No, there is not. We were in existence before everybody in the world knew of any of this. There wasn't recorded evidence of anything, none of my earliest bands. Some of that is a blessing.
On your albums, you always strike a balance between originals and cover material. Do you have a formula or do you just pick the best songs?
That's what I think that you just pick the best songs. This last record [Roadside Attractions], I wrote or co-wrote all of the songs. We decided to go after that particular goal. But for the most part, I usually just pick the best songs I can get. I want to have a record that has a message to it. I want songs that say something. I want songs that I can deliver with sincerity.
What was the message behind Roadside Attractions?
There are two actually. Part of it is that I have been everywhere. The other part is about coming home. That was an easy album to record. The way to judge that is that we do many of those songs every night at our gigs. They are songs that we enjoy doing and I think they will stand the test of time.
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