Profile of a Musician–Interview with Marcia Ball

Profile of a Musician–Interview with Marcia Ball

By Dan Klefstad

By Dan Klefstad

WNIJ Radio

One of the many musicians at this year’s On The Waterfront Festival is singer-piano player Marcia Ball. Recently, she spoke with WNIJ’s Dan Klefstad, host of the Saturday Blues.

DK: I see your new CD, Presumed Innocent, took the Number One spot on the Living Blues national radio chart. Congratulations. How does it feel to be working with Alligator Records now?

MB: It feels great. They’re putting everything they have behind me and the record. I feel very special and very happy to work with them.

DK: The song that gets the most response from my listeners is “Thibodaux, Louisiana.”

MB: Yeah. You know, that’s a surprising phenomenon, and I’m real glad about it. That song almost didn’t make it to the record. We kept foolin’ with it and adding and taking away. Then the guys went and put that intro on it—and they wouldn’t even let me hear that for a couple of days. Then I thought [Alligator Records President] Bruce [Iglauer] wouldn’t like it, and he had the option to dump one song. But everybody loves it.

DK: “Thibodaux” was written by Doyle Brahmall, who co-produced your CD. Doyle also wrote songs for Stevie Ray Vaughan. Did he write that song specifically for you?

MB: No, he wrote that song years and years ago. He’s been trying to get me to do it for a long time. My theory is that’s why he produced the record (laughs). I don’t remember the song from before. I know he played it for me once… I guess I have a hard head about Louisiana songs. I write a lot of them myself, so I figured why should I listen to somebody else’s, unless it’s Allen Toussaint or a standard, a classic.

DK: You’re from the Louisiana side of the Texas/Louisiana border. In that place, in the time you were growing up, there was a wide variety of music being made. Everything from zydeco to swamp pop to New Orleans R & B. It must have been an exciting place.

MB: We had a little bit of everything that was happening from New Orleans to Houston. Big soul bands with horn sections like Cookie and the Cupcakes, the Orange Playboys and the Hackberry Ramblers playing Cajun. There was Clifton [Chenier] and Lonnie Brooks. Because there were so many clubs on our side of the state line, there was music as soon as you were old enough to sneak in, which I did.

DK: Let’s talk about your hometown for the last 30 years—Austin, Texas. When you arrived there, the music scene was just beginning to take off. It began with country music.

MB: Yeah, I moved there in 1970. There was a radio station there called KOKE-FM that had a format that played Commander Cody, Asleep At The Wheel and Tracy Nelson. And they interspersed it with the real thing—country music by George Jones and Merle Haggard. Old stuff. And bands formed up in Austin that sounded like that. My first band, Freda and the Firedogs, played classic country music. We were not what they ultimately called “progressive country.” I mean, we really were a throwback. But we all had long hair. All that happened around ’71. Then Willie [Nelson] moved back to Austin, Asleep At The Wheel moved to town, and it became a real hot scene.

DK: Who were some of the people you played with?

MB: Doug Sahm. He was very instrumental in that scene. He was the best I’ve ever seen at being able to tread that swamp pop/Country-Western swing line. One night he could play a full-blown soul review, and then the next night, play fiddle and do nothing but Country and Western swing. So he was very important in forming that loose format that became the “Austin sound.”

DK: Soon, however, the sound that leaned toward country changed to blues.

MB: Yeah. At this point, country music was still getting all the press. But soon, the Vaughan brothers arrived. And Denny Freeman, Derek O’Brien and the Cobras, Angela Strehli and Lou Ann Barton. They played clubs like the One Night and Alexander’s. Antone’s opened up in ’75, and that gave everybody a home base, and that’s when the blues took off.

DK: And you moved right into that.

MB: I did. After my country band broke up, I was just all over the map. And it was fun. I could play a Charlie Parker song and then a Johnny Cash song, and then one by Smokey Robinson. The crowd didn’t care. And that proved my theory that people don’t need to be force-fed one kind of music. They really do like all kinds of music IF they can hear it.

DK: Do you think there’s something about Austin that makes it easier to accept all these different styles?

MB: My attraction to Austin—the reason I stopped there and didn’t continue on to San Francisco like I planned—was the high level of appreciation for art, for music, for writing. I think it has to do with the university [of Texas] being probably the biggest industry there for a long time. And that makes it a big version of Ann Arbor, Mich. or Berkeley, Calif. or Boulder, Colo. And those are towns where people have a broad mind.

DK: About a year ago, I interviewed Irma Thomas, and she talked about the time she recorded Sing It! with you and Tracy Nelson. She talked about what a wonderful experience it was, but she had one disappointment. And that was after the three of you recorded this great album and went on tour, all the music press wanted to talk about was—”

MB: “Give us the dirt.”

DK: Right.

MB: And we couldn’t come up with any. You know, there are always questions you get when three women work together. Why should they ask us that when they didn’t ask Denny Freeman and Derek O’Brien and Stevie Ray Vaughan if they got along together? Or Doyle and Stevie.

MB: Why should they presume we are going to have a cat fight? And it’s also true that there’s no particular reason we should all get along, either. It happens we did, and still do. But it’s not necessary to think that three women who sing the blues have any more in common than three guys who are mechanical engineers.

DK: Labor Day weekend marks the beginning of the end of the summer festival season. What are your plans after that?

MB: Well, we’ll go straight into the fall festival season (laughs). Fall is when the South holds a lot of festivals, you know, when the weather gets nice. We’re playing the King Biscuit Festival in Helena, Ark., the first weekend in October. There’s a festival in New Orleans that same weekend, after that something in Mississippi. So there’s a lot waiting for us down below the oatmeal-grits line. By December, things slow down, and that’s when I’ll go back to Austin.

Marcia Ball is on the Left Bank Stage, Sunday night at 7:15. Dan Klefstad hosts the Saturday Blues from noon to 3 p.m. on 89.5 FM (WNIJ).

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