Forty Years of Roadside Attractions - Marcia Ball has earned five Grammy nominations for hybrid country, Cajun, blues and rock

Forty Years of Roadside Attractions - Marcia Ball has earned five Grammy nominations for hybrid country, Cajun, blues and rock

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From: Buddy - The Original Texas Music Magazine
December 2012

Photo by Ron Mckeown

Forty Years of Roadside Attractions

By Tom Geddie

Marcia Ball has earned five Grammy nominations for hybrid country, Cajun, blues and rock.

Marcia Ball makes American music. Which isn’t a bit surprising considering that she grew up in South Texas and Western Louisiana. 

Growing up influenced by the likes of Irma Thomas, Professor Longhair, and regional artists, she sings New Orleans R&B and boogie, swamp blues, Louisiana blues, and Texas blues. With a little bit of country and rock ‘n’ roll tossed in with the occasional waltz.

And doesn’t make a whole lot of distinction between those styles.  New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are cradles of American music, she said.  “It’s music that started from Houston to New Orleans to the Mississippi Delta, the beginnings of all American music,” Ball aid.  “It spread everywhere else. Blues and Dixieland and immigrants playing violin like they played in France and down in Mexico. Germans brought a lot of their music that became conjunto in Mexico, and ragtime and barrelhouse piano players came from the lumber camps on the Gulf Coast. 

“It’s essential music. If you listen to radio and switch the dial, you can find interesting music, everything from classical to rap and everything in between.  The bottom line: there is something fundamentally elemental about the blues that became rock and roll. It’s the tempo of our heartbeats, natural human music.”  Jazz came from the blues and other influences. Melodies and storytelling came from the Appalachian traditions, which in turn came mostly from Europe and seeped, too, into the country blues.

Ball’s 15th solo album, Roadside Attractions, from 2011 and her long-time label, Alligator Records, earned her fifth Grammy nomination to go along with nine Blues Music Association awards.

Collaborative efforts

Longtime collaborator Gary Nicholson produced and helped, with Dan Penn and Tom Hambridge, write the songs, all of which Ball had a hand in. It was the first album in her 40- year career where she wrote or co-wrote every song. “The songs reflect 40 years of
travel and a lifetime of experiences.

Writing with Gary Nicholson, Dan Penn, and Tom Hambridge was a thrill I’ve waited a long time for. So off we go, touring the cosmos, weaving and lurching, distracted by every concrete dinosaur and giant strawberry along the way. It’s a great life set to music.”  It was a privilege, the singer-piano player-songwriter said, to work with that album’s writers.

“I love having written,” she once said. “Somebody once said that writing is miserable, but having written is the most excellent feeling. That’s so true. But staring at an empty notebook page wondering how you did it before and if you can do it again is terrifying.”  The difficulty in sitting still and focusing long enough to write is “probably why I have 15 albums instead of 40” in a recording career that stretches back to 1972. “It’s hard to get started, hard for me to get me ideas all together,” she said.

That’s one reason she was thrilled to work with Nicholson again, although she misses working with the late Stephen Bruton. “Working with Gary Nicholson is great. He is so creative and relentless a songwriter.  That’s what he does every day, and it’s wonderful to be a part of that. Stephen Bruton was always really helpful to me. He and Gary are kindred spirits.  “Working with Gary really opened me up to be able to write, and he brought me to Dan Penn. He’s been a hero of mine every since I heard ‘Do Right Woman,’ and even before. He can pull an idea off a piece of paper and off he goes.”

The infectious music — see the above influences — still carries the shows. Ball does about 125 shows a year, which puts her on the road about half the time and keeps her at home about half the time.

She’s still got passion for the music.  “I do. I do. I really do. I still love it,” she said. “Forty years of roadside attractions and the life of roaming around has never worn thin. I love it when the wheels start rolling, when the band starts playing, when the crowds start dancing.

“The challenge is to go out and show people the songs. It’s not so much about recording and selling a bunch of records. If you want your music out there, you have to take it out there,” she said. “And I like the travel. I like to meet people. I like to go north in the summertime and avoid the Texas heat. Sometimes I even go north in the wintertime to see how other people live.

Sandy Beaches

She’s also a mainstay on  the 19th Sandy Beaches Cruise from Jan. 5-12, leaving from Fort Lauderdale and including San Juan and Grand Turk. Led by Delbert McClinton, artists also include Nicholson, Al Anderson, Band of Heathens, Tab Benoit, Bonnie Bishop, Etta Britt, Chuck Cannon, Bruce Channel, Glen Clark, Nick Connolly, Bob DiPiero, Doyle & Debbie, Fred Eaglesmith, Danny Flowers, Donnie Fritts, Anson Funderburgh, Jimmy Hall, Tom Hambridge, Teresa James & the Rhythm Tramps, Colin Linden, Big Joe Maher, The Mavericks, Clay McClinton, The McCrary Sisters, Mingo Fishtrap, Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real, Spooner Oldham, Lee Roy Parnell, Kimmie Rhodes, Paul Thorn, Wayne Toups & Zydecajun, Foy Vance, Sharon Vaughn, Seth Walker, Kevin Welch, and Lari White.

Otherwise, Ball is also “gathering scraps of paper and finding the glue to put them together” for a new album. It surely will be another seamless blend of influences. “I really do have a broad range of experience, and life experience,” she said. “I sang rock ’n’ roll when rock ’n’ roll was cool — and it still is — when it was Janis Joplin and the early Rolling Stones. “I played country when  country was cool. That was kinda how I got my start. And if somebody needs a two-step or waltz, I’ll still do that. What I really love in country is western swing — the Delmore Brothers and Gatemouth Brown.”  When “it came time for me to lead a way,” Ball said, she went back toward more R&B because that’s what she grew up with and really loves.

Hybrid Country

“THE PART OF THE COUNTRY I’m from, the border, is a hybrid musical country anyway,” she said. “There was always cross culturalization — always Cajun and some zydeco and some country and blues and rock ‘n’ roll,” Ball said. It all fits together, she said, “because people don’t fall into pockets so unimaginatively that you can label them. You can’t say that somebody’s going to like George Jones and not like Fats Domino. You can pretty much guarantee that if they like one, they’re going to like the other.”

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