Steeped in the Blues
Pianist Marcia Ball

December 1, 2001
By Russ Ringsak
She was raised in the right place, on the Texas-Louisiana border near the Gulf Coast, and was exposed to the sounds of New Orleans from the start.

"Having found this wonderful piano world, it called to me," she said, "I think one of the reasons that it worked so well for me was that my background in keyboards had been so traditional and old fashioned anyway. My grandmother played, and was a ragtime era piano player, so I grew up with a lot of old sheet music in my ears, old piano songs and styles in my head. It was something that I already felt close to, to hear those New Orleans chord changes - they're not straight blues changes, they're not pop changes, they have a real old fashioned sense to them."

She is not easy to categorize. Writers have felt forced into rhetorical stretches: "...she appears to be the secret love child of Miss Manners and Little Richard, sitting demurely at the keyboard while blowing the joint apart.... a ferocious player.... the bayou queen of the piano, steeped in blues, honky-tonk and gospel.... plays New Orleans piano with the best of them... a rollicking dynamo spewing heat-seeking triplets from the ivories while her horn driven band wails... Ain't nobody ever seen her gonna forget her!.... 6 feet tall, with long dark hair that flies up, down, around and sideways as she raps out raucous, joyful, 8-to-the-bar, stride piano tunes, legs crossed, sitting sidesaddle at the piano, foot kicking in time to the New Orleans-style rhythms she is virtually yanking out of the 88's.... In the pantheon of stride piano artists, she's ranked right up there with vintage Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Leon Russell - and the killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis. " So you get the idea.

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About the great keyboardists from New Orleans, she says: "I have a theory about how towns develop musically, that maybe there's a person who's a foundation. Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters in Chicago established a theme that inspired other great traditional blues guitarists and harmonica players. Therefore, to me, Chicago is kind of a guitar and harmonica town.

"New Orleans with its old horn tradition, starting with Buddy Bowlin and Louis Armstrong, is a strong horn town - brass and saxophone. Then the keyboards came up - there were great keyboard players to begin with, who were often included in Dixieland bands, but Professor Longhair is a foundation person as far as keyboard is concerned, and he invented a style that was carried on in the next two generations and is still going. So New Orleans is primarily a keyboard and horn town."

The style is broader than it may appear. "A lot of people forget that New Orleans is not just one thing. I'm not gonna go out there and just cover a bunch of Fats Domino tunes in order to fit into somebody's idea of what New Orleans music is supposed to be. It's a broad musical scene, and actually New Orleans has a lot more funk and jazz influence than is in what I do. When I get funky, people tend to characterize that as Memphis, and it is, to a certain extent. That river flows both ways - literally... In the bus, we had the 'Piano Players Who Rarely, If Ever, Play Together' video, with Allan Toussaint, Professor Longhair, and Toots Washington in it. At one point, Alan Toussaint is in the studio running through a list of the songs he's written, and the guys kept looking at me like 'That too? And That?' 'Workin' in a Coal Mine,' 'Holy Cow,' and so on. So it's broad, and peculiar sometimes."

She lives in another great music city, Austin, Texas, where she moved in 1970. Asked if that's rubbed off on her, she said: "Maybe so, maybe in the song writing tendencies. I draw a lot of inspiration from Austin in terms of song writing, and energy. I don't fit into Austin - I'm not playing the part of the sensitive acoustic singer songwriter. I'm not singing about the West Texas wind the way the Lubbock guys do, but there is some great quality song writing going on in this town, and it's a challenge to reach for that. It's kind of an effort not to be distracted by that, because I don't want to get too far away from being a blues player.

"Austin also has a strong blues tradition. Again, it's guitar players, a fact of the matter is that those were Dallas guys. We've got great piano players, too - we've got a fun bunch of piano players. Riley Osborne, who's out with Doyle Bramhall now. Floyd Domino, from Asleep at the Wheel days and other projects since then. I just saw him on Don Walser's video. Gene Taylor's living here now, the guy from the Blasters who's now playing with Kim Wilson."

Ball has come up with some unique ways of spot-lighting her fellow Austin keyboard players. She does a show called Pianorama where she puts five pianos on stage and invites various friends to play. "It's cacophony, but God, do we have a good time," she said. "We have one drummer, my drummer usually. He calls it 'Pianorambo'."

She has not let up on her touring. She writes in her newsletter:

"In spite of all, the last couple of months have been very busy for us. On September 11 we were in the middle of the Tour de Ville: Asheville, Nashville, Knoxville, Greenville, Charlottesville and Louisville. I'm not kidding. Plus, Morganton, North Carolina where Tracy Nelson and I got to reprise some of our greatest hits including the one we co-wrote for her album called "Got A New Truck".

"Our first Boston Folk Festival was a lot of fun, especially the songwriter's showcase with Rosie Flores and Jimmy Lafave. The last week in September we played two gigs with BeauSoleil in Wisconsin and Illinois and a beautiful theater up in Door County, Wisconsin.

"This month started with the King Biscuit Festival in Helena, Arkansas which is, in my opinion, the 'realest' of the blues festivals. Some of the buildings in downtown Helena are only open 4 days a year for the event and this year they needed them because a front blew through Friday that dropped the temperature and about 3 inches of rain. They closed the main stage and scrambled to put the music inside. Against all odds, it worked and the crowd was great."

It's a treat to bring southern musicians up here in winter, to help shake off some of the chill. But we notice they seldom stay, and we can't help but wonder: do they go away with the impression that we're tough up here, or just dumb? It's a question you wouldn't just come out and ask because it might force someone to choose between courtesy and honesty; but still you sort of wonder.

A writer and truck driver, Russ Ringsak has been with A Prairie Home Companion since 1974.

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