With So Many Rivers, her 12th album, honky-tonkin' blues pianist Marcia Ball celebrates 25 years as a recording artist. She's built a solid career on her Louisiana-meets-East Texas style, imprinting her wholly individual approach on the modern blues scene. Ball is a talented songwriter and an adept performer who draws from the same spiritual wellspring as roots-rockers like Joe Ely and John Prine. Those guys may be guitarists, but Ball still has more in common with their aesthetic than she does with, say, Tracy Nelson or Lou Ann Barton, her closest colleagues in the blues sisterhood.
Ball doesn't try to fit into any single genre; she draws on swamp-pop, Southern soul, and boogie-woogie piano, oftentimes within the same song. Alternately sophisticated and downright earthy, Ball pounds the ivories like a gentler, classier Jerry Lee Lewis, proving that she could hold her own in any juke joint, barroom, or bordello -- and still manage to accompany the Baptist choir on Sunday morning.
"People who have more than one of my records know that I'm more than just blues," Ball says over the phone from her Austin, Texas, home. "I don't have traditional blues fans; I have Marcia Ball fans," she says. "[My band and I] dance around several styles of rhythm and blues. I've been inspired by Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters as much as singers [like] Irma Thomas, Mable John, Candi Staton, and Ann Peebles. Then, of course, Professor Longhair was a big influence of mine."
Ball got an early start playing piano: "My grandmother and aunt played -- popular music, not classical -- and I started lessons when I was just a girl. I joined a band when I was in college at LSU. I was 18 and just singing with the group. I began playing keyboards and that just evolved into something bigger," Ball says.
It's always interesting to see whose songs Ball chooses to cover. Past albums (including Presumed Innocent, the W.C. Handy Awards' 2002 "Album of the Year") have incorporated offerings from Randy Newman, Dr. John, and Delbert McClinton, as well as Stax stalwarts Isaac Hayes and David Porter and Big Easy pianist Allen Toussaint. On So Many Rivers, Ball tackles several songs by Danny Timms, including the Wayne Toups-led zydeco frenzy "Honeypie" and the epic "Hurricane on China Lake," as well as the Muscle Shoals classics "Three Hundred Pounds of Hongry" and "If It's Really Got to Be This Way." Ball drawls out the lyrics on the joyful-sounding "Three Hundred Pounds," which is delivered in a stripped-down Dixieland style, while she soars effortlessly on the latter, a gentle Southern soul ballad.
On So Many Rivers, however, Ball's originals overshadow the cover songs. With tracks like the New Orleans strut "Baby, Why Not" and the pleading blues "Give Me a Chance," Ball displays newfound confidence as a songwriter. She shows off her jazzy roots on the big-band-inspired "The Lowdown" then pulls out all the stops for the country-soul tune "The Storm." Ball holds her own as a composer -- her originals sound like vintage classics, comparable to Dan Penn's seminal catalog of Southern soul songs.
"I'm always trying to grow and learn; there's always a next step to take," Ball says. "Someone like Dan Penn is writing songs every day. He's taught me that you really have to keep at it."
"If I hear somebody say something I think is interesting or important or silly enough to be a hook, I write it down and worry at it until I get a song," Ball continues. "I can be riding in a car or just hanging out, but, ultimately, I have to sit down at the piano and work it out. There's some combination of groove and lyric that's right for me. It doesn't have to be serious. It can be fun, like 'Three Hundred Pounds' or it can be 'Let the Tears Go Down.'"
It's been a busy year for Ball: She's just returned from a whirlwind trip to the Notodden Blues Festival in Norway, which capped off a series of high-profile festival appearances. After catching her performance at California's Monterey Jazz Festival, Martin Scorsese, executive producer of the upcoming PBS series The Blues, asked Ball to participate in a segment on piano blues directed by Clint Eastwood.
"Clint really does love music so much. Touch on that subject, and he'll go off for hours," Ball recalls. "They took me to Carmel, and Pinetop [Perkins] and Jay McShann were already there. I just hope I don't end up on the cutting-room floor," she jokes.
After a short break at home ("It leaves me just enough time to water the lawn," Ball says with a chuckle), she hits the road again. "I can't wait to get to Memphis," Ball says. "I've been thinking about it ever since I saw the Stax Revue in Norway last week. I got to hear Eddie Floyd do 'Knock On Wood.' Those are my grooves," she says, dreamily adding, "I want to sink my teeth into some barbecue and go to the Cupboard for a plate lunch or Buntyn's for a piece of pie."
"Twenty-five years in the music biz?" Ball finishes, laughing. "I hadn't thought about it that way. I hope I'm just at the halfway point."
with the Wild Magnolias
Memphis Botanic Garden
Thursday, August 14th