Since 2001 the career of pianist and singer-songwriter "Long Tall" Marcia Ball has been on an upswing. In 2001 she began recording for Chicago-based Alligator Records, one of the world’s premier independent blues record labels. That same year, she also signed with the Rosebud Agency in San Francisco, the country’s leading blues and roots music booking agency. In January Ball and her band performed on two blues cruises, the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise and Delbert McClinton’s annual winter time cruise.
Gone are the small clubs and nerve-wracking van drives to the next gig with her band. Instead, her itinerary is filled with quality theater shows including Saturday, February 16, at McCarter and top shelf blues, folk, and jazz festivals.
While Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer wasn’t sure if he wanted to sign Ball to his label, Ball and her band are now one of the label’s top selling acts. "We can’t manage much more than 125 gigs a year," she says in a phone interview from an airport in Florida, "and we find that works great for all of us. We have enough time to work, enough time to be at home, enough time to be creative. We enjoy our time on the road and the quality of our gigs is much better."
Ball agrees with this writer’s notion that since the 1980s, it seems every sizeable city in America has some kind of festival that celebrates American blues or roots music, whether it’s jazz, New Orleans funk and pioneer rock, or a simple outdoor folk festival. "We play at folk festivals all the time," she says, "because the richness of what we play makes us a good selection at many of these gatherings. We do what we do – it’s not really country, or straight ahead blues, it’s American vernacular music. It fits in with people who grew up dancing the jitterbug. Some of these people might feel that music has passed them by, but one day maybe they hear us on the radio, and they say, `Oh, there’s my music.’"
And what of the younger crowd? After all, go to any New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival in the spring in the Crescent City, and you’ll see a good number of white kids in their 20s. "The 20-somethings today are relearning the roots music from guys like James Hunter, a young guy from Great Britain, or Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings," Ball says, "just like we did in the 1960s. They’re out there doing their stuff and they’re learning from their influences, too."
Ball’s latest release from Alligator Records is "Down the Road," a live album recorded at a theater in Chico, a town in northern California. Her new album, "Peace, Love and Barbecue," will be released on April 22, in time for the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The title song was written by David Egan and Ball penned eight of the 13 songs on the album.
Ball, now 50-something, was born in Orange, Texas, but raised just across the border in Vinton, Louisiana. She was an English major at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, but dropped out after three years to join a band called Gum, which started her professional career.
As songwriters in the blues go, Ball is one of the most inventive and creative in the idiom, on par with the Dallas-raised Doyle Bramhall, who wrote or co-wrote all of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan’s hits in the 1980s. She is also an extremely talented piano player, equally at home with a slow ballad as she is with any number of faster-paced dance tunes. "But the songwriting process is the most fulfilling part of the whole deal for me," she says, and as a result, "I always keep my ears and eyes open for things I might hear or see."
It certainly doesn’t hurt that when she’s not on the road, Ball lives in Austin, one of the most renowned musical cities on the planet. "Austin is inspiring, and people are constantly writing wonderful songs, so you feel like a dolt if you’re not out there writing new songs with them," she says. And while people like Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Robert Earl Keen, or Butch Hancock are writing ballad-oriented Americana or alternative country songs, "what they’re writing is a little more verbose and wordy than your typical blues song, so working all that in to make it work, stylistically, is the challenge for me.
"I write a lot of songs while driving in the car, and one of the songs on my new album was started on a bar napkin," she says.
Growing up in Vinton, Ball had access to some good radio stations and a bevy of relatives who were piano players. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom, and her father, who had a college education, worked in a chemical plant. "My father’s family was musical, my grandmother on daddy’s side played piano, his sister played piano. So, when they put me in school, I had piano lessons at the same time," she says.
The part of East Texas-Southwest Louisiana that Ball comes from is rich with great musicians – from pioneering zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier to modern day blues wizard guitarist, Sonny Landreth. Why is this area so fertile? "People down there let the good times roll," Ball says. "It’s not just a saying down there, it’s a philosophy of life. They live to eat, and to party, and for good music. They pride themselves in Louisiana on open doors and hospitality and good food. Especially in the Lafayette and New Orleans areas, it’s a part of your upbringing, a part of your culture, to show people a good time."
Ball and her band, which includes longtime bassist Don Bennett, drummer Corey Keller, guitarist Andrew Nofziger, and saxophonist Tad Scott are joined on this tour by the Subdudes, all veteran Crescent City-area musicians. The Subdudes have a new release, "Street Symphony," out on the Back Porch/EMI Music label.
"I like my songs to go back to the blues in some fashion," Ball says. "There are so many different kinds of blues; even Dallas, Houston and Austin have three different approaches to the blues. It’s been said that country music is the white man’s blues, and I agree. I was raised on rock `n’ roll and that comes from the blues, too, except when it comes from country music."
Ultimately what Ball seeks to do with her songs is combine her passion for boogie-woogie and other forms of blues with the wit and storytelling flair of any good country musician. "The stories and lyrics of good country music always give you something to wrap your heart and soul around," she says, and the same is true of blues.
As is typically her fashion, after the show, Ball meets up with audience members and signs every last CD and poses for every last photograph before getting in her van or on a plane to her next gig. That’s one reason independent record companies like Alligator Records and a root music booking agency like Rosebud are happy to have her on their roster of artists.
"Long Tall" Marcia Ball with the Subdudes, Saturday, February 16, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. 609-258-2787.