David Ball - For the sake of the single
Just like St. Paul, David Ball had his life changed by a sudden revelation. Ball, though, wasn't riding a donkey on the road to Damascus when the epiphany arrived. He was driving his car through South Carolina. "I was at a stop light on the Isle of Palms," the singer recalls, "and Randy Travis' 'On The Other Hand' came on the radio. I might have heard it before, but then it just hit me what a great song that was. I had always thought 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry' was the greatest country song ever written and no one was ever going to beat it, but after hearing 'On The Other Hand', I wasn't so sure. Something about those lyrics just got to me; it was simple and yet brilliant, all in three minutes. "I knew if I was ever going to get a career off the ground," he continues, "it was going to be in that old-fashioned honky-tonk style. When I heard 'On The Other Hand' on the radio, I knew Nashville was open to that sound again." That was 1986. It took Ball two years to move to Tennessee, and six more to find a Music Row label that shared his vision, but when Warner Bros. finally released "Thinkin' Problem" in 1994, it had the same knock-you-off-your-donkey, freeze-you-at-the-traffic-light impact that Travis' song had packed eight years earlier. With its implacable two-step beat, its hard-core honky-tonk vocal and its delicious pun, Ball's single cut through all the easy-listening pop schlock on country radio like a broadax through margarine. As a result, Ball became that paradoxical figure of modern country: the radical conservative. Like Travis, Ricky Skaggs, Lee Ann Womack, Marty Brown, and Mandy Barnett, Ball sounds revolutionary because he's so old-fashioned, innovative because he's so backwards, alternative because he's so traditional. He has rebelled against mainstream country not by adding rock 'n' roll elements, but by removing them. "I Want To With You", the second single from his new album Play, opens with a fiddle and pedal steel guitar slipping and sliding around one another. Ball's tenor enters with the same sort of hillbilly glide, easing his way through the midtempo melody with a down-home drawl that stretches the vowels till they reveal something more than the words can say. The lyrics are essentially a marriage proposal, but Ball lubricates them with enough sensuality that they sound like a proposition. Unlike Travis and the others, however, Ball does not come from a traditional country background. Before he converted to the honky-tonk religion, he was a longtime member of Uncle Walt's Band, an eclectic trio led by Walter Hyatt and featuring Champ Hood. Originally assembled in Spartanburg, SC, in 1973, Uncle Walt's Band reconvened in 1978 and became an integral part of Austin's hippie-country scene until it disbanded in 1983. That experience has made Ball's story very different from that of any other Nashville neo-traditionalist. "Everyone has their favorite songwriter," Ball notes. "Steve Earle has Townes Van Zandt, and I have Walter Hyatt. I was always fascinated to hear Walter's latest song and to perform it with him; I aspire to write songs as good as those. Uncle Walt's Band gave me the courage to always sing my own songs. Even when I was playing Texas dancehalls, where they want you to do top-40 cover songs, I did my own songs. And if I did covers, they were old songs I wanted to hear. "I got my sense of rhythm from that band," Ball adds, "that swing feel, that South Carolina 'thang.' I also got the courage to sing whatever I want, because there were no boundaries in Uncle Walt's Band. Walter could sing Louis Armstrong, Champ could sing rock 'n' roll, and I could sing Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb. I didn't have to apologize for my tastes then, and I'm not going to start now." Ball is reminiscing about cosmic cowboys in Austin, but he's sitting in the belly of the beast. He's sprawled out on the couch of his manager's office on Music Row, and in just a few hours he will take part in the most mainstream of mainstream-country rituals, Fan Fair. He will don a big white cowboy hat and a cream-colored cowboy shirt and climb atop the temporary stage at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. As soon as Brady Seals' set on the adjoining stage ends, Ball's 15 minutes of fame will begin, and as soon as he finishes, the Warren Brothers will start up on the other stage. As Ball picks out an acoustic arpeggio, however, and purrs the opening lines of "When The Thought Of You Catches Up With Me", it will be immediately obvious that he's different from the pretty-faced pop singers crowding the stage all week. Ball is the real thing, a genuine honky-tonk singer who preserves his dignity even as he allows his heart to break in lyrics as simple as, "Mile after mile goes by, but you're all I see." For now, though, he's hatless. His long, lean frame stretches out on the sofa; he crosses his legs and props his hand-tooled black cowboy boots on the coffee table. He's wearing a dark blue, long-sleeve shirt and he locks his hands behind his head of wavy, bright-red hair. He talks with the same South Carolina drawl, the same unhurried confidence he sings with. Unlike most Music Row interviewees, Ball never pauses to calculate an answer. It doesn't occur to him that Walter Hyatt and Brooks & Dunn inhabit different musical worlds; he likes them both and doesn't hesitate to say so. "Those early Brooks & Dunn albums were close to what I want to do," Ball admits, "which is dancehall-oriented honky-tonk. I've played a lot of dancehalls in Texas, and I appreciate what it takes to get people dancing to real country music. I had written some material in that vein, and I wanted the real big sound of those Brooks & Dunn records, so I wanted to work with Don Cook on my new album." Cook -- who has also produced the Mavericks, Marty Stuart and Wade Hayes -- lent his thick, throbbing sound to songs such as the first single, "Watching My Baby Not Coming Back", which Ball co-wrote with Brad Paisley. The vocal, the fiddle, the piano and twangy guitar are all hard-country, but the rhythm section is muscled up to give a real thump to the shuffle beat. Cook's orchestral honky-tonk approach reaches Orbisonesque proportions on "Hasta Luego, My Love", where the Spanish-tinged hook is slammed home by the dozens of layered tracks and by Ball's soaring vocal. "Phil Spector had that big sound," Ball points out, "and I love the power of it. I'm a loud singer, and if I'm wailing, the band had better be right there with me. I think 'Hasta Luego' is a smash; it just smells like it. "But when we had finished most of the album and listened to the whole thing, I realized something was missing. I wanted to bring it down a bit and make it closer to my live show, closer to that old-fashioned country sound. I wanted some of the songs to have that big Brooks & Dunn sound, but I didn't want the whole album to be that way. "So I went back in with the engineer, Ben Fowler, and we co-produced half of the album ourselves. We recut one of Don's songs, dropped some others and added five new songs. It wasn't that hard to become a producer because on every record I've done I've always brought the arrangements in and been real involved in every step." It takes a certain chutzpah to replace one of Nashville's hottest producers halfway through an album project, but that's one advantage of coming at Music Row from an alternative angle. If you're an outsider, you have a more skeptical view of the insiders' rules. The decision is justified by the balance on Play: Cook's grand-ole-operatic production on songs such as "When I Get Lonely" is balanced by Ball's understated production on songs such as the single "I Want To With You" and Jim Lauderdale's "What Do You Say To That". Ball's outsider journey to Nashville began on the South Carolina coast. He was just learning the upright bass as an 11th grader when he was invited to form a band with Walter Hyatt and Champ Hood. "They were the best guitar players I had ever heard," Ball recalls, "and yet they were so different. Champ could do all that Doc Watson flatpick stuff, while Walter was more of a fingerpicker. Champ came out of a rock 'n' roll band; Walter knew a lot of folk material, and they were already writing songs that are still some of my favorite tunes. While I was in high school, we went up to Nashville and played for about a month, and then went back in '73. People started telling us that we should go to Texas, so we went down to play the Kerrville Festival, and it turned into a 10-year gig." "We had a strange chemistry," says Hood, who now plays regularly with Toni Price in Austin and has occasionally toured with Lyle Lovett. "When we started, David and I were younger than Walter, so we looked upon him as the leader and the artist and learned a lot from him. David was a great bass player and had one of those voices you automatically respond to; you can't believe that voice is coming out of that body. I was considered a utility guy; I could fill in whatever space they couldn't. I'd sing a high harmony if it were needed or a low harmony if it were called for. I'd play fiddle or guitar, whatever helped." "We liked all types of stuff," adds Ball. "We could reach back to the '30s for an old song or bring out something one of us had written the day before. The band was always evolving, always moving; we didn't just do the same show night after night. Junior Brown played with us for about a month or so. One time we played at Grins, this tiny folk club in College Station, and the opening act was this Texas A&M kid studying to be a German veterinarian. It was Lyle Lovett, and we both became big fans of each other's work. Those were great times; it was where I got my musical upbringing." Uncle Walt's Band released five albums on its own Lespedeza Records: Blame It On The Bossa Nova (1973), Uncle Walt's Band (1975), An American In Texas (1980), Recorded Live (1982), and 6-26-79 (1988). Sugar Hill reissued the best tracks from these LPs in 1991 as two 17-track CDs: The Girl On The Sunny Shore and An American In Texas Revisited. In the reissue liner notes, Lovett wrote, "They demonstrate a sensitive, sophisticated understanding of the dignified South." "It was a great band," claims Ball, "but at the same time it was frustrating because Walter was so restless that he'd always be on to the next song when the audience wanted to hear 'As The Crow Flies'. We never made an album as good as we were sometimes live. Our biggest asset was our spontaneity, which often worked against us. "Walter always wore his heart on his sleeve; you could always tell just what he was feeling. We'd do label showcases, which can be very stressful, and we would show it. We'd choke up, and I'd say, 'What's going on? It sounds like we're playing underwater.' We never had that 'Let's go out and kick some ass' mentality, which you really need in the music biz." Uncle Walt's Band finally broke up for good in 1983. Hyatt went on to cut three solo albums: 1985's Fall Thru To You (Lespedeza), 1990's King Tears (produced by Lovett for MCA), and 1993's Music Town (Sugar Hill). On May 11, 1996, Hyatt died aboard the Valujet flight that crashed into the Florida Everglades. Many longtime fans -- including Lovett, Ball and Hood -- turned out to play his songs at memorials in Nashville and Austin. Lovett included four Hyatt compositions on his 1998 album Step Inside This House. This year Ball and Hood have been finishing up their own tribute album to Hyatt. The songs include "The Sheik Of Shaboom" (sung by Lovett), "Motor City Man" (Shawn Colvin), "Foolin' Around" (Toni Price), "Tommy's Tail" (Billy Burnette), and "The River Road" (Hood). Ball sings five Hyatt compositions: "Gone To New Orleans", "Message In A Bottle", "Tell Me, Baby", "Something Funky About You", and "The Evening Train". "Walter wrote all these great songs," Hood says, "but he never got the cover versions he deserved. Not only were his lyrics special, but he came up with chord changes that weren't your ordinary thing. Basically, we did this album so the songs would get out there." "We did it on our own without a label," Ball says, "because we didn't want to do a business thing; we wanted to get the music right. If a label gets involved, they try to steer it in a certain direction, and we wanted to let it evolve. Once we're finished -- and we just have some mixing left -- we'll shop it around." Even before Uncle Walt's Band broke up, Ball found himself drifting away from the trio's folk-swing sound. Once they relocated to Austin, he started hanging out in the local dancehalls, listening to big swing bands such as Asleep At The Wheel or Alvin Crow & the Pleasant Valley Boys. It was his first musical conversion experience. "People in Texas embraced Uncle Walt's Band," Ball says, "because that South Carolina sound was so fresh out there. To me, it was just what I had grown up with. But the first time I walked into a dancehall and heard that big band with all that hot picking and all those old Bob Wills songs, I fell in love. I had never heard anything like it." When Uncle Walt's Band failed to grab the brass ring and Ball went back to South Carolina to lick his wounds, he couldn't get that hard-core honky-tonk sound out of his head. And when he heard that Randy Travis single on the car radio, he knew he had to give it a shot. Soon after landing in Nashville in '88, Ball signed with Don Schlitz's publishing company and found himself co-writing with another recent arrival, Allen Shamblin. "We were both new and feeling our way," Ball remembers, "but one day in the office, he said, 'What about a song called "Thinkin' Problem"?' I just loved the idea, because you hear the title and you know immediately it's about a man who keeps reaching for a memory the way some keep reaching for a bottle. Once we had the title, the song just wrote itself." No one at Nashville's record companies seemed to share Ball's enthusiasm for the song, however. He got a deal with RCA as an artist, but his producers there wanted something more pop-oriented than the hard-core honky-tonk of "Thinkin' Problem". He cut nearly two albums' worth of material for RCA, but the label only released a pair of singles before cutting him loose. (RCA finally released those old tapes as David Ball in the wake of Ball's 1994 breakthrough.) "RCA wasn't looking for the Texas dancehall stuff I was most familiar with," Ball explains, "so I put 'Thinkin' Problem' in a drawer. I knew if I ever got another chance to make an album, that would be one song I'd want to do. In the meantime, I found myself traveling back to Texas to play the clubs there where I had a following. One night I decided to sing 'Thinkin' Problem', even though the band didn't know it. That's how I came up with that introduction where I start singing before the band comes in." Back in Nashville, Ball got in the habit of writing all day at his publisher's office on Music Row and then at quitting time crossing the street to the Idle Hour, a run-down hole in the wall. There, he and his pals would drink some beer, shoot some pool and sing some songs. One of those pals, demo producer Blake Chancey, dragged Dave Grau of Warner Bros. over to the Idle Hour one evening, and there between the pool tables and pinball machines, Ball sang the songs that eventually landed him a contract. Chancey, who got the job as Ball's producer, had no qualms about recording "Thinkin' Problem". It became the title song of the Warner Bros. album; as the first single, it shot all the way to #2 on Billboard's country chart. It was followed by two more successful singles: the gentle heartbreak ballad "When The Thought Of You Catches Up To Me" and the uptempo honky-tonk number "Look What Followed Me Home". The album sold more than a million copies and turned Ball into a most unlikely Nashville star for the '90s: a well-weathered fortysomething with a heavy twang in his voice. "It took me a long time to get here," Ball admits, "and it was frustrating sometimes. When I first got to Nashville, I knew all about the '50s; I thought Chet Atkins would be a great producer and Buddy Emmons would be a great steel player. I soon learned those people weren't making hit records anymore, and I gradually learned what it took to get on the radio, which is what I've wanted since I was 15. "I'm a big fan of the hit record. You can have a great song, and it won't necessarily be a hit. To be a hit it needs to have an immediate, overall impact. And to do that, it has to be simple. When songwriters come to Nashville with their first batch of songs, you'll often hear two or three songs in one song, but you don't hear those songs on the radio. You have to tell one story and stick to it; if you can also have a deeper meaning, so much the better. "When I had my hit, I did what everyone does when they have a hit," he explains. "I went to work. I played every place you can play and, believe me, there are a lot of them. People always ask if I get tired of singing 'Thinkin' Problem', and I say, 'Hell, no. I think it's one of the best country songs I've ever heard.' People also ask if I was worried about following it up. I say, 'No, but a lot of people around me were.'" Ball's next album, 1996's Starlite Lounge, reflected his experience touring with Dwight Yoakam, boasting that bright-sounding, multitracked, neo-Bakersfield sound. Like Yoakam's discs, Starlite Lounge sounds old-fashioned at first with its fiddle fills and its drawling vocals, but if you listen closely, you'll hear a refusal to just sit back and absorb life's blows. Instead, the music pushes back at the world with its punchy drums, its on-the-one rhythm guitar and its steely singing. The second album didn't sell anything like the first, however, and the third one got delayed by a change in managers and then the change in producers. Play will be the test: Was the success of "Thinkin' Problem" just an aberration in country radio's steady march toward the Hotel California? Or is there still room for authentic honky-tonk singing? In the meantime, Ball hasn't lost his alt-country connections. When Bob Dylan was selected to receive a Kennedy Center Honor in 1997, he had to choose three artists to sing his songs at the awards show. Dylan picked Bruce Springsteen to sing "The Times They Are A-Changin'", gospel diva Shirley Caesar to sing "Gotta Serve Somebody", and Ball to sing "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right". "I'm not sure why he asked me," Ball admits. "A friend of mine, Bucky Baxter, plays pedal steel in his band, and I did record 'Miss The Mississippi And You' on that Jimmie Rodgers tribute album Dylan did. I've always been drawn more to Jimmie Rodgers than the Carter Family because he had more rhythm and edge. In fact, I sang so many of his songs with Uncle Walt's Band that I probably sold more Jimmie Rodgers albums than anyone in Texas. "I was proud to be on the Kennedy Center show with Dylan. He's one of the few artists I admire even though he doesn't influence me. It's not hard to see that his approach to music and mine are not the same, but we both deal in lyric and melody, and that's where we find some common ground. The whole night was like that. They were throwing people together from many different paths -- Dylan and Charlton Heston, Bill Clinton and Lauren Bacall -- but we were under one umbrella. Dylan does the same thing in his songs, bringing people together like Robin Hood and Einstein and Cinderella. "All my life," Ball concludes, "versatility had been my strong point. I can play several different instruments and I can do all kinds of music -- folk, bluegrass, R&B, Elvis, swing -- but I found out that just confuses people. You have to present a very clear picture and say, 'This is it.' And I realized that the music I loved the most was that hard-core honky-tonk I had learned in those Texas dancehalls. That's why I put that Webb Pierce song on my first album, just in case people didn't know where I was coming from." If the musical freedom of alternative country means anything, it has to include the freedom to choose any direction at all -- even the most mainstream, most commercial country music there is. And once you start dabbling in traditional country, there's always the danger that you might get hooked. Before you know it, you're mainlining Hank Thompson and John Anderson. When that happens, you have to decide what's more important: the hipness quotient, or your gut feeling. David Ball went with his guts, and few things are more alternative than that. Geoffrey Himes' favorite souvenir from his first-ever Fan Fair this year was a "Hey Good Lookin', What You Got Cookin'" potholder from the Hank Williams Sr. Fan Club booth.