The idea for the title song of Marcia Ball’s new album,“The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man,” came to her as abruptly as a knock on the front door.
“It just jumped out at me,” Ball said. “It was like they walked up on my porch and said, ‘Hi.’ It just had a rhythm to it the moment the idea came into my head. It was like, ‘Oh here they are and this is their story.’ ”
Ball has been telling stories through her songs since the 1970s with her band Freda and the Firedogs.
“I’m an eavesdropper,” she said. “I think all songwriters and storytellers are. James McMurtry said it would be a very short, boring record if it were all autobiographical. So we make up stories all the time.”
The story of the two performers in a traveling show, “The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man,” starts off another superb album by the prolific keyboardist. It is Ball’s fourth album with Alligator Records since 2005. When Alligator’s president, Bruce Iglauer, expressed concern about the coincidental use of “Alligator” and the possible perception of self-aggrandizement, Ball simply replied, “Don’t worry about it.” Ball can talk to record company executives in such a fashion because she has more blues awards than the co-star of her title song has ink, and the latest album is sure to get another Blues Music Award Nomination – she’s has 42 already.
Ball spoke with Tahoe Onstage on Ray Charles’ birthday, two days before she appears at the Crystal Bay Casino for the first time with new saxophonist Eric Bernhardt.
“The music that was popular when I was a kid was Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and the four of them were piano players and the big stars,” said Ball.
After she moved from Louisiana to Austin, Ball was influenced by the New Orleans style of music, specifically pianist Professor Longhair. “It was like I found my way,” she said.
Ball will be on board for October’s New Orleans-themed “Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise” with Louisiana legends Irma Thomas, Alan Toussaint and Buckwheat Zydeco.
“I like the cruises,” Ball said. “There are no barriers between the crowd and the performers but it doesn’t seem to be a problem. We really dig it, so we do it.”
It was on a “Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise” where Ball met Nashville drummer Tom Hambridge, best known to blues fans as a songwriter and producer for Susan Tedeschi and Buddy Guy. Hambridge co-wrote one of the songs from Ball’s previous album, “Roadside Attractions,” with producer Gary Nicholson. Ball recruited Hambridge to produce “The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man.”
“He helped me just relax and sing and I think he made the record sound really good,” Ball said. “I can’t complain about any of my producers. I’ve been very lucky with my last batch of records. I’ve had good, good people to work with. He brought out the best in me and we just had a wonderful time.”
A highlight on the album is the song “Human Kindness.” Ball sang the tune for fellow Texans Shelley King and Carolyn Wonderland. She wanted the two to sing harmonies on the song. However, travel commitments nearly derailed the plan. The record was almost completed when King phoned Ball, who was in New Jersey.
“She said she and Carolyn and Amy Helm were in Woodstock (New York),” Ball recalled, “and they’d been working on the song and that they sounded great. Well, duh!”
The three singers remained in New York for two days, waiting for Ball to join them. They recorded the vocals at NRS Recording in Catskill, N.Y. with engineer Scott Petito.
“Shelley just kept at it and kept believing and we made it happen,” Ball said.
Ball, who includes her touring band on her records, has had bass player Don Bennett in the group for 34 years. Damien Llanes is the drummer. Sax player Thad Scott decided to stop touring and now plays at or near his hometown New Orleans. Scott is responsible for getting the two remaining members into Ball’s band: guitarist Mighty Mike Schermer and sax player Eric Bernhardt.
“Thad recommended that I hire his best friend, Eric Bernhardt,” Ball said. “Thad trained him up, and it was a pretty seamless transition. He also got Mighty Mike, who had been with Elvin Bishop, who likes to stay close to his garden in summertime. He was looking for some adventure, I guess, so I was happy to help him make the plunge.”
- ‘An Evening with Marcia Ball’
When: 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25
Where: Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room
Tickets: $18 in advance or $22 on the day of the performance
Red Room after-party: Crunksworth Bentley and Jeremy Curl