With its annual Artown, Reno is emulating Austin, Texas. The 23rd annual monthlong celebration of arts and culture in the Biggest Little City will conclude most appropriately with a concert by Marcia Ball, a matriarch of The Live Music Capital of the World.
A boogie-woogie R&B pianist and bandleader, “Long, Tall” Marcia Ball settled in Austin in 1970 and was an integral part of the burgeoning scene that has grown into a city as well known for its music as Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans.
Forty four years ago, Ball appeared on the first season of “Austin City Limits,” the longest running televised concert series. This fall, she will be inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, joining icons such as Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Townes Van Zandt.
“I am thrilled, astonished and pretty excited that they chose to recognize me,” Ball, 69, told Tahoe Onstage. “The keys to my success are that I was here first and I stayed longer. Things are working out for me just like I’d hoped they would.
“I was here in the ‘70s when there were only a handful of performers at all, especially women. There just weren’t that many of us. Also, I was pretty involved from the onset of what became the Austin scene. My band Freda and the Firedogs was quite influential.”
The year is monumental for Ball, who is the Texas State Musician of 2018.
“It’s purely an honorary position,” she said, joking, “There are no duties and I don’t even get stationary or a stamp.”
In 1974, after Freda and the Firedogs, Ball went solo and has won 10 Blues Music Awards, 10 Living Blues Awards and has been nominated a Grammy five times. This year, she released her 17th album, “Shine Bright.”
A constant champion of social justice, Ball’s performances and records always have been about “slipping in a message while you’re dancing,” she said.
A native of Vinton, Louisiana, Ball started playing piano when she was 5.
“My grandmother and aunt played piano and I was next in line,” she said. “When I started school, the piano appeared in my home. My grandmother took me to lessons and paid for them, which is the same thing I’m doing for my grandson.”
Ball was inspired at age 13 when she saw Irma Thomas perform in New Orleans, which nowadays seems like a city where Ball would have liked to live. Not so.
“We had been living in Baton Rouge and played New Orleans a lot,” she said. “New Orleans was not real cool for hippies at that time. The police treated hippies like they would treat any common criminal, and they could pick us out pretty easily, so we were sitting ducks. It just wasn’t that attractive.”
So Ball and her husband set out for San Francisco. But they made a fateful stop in Austin.
“We had several friends there and just fell in love with the place. It was close to home it was the right size and if you wanted to stay in the South it was the only place because it was liberal and it’s a college town,” she said.
“The entire industry was the college or the capital and that means you have a pretty cool lifestyle. And the city is surrounded by beautiful water. All the creeks were running and the lake was up that year. We both got jobs at the university. It was too easy.”
In 1990, just before Ball signed with Alligator Records, she and her husband opened a bar that became a music, arts and liberal politics hangout. Once a month, the after-parties will spill over to newspaper columnist Molly Ivins’ house for “Final Friday.”
One of the songs on the new album is “Pots and Pans,” and is a tribute to outspoken people such as Ivins and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards.
“I can’t figure out what it’s going to take to get us out in the streets,” Ball said. “We’re going about our daily business. I feel like we are like the good Germans, (who said) ‘We were so busy working that we didn’t see our country crumbling around us.’ Well, I’m in Texas and I see what he’s doing at the border and I see those children and those families torn apart, and that’s just a sidebar. I don’t care if you print this. We are all complicit.
“The whole album is to encourage people to do random and aggressive acts of good.”
The first song from “Shine Bright” to receive radio airtime is “They Don’t Make Em Like That,” a song about things from days’ past.
“I set out to not to do a nostalgia piece,” she said, adding with a bit of irony, “We are celebrating 50 years in music business and the first thing I wrote was that one.”
Another tune, a calypso song, “Life of the Party,” was co-written by Ball and Mighty Mike Schermer, the guitarist in Ball’s band who lives part-time in Truckee. Schermer is a former member of Elvin Bishop’s Band. He joined Ball in Austin more than five years ago.
In October, the Marcia Ball Band, Roy Rogers & The Delta Rhythm Kings and Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio will perform at the MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa at Lake Tahoe. It will be the only time on Ball’s tour that her band will share the stage with Bishop’s.
“Mike has been wonderful and Elvin’s not even mad at me for snaking (Schermer) out of his band,” Ball said. “I haven’t had any bad bands in a long time or any personnel problems, but man I have a good bunch right now.”
Twelve days after the Lake Tahoe show, Ball will be inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame along with Los Lobos and Ray Charles. Los Lobos’ keyboard and saxophone player Steve Berlin produced “Shine On.” It was the first time he and Ball have collaborated on a record. They met through an online game of Scrabble set up by Ball’s former sax player, Thad Scott.
Red Young, who was the horn arranger for “Shine On,” will have the same duty for the Ray Charles portion of the Austin City Limits production.
“ACL is recognizing Los Lobos, which is serendipitous because that means that Steve will be there,” Ball said. “Maybe he’ll come play bari with us. Irma Thomas and Tracy Nelson are going to come play with me. And Red Young, who plays B3, will be there too. I will have my team with me. Two songs with Irma and Tracy and one with Lou Ann Barton.
“Unfortunately, Angela (Strehli) can’t come, she’s got another commitment. And Shelly King, who sings background vocals on “Shine Bright,” will play, along with Carolyn Wonderland. It’s those younger players who keep me energized. You can tell I am a little excited.”
In Reno, Ball will perform at the final event of the Monday Night Music Series. Like 70 percent of the Artown events, the concert will be free. The Robert Z. Hawkins Amphitheater gates will open at 6 p.m. and the first 1,000 people will receive wristbands. After the venue reaches capacity, people are free to remain in the park, where they can hear the music.
— Tim Parsons
- Marcia Ball
Artown: Monday Night Music Series
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 30. Gates open at 6.
Where: Robert Z. Hawkins Amphitheater, 6000 Bartley Ranch Road, Reno
Phone: (775) 322-1538
Ticket price: Free admission to first 1,000 concertgoers
- Where else
Mont-Blues Ball with Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio and Roy Rogers and The Delta Rhythm Kings on Saturday, Oct. 13, at the MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa, $25, $35 and $45
Austin City Limits Hall of Fame Induction & Celebration at the Moody Theater, Thursday, Oct. 25. It will be broadcast on New Year’s Eve.
- Austin City Limits Hall of Fame
Bill Arhos, Asleep at the Wheel, Rosanne Cash, Guy Clark, Flaco Jimenez, B.B. King, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Lloyd Maines, Willie Nelson, The Neville Brothers, Roy Orbison, Dick Peterson, Bonnie Raitt, Darrell Royal, Townes Van Zandt, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble
2018 inductees: Marcia Ball, Los Lobos, Ray Charles
Related story: Album review — Marcia Ball’s “Shine Bright” boogies, rocks, and rolls with Louisiana soul and Texas heat.