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.