Jump to Content

Welcome! You’re browsing the No Depression Archives

No Depression has been the foremost journalistic authority on roots music for well over a decade, publishing 75 issues from 1995 to 2008. No Depression ceased publishing magazines in 2008 and took to the web. We have made the contents of those issues accessible online via this extensive archive and also feature a robust community website with blogs, photos, videos, music, news, discussion and more.

Close This

The Long Way Around - Feature from Issue #23 Sept-Oct 1999

David Ball

For the sake of the singleFrom South Carolina sway to Texas western swing, David Ball took the long way to Nashville's brass ring

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.

Enjoy the ND archives? Consider making a donation with PayPal or send a check to:
No Depression, 460 Bush St., San Francisco, CA 94108

Discuss

Did you enjoy this article? Start a discussion about it, or find out what others are saying in the No Depression Community forum.

Join the Discussion »

Find out what's going on in roots music. Share concert photos and videos, learn about new artists, blog about the music you love.

Join the No Depression Community »

Originally Featured in Issue #23 Sept-Oct 1999

Cover of Issue #23 Sept-Oct 1999

Sorry, this issue is SOLD OUT

Buy our history before it’s gone!

Each issue is artfully designed and packed full of great photos that you don‘t get online. Visit the No Depression store to own a piece of history.

Visit the No Depression Store »


From the Blogs

  • The Post-Newport Earthquake: Watkins Family Hour
    Did you feel it? That's what everybody in Los Angeles asks each other whenever a shake or quake rattles and rolls through the valleys and flatlands. Sometimes there's just a release of pressure beneath the crust, and other times it's an up and down jolt that lasts only a second. And then you forget about it. Until the next time.  Sunday night […]
  • Johnny Winter - True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story (Album Review)
    “This music proves that a white man with white hair can really play the blues,” Pete Townsend says in the booklet that accompanies True To the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story, the four-CD box set retrospective of Winter's career just out on Columbia /Legacy. But age had nothing to do with Winter's look or sound. Due to his albinism, Winter's ha […]
  • Americana Music Show Episode #200 Tribute to the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill music scene
    On episode 200 of the Americana Music Show, I pay tribute to local bands and songwriters in the Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh NC area.  This week features over 30 local artists from the area including John Howie Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff, Lyn Blakey, Jefferson Hart and Ghosts of Old North State, Mandolin Orange, Jon Shain, Radar's Clowns Of Se […]
  • Chris Isaak's Life Beyond the Sun
    In 2011, Chris Isaak took the long overdue step of recording an album at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn. It wasn't just any album, it was faithful interpretations of classic songs by his musical mentors and heroes: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. It didn’t take much of a leap of imagination to predict that the album would be […]
  • Carolina Story – Chapter Two (Album Review)
    Strong country duets from Nashville husband and wife The empathy shared by great duet singers can take your breath away. The ways in which a duo's voices complement, compete and provoke one another, the weaving of a harmony line above, below and around a melody, and the connection of two voices as they race around banked curves make listeners eavesdropp […]
  • Waylon, John Prine, Kinky, Gram Parsons ... Come Together
    Preface: This began as a foreword for a small collection of pictures and articles I am assembling for a book I plan to self-publish. As the memories piled on, the words accumulated into a short memoir and loose chronology of what happened in my life and on paper between 1967 and 1979. All of my No Depression offerings are referenced throughout this brief bio […]

Shop Amazon by clicking through this logo to support NoDepression.com. We get a percentage of every purchase you make!


Subscribe To the No Depression Newsletter

Subscribe to the No Depression Newsletter