Marcia Ball flavors her Gulf Coast musical gumbo with New Orleans rhythm-and-blues, swamp blues, soul balladry, zydeco music from southwest Louisiana and much groove.
A singer, pianist and songwriter steeped in Louisiana music, Ball was born in southeast Texas and raised near Lake Charles. Austin, however, has been Ball’s base of operations since 1970, the year her car broke down in the Texas capital while she was on her way to San Francisco. Despite these many years in Austin, Louisiana is still the place she calls home.
“It is home,” Ball said from Austin. “Dr. John moved to New York for a long time and so did Allen Toussaint, but nobody ever considered them not to be a product of New Orleans. I am, in my music and my heritage, a product of Louisiana.”
Every year, Ball comes home to Louisiana to play a spring marathon of gigs. Her 2015 appearances include WWOZ-FM’s Piano Night; Friday night at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré; and Saturday afternoon at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Ball has been a regular at the annual Piano Night, a benefit for community radio station WWOZ, since she became the first woman to perform at the event.
“That was many years ago, back when all the greats were alive,” she said. “Eddie Bo, who I really miss, was there. Allen Toussaint, Ellis Marsalis, Dr. John, they were all there.”
Friday, Ball will play the second concert in the new Intimate Evening Series at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré— quite the contrast to the clubs and festivals where she often appears.
“I might talk a little bit more and tell more stories about the songs,” she said of the theater show. “We’ll play all the songs, but we’ll just play them quieter.”
Ball’s current shows feature several songs from the five-time Grammy nominee’s latest album, “The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man.” The New Orleans-based Thad Scott wrote the album’s horn arrangements. Ball’s traveling band features another local musician, saxophonist Eric Bernhardt.
“I often sweeten my records with horns,” she said. “It’s essential to my band. And I love baritone sax. It’s such a New Orleans sound.”
Also characteristic of “The Tattooed Lady” and her 2010, Grammy-nominated release “Roadside Attractions,” Ball did most of the songwriting.
“Oddly enough, I still seem to have something to say,” she said.
As for the wide spectrum of music she makes, Ball said, “It’s not that I’m thinking, ‘OK, I gotta do this, that and the other.’ If I have an idea for what the song is about, then I sit down and let the music flow. The words can dictate the beat, because they have a certain meter to them.”
One “Tattooed Lady” song, the dark and soulful “The Last to Know,” sounds as if it could have been written by Ball’s noted peer, Dr. John.
“I wrote that a long time ago,” she said. “And I played it for Dr. John not long after I’d written it. I had a couple of soul ballads like that. I told Dr. John, ‘I’m not sure what to do with these songs.’ Mac said, ‘I’d record them.’ So it only took me, like, 20 years to do it.”
Ball’s take on classic New Orleans pianists
Professor Longhair: “He’s the guy. He’s the innovator. He’s the root of my music.”
Fats Domino: “When people don’t understand what kind of music I play, I just say, ‘You know, like Fats Domino.’ ”
Eddie Bo: “That’s my buddy. With that wonderful smile of his, he was the guy who’d get everybody to play on stage at the same time during Piano Night.”
James Booker: “Amazing player and amazing character. He was one of those spongelike people. I think he worked at his music, but he also must have absorbed it.”
Dr. John: “Mac has carried the tradition of New Orleans piano and enhanced it like no one else, except maybe Allen Toussaint.”
Allen Toussaint: “He is the songwriter I aspire to be.”
Huey Smith: “I do ‘Sea Cruise’ and other songs of his. He’s been a great inspiration.”
Tuts Washington: “He had the most beautiful hands.”