Marcia Ball: Still excited about the music

Jim Trageser By

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With the dearth of record stores, and all the streaming and downloading--which people do or do not pay for--we make significant money, and we sell the bulk of our physical CDs, at our shows.
—Marcia Ball
Looking back some 15 years, blues singer and pianist Marcia Ball says the old San Diego Street Scene was one of her favorite gigs on her calendar each year. Modeled after New Orleans' Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Street Scene featured jazz, blues, R&B, Cajun, Creole, zydeco, bluegrass, folk and worldbeat in a three-day stew of music and food.

"I loved playing on that stage with all my friends," she remembered in a phone interview from her home in Austin.

"I'm excited to be heading back to San Diego," where she will play Sept. 26 in the San Diego Blues Festival—joining the likes of Booker T. Jones, Kim Wilson, Anson Funderburgh and Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials in an impressive two-day lineup. Ball is supporting her most recent release, 2014's "The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man."

In the years since San Diego Street Scene was at its peak, before changing to a Top 40 format and then dying completely, the blues scene in the United States has changed considerably. The 1990s saw a huge boom in the music's popularity -and if that has dimmed some, Ball said that's likely due to the inevitable changing of the guard.

"When you and I were kids, the old guys were still around. And we were getting to hear Son Seals, Muddy Waters and Pinetop Perkins. We were hearing the originals -now we're into the second and third generation. It is different. There's a different draw."

But she said that if the blues boom has slowed some over the past quarter century, the fans work harder at supporting the music—and musicians—than in other genres.

"We benefit from the blues societies—there's a whole lot going on for us, organizing communities to get good music performed." And most larger cities and universities have a public radio station that will play the blues and jazz, she said, further helping to promote the music.

Still, even in Austin, one of the country's most vibrant music scenes, Ball said things are more challenging from a business standpoint than they used to be. The venerable blues club Antone's is currently shuttered as the ownership (the late founder and owner Cliff Antone's sister, Susan, is still involved, Ball said) moves the venue back downtown, where it was originally founded. She said the old regular performers at the club—herself, Jimmy Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton, Toni Price and others—are hoping the club reopens early in the new year.

But fewer and fewer clubs are able to charge a cover to pay bands because customers just won't pay, she said.

"Austin has a lot of clubs, but a lot of them are 'pass the hat.' We're struggling right now with people's reluctance to pay a cover. They'll order a fancy $10 cocktail, but they won't pay a cover."

Building a career in music—or just holding one together—is getting tougher and tougher, she said.

"You have to tour some to cobble together a career."

She also echoed an observation Charlie Musselwhite made to the North County Times in San Diego a few years ago, that fans don't want to stay out as late as in the past, and that being the headliner no longer automatically means being the last band on the bill.

"Maybe Austin is still a 2 a.m. town, but I'm not sure," Ball said, laughing. "I don't know too many towns where people are still crazy about staying out all night. We're totally a happy hour town now—people love to see the 6 o'clock band or the 8 o'clock band, and be home by 10.

"If you're going to have a weeknight scene at all, you're going to have to have those early shows. I can't remember the last time I even stayed out until 1, and I don't have to get up to go to work the next morning."

As for her own shows, Ball said playing earlier on the bill pays dividends beyond getting to bed at a decent hour.

"I like to be second to last, because I sell more product that way. If you're the last band, everyone just streams out after your set. But if I'm second to last, I can talk to folks at our table. It's how we sell our records. With the dearth of record stores, and all the streaming and downloading—which people do or do not pay for—we make significant money, and we sell the bulk of our physical CDs, at our shows."

With streaming services paying a pittance to musicians, and fewer clubs able to afford to pay musicians, Ball said it's tougher than ever for younger musicians to get a foot in the door of the business.

"There should be a way you can pay a band online. If you're been listening to a band on Pandora, or been watching on YouTube, for five hours and realize you've never given that band a nickel, you ought to be able to send them ten dollars. I had this idea, and then discovered DigitalTipJar, which already does it! You can go to DigitalTipJar and throw money at the band. I think that's a great idea that you can pay the band directly."

Despite the challenges to the business side of the music world, and despite the sobering reality that yesterday's rising stars are today's gray-haired veterans, Ball said she remains excited by the music she is hearing.

"There is still so much good music being made by young people in this country—influenced by the older blues musicians and the older country musicians. The trick is finding the good music and supporting it—even if it's not exactly what we're used to."

She said some of the younger musicians who grow up in or arrive in Austin chasing their dreams will approach her for guidance or advice—"And even if they don't ask, sometimes I still tell them!" she said, laughing again. (A conversation with Marcia Ball will always involve lots of laughter.)

"Emily Gimble—among many others here—is a gifted young singer and pianist. Her granddaddy was Johnny Gimble, the country fiddle player -but she leans more toward jazz and R&B. First time I heard her, I went home and made her a CD of all my favorite songs -all old soul stuff. I said, 'Here, this is where I started.' The next time I saw her, she was doing two of those songs.

"That's how we can pass along what we do."

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