The back cover of Marcia Ball’s new album, “Shine Bright,” features the celebrated Austin singer and pianist striking a whimsical Statue of Liberty pose. Dressed in a silver gown, she holds a star aloft in her right hand and cradles a book in her left.
Wait, let’s look closer at that book. It’s not the Constitution, or the Declaration of Independence. It’s a colorful composition journal she bought at a local grocery store. The words “Shine Bright” are emblazoned on the cover.
“From the day I saw that and picked it up, I knew I was going to write a song called ‘Shine Bright,’” Ball reveals, kicking back at her kitchen table on an early spring day. “The whole concept of performing aggressive acts for good, and celebrating that, was set then.”
“Shine Bright” kicks off the album that shares its title, and it might be the best song you’ll hear from any Austin artist this year. A mission statement of sorts for how to approach life, it includes a roll call of shoutouts to heroes who let their light shine bright: Martin Luther King, Neil Armstrong, Jackie Robinson, Ken Kesey, Irma Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ann Richards, Little Richard, Stephen Hawking, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks.
“Shine bright, be who you ought to be,” Marcia sings in the chorus, her friends Carolyn Wonderland and Shelley King joining in as the band propels the lively, uplifting music forward. “Shine bright, for all the world to see. Shine bright, we’re making history.”
BALL HAS BEEN MAKING HISTORY in Austin since 1970, when she was heading to the Bay Area from her Louisiana home and her car broke down in Austin. She liked it here and decided to stay, for the rest of her life.
In 2018, she’s the official Texas State Musician, recognized by the Texas Commission on the Arts and honored by legislators last year during a ceremony at the state Capitol. “Shine Bright,” released April 20, is the 15th album Ball has made since her 1978 debut, “Circuit Queen.” She’ll celebrate with a free 5 p.m. in-store performance Tuesday at Waterloo Records.
Many artists slow the pace of new material as they get older, but not Ball. Since signing with Alligator Records at the turn of the century, she’s made seven albums for the renowned Chicago blues label. Four of them got Grammy nominations. Slowing down just doesn’t seem to be in her nature.
“During the last 20 years I kept thinking, ‘Well, I’ll play a bunch of gigs for a few months, and then I’ll take a few months off.’ But it just doesn’t work out that way,” she says. She’ll plan to take a break, only to get offered a show that she can’t refuse. “So I end up working. I really love it — that’s the thing. I haven’t stopped enjoying it at all.”
MORE AUSTIN MUSIC GREATS: Jerry Jeff Walker’s still fightin’
“Shine Bright” differs from Ball’s previous records in one surprising way: It’s the first time she’s recorded an album partly in Austin and partly in Louisiana. This seems like a no-brainer for an artist whose music is so deeply rooted in those two places.
If anyone could rightly claim dual home-state rights, it would be Ball, who was born at a hospital in Orange, Texas, in 1949. Her parents then drove her a few miles east to their home on the Louisiana side of the Sabine River. “Later there was a hospital in Sulphur, La.,” she notes. “But not when I was born.”
So Texas gets to claim Ball as a native, even though she was raised across the state line in Vinton and went to college at Louisiana State in Baton Rouge. Making “Shine Bright” in both places makes a world of sense, both geographically and musically.
“I’ve always been neither fish nor fowl,” Ball says. Indeed, like many of Austin’s best musicians, she’s drawn from a variety of genres to create her own sound and style. At LSU, she played psychedelic rock with the band Gum and sang folk songs with a friend. In Austin, she started with country band Freda & the Firedogs in the early 1970s before diving deep into R&B, boogie-woogie and soul music.
“It’s hugely important for me to have been in Austin all these years,” she says. “But they still let me claim the Louisiana credentials, and I’m so grateful for that. I am purebred, but I just happen to be over here.”
IN A ROUNDABOUT WAY, it was the late, great Jesse Winchester who sparked the Louisiana detour for “Shine Bright.” Bill Williams, a friend in Waco who signed Ball to her first record deal with Capitol in the 1970s, had sent her a song from Winchester’s final album, 2014’s “A Reasonable Amount of Trouble.” Ball dug deeper into that album and found “Take a Little Louisiana,” which spoke directly to her. “I loved it and I knew I wanted to do it,” she said.
She also knew she wanted to record the song in Louisiana. She’d recruited Steve Berlin of Los Lobos to produce “Shine Bright” in Austin, but Berlin gladly made the side trip with Ball to Dockside Studios, a legendary space near the Gulf Coast where B.B. King, Dr. John, Rod Stewart, Levon Helm and countless others have recorded.
They tracked “Take a Little Louisiana” and three more songs there, drawing upon homegrown bayou talents including singer Yvette Landry, guitarist/accordionist Roddie Romero, drummer Jermaine Prejean and B-3 organist Eric Adcock.
Back in Austin, they fleshed out the record with sessions featuring two sets of musicians that best suited the songs. Hammond B-3 ace Red Young and Ball’s longtime guitarist Mike Schermer, who co-wrote the track “Life of the Party,” did both sessions, with three tracks getting sax accents from Berlin and Eric Bernhardt.
Four other songs benefited from the talents of Bruce Hughes, whose Austin credits have run from Bob Schneider to Johnny Nicholas to Poi Dog Pondering and far beyond. Ball saw Hughes playing with Schneider last year at the Saxon Pub, “and I went, ‘Well, of course!’”
She played some in-progress tunes for Hughes on piano. “When I grabbed him, these songs were not fully formed,” she said. “We put them together, with his ideas.” Hughes also connected Ball with drummer Conrad Choucroun (Patty Griffin, Ian McLagan, White Denim), whose rhythmic virtuosity shines especially on the title track.
BALL ALSO GETS POLITICAL on “Shine Bright,” especially in the song “Pots and Pans.” Inspired by the activism of the late journalist Molly Ivins, at whose memorial service Ball performed in 2007, it’s a funky R&B number that recalls the gatherings Ball helped organize at the state Capitol in 2012 to protest reductions in public funding for women’s health.
Such activism always has been part of Ball’s identity. “I’m a hippie and an environmentalist,” she says with pride, rattling off a variety of causes she’s supported over the decades in Austin. But the current political atmosphere has made her songwriting more “brave,” she suggests.
It’s the same word she used last May when she took part in a tribute to songwriter Jimmy LaFave at the Paramount just days before his death from cancer. Prefacing her performance with a nod of appreciation for LaFave’s political bravery, she called out those who helped to elect President Trump.
“I am not one of those people who will say that Trump makes them nostalgic for George W. Bush,” she clarifies in our interview, “because I’ve been wearing this little peace sign around my neck since March 19 of 2003, which is when we invaded Iraq. That’s criminal as far as I’m concerned, and so is Cheney and that whole bunch. But it’s just gotten worse and worse. You have to speak up.
“I’ve been on that (progressive) side forever; that’s just who I am. And I’ve been outspoken about it. It’s just that now, things are crazy, because the president’s crazy. And the people who let him be crazy are as much to blame as he is for what happens.”
Dovetailing with Ball’s political activism are her efforts to help Austin musicians deal with increasing affordability issues. She’s on the board of the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, and she speaks eloquently about the organization’s efforts “to navigate our members into the right programs” to meet their needs.
Ball also co-founded Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers (HOME), created in 2013 to help octogenarian blues singer Lavelle White find a place to live. Since then, they’ve assisted about a dozen other clients with rent and utility payments.
READ MORE: At 88, Lavelle White still sings the blues
The organization recently obtained nonprofit status, which “will allow us to ask for more money,” Ball explains. “A lot of foundations don’t want to give you $1,000, they want to give you $10,000, or $15,000. But they’re not going to do it if they can’t write it off. So we had to get that first.”
IT’S A FRIDAY NIGHT in early March, just as South by Southwest is beginning to take over the city. But those who have gathered at the Saxon Pub are here to celebrate a different era of Austin music, when a trio called Uncle Walt’s Band captivated fans and musicians alike with their transcendent acoustic music.
Onstage, David Ball, the group’s lone surviving member, performs with the offspring of his late bandmates Champ Hood and Walter Hyatt. As they sing the chorus to one of their most memorable songs — “Keep on workin’ and shine on” — Marcia Ball smiles wide in the shadows at the back of the club, swaying to the music and singing along.
Soon she’s onstage for her scheduled guest appearance, and she gives a remarkable testimonial, actually crediting her career to Uncle Walt’s Band. When she first saw them in the early 1970s, she explains, they played a song called “In the Night” that she loved but didn’t know. Afterward, she talked to Hood, who told her it was written by her fellow Louisianan Professor Longhair.
“I think we were at Castle Creek, the club at 15th and Lavaca. I can almost picture where I was standing,” Ball says. “There was that one song that caught my ear. Champ knew, and it’s kind of like he laughed at me: ‘What? You don’t know who Professor Longhair is?’
“Then I went and found the record, the Atlantic reissue,” she continues. “It had ‘In the Night’ and ‘Tipitina’ and all the songs that I’m still doing.”
Such little twists of fate have helped shape Ball’s career all along the way, from discovering Austin after college, to that inspiration from Uncle Walt’s Band in the ’70s, all the way down to her friend’s Jesse Winchester tip last year.
Regrets? In “I’m Glad I Did What I Did,” one of two cuts on the new album written with the masterful Gary Nicholson, Ball professes to have none. Still, when asked about turning down a chance to make a Freda & the Firedogs record for Atlantic Records with the legendary Jerry Wexler in the early ’70s, she admits it likely was a mistake.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t think about it, it’s that I overthought it,” she says. Later she adds, “I think it was probably fear and lack of confidence more than anything that made me drag my feet.”
Still, “I’m Glad I Did What I Did” rings true. “If I want to get the credit, well, I’m going to have to take the blame,” Ball sings. “I’m glad I did what I did when I did it, and I’d do it over just the same.”
I ask if she ever wonders what might have happened had she continued on to the Bay Area in 1970. “I like to think I would have gotten to do this, just with a different group of people,” she says. “But Austin was so magic. And it still is.”
She pauses, then considers one other parallel universe that could have existed. “When I went away to college at 17, I went to LSU,” she recalls. “But I wonder why I didn’t go to USL (University of Southwestern Louisiana) in Lafayette. My daddy went there. But nobody I knew was going there.”
She ponders the outcome. “I imagine that everything would be the same except that I’d be playing accordion and singing in French.” She laughs heartily, with all the natural joy that Marcia Ball brings to life and music.
“And how cool would that be?”
When: 5 p.m. April 24
Where: Waterloo Records, 600 N. Lamar Blvd.
More upcoming shows: KGSR’s “Unplugged at the Grove” at Shady Grove, May 10; Antone’s, May 19