David Ball

First published in Country Music International, November 1994

Second time around David Ball is determined to bring his own brand of good-time honky-tonk to the masses

The image of the good-looking young hunk making all the commercial breakthroughs in today’s country music has just been shattered by the recent American success of David Ball, a 41-year-old honky-tonker, whose music and looks are a million miles away from what constitutes the majority of today’s country music. Ball has been around the music scene for more than 20 years and is a victim of the Nashville music business. But he refuses to let the setbacks and disappointments dent his enthusiasm for creating and playing his own exciting brand of 1950s-style honky-tonk.

Six years ago, David Ball was signed with RCA Records and seemed all set for a successful career. With bound-less enthusiasm and a seemingly open-ended budget, he spent a great deal of time in the studios, trying to perfect a sound and style that would make him a country star. Just when he had an album ready for release, RCA pulled the plug and decided, after spending more than $120,000 that they were no longer interested in David Ball, and dropped him from the label.

“It was frustrating,” he recalls. “I had a lot of good music and a lot of energy and I was ready to rock. I thought they were the best label for selling it. Then, boom! We got all crossed up! I found myself in the studio with people who were experimenting and trying different things. I had my idea, the producer had his idea and the record company had their idea. It was kinda like: ‘Is this guy Jim Reeves, Waylon Jennings or Roy Orbison?’ And I’m being pulled in every kinda direction, when all I wanted was to be me.”
Most artists might have been totally disillusioned if treated that way, but Ball just picked himself up and decided to stick it out.

“Well, it’s a tough town, it really is,” he shrugs nonchalantly. And there’s a lot of talent there. I’ve found that you just have to hang on. If the first shot doesn’t work, you have to be ready with the second one.”

“I’ve been in and out of Nashville for years,” he continues. “I grew up in Carolina, and when I was at high school I was in a folk band. I played folk and bluegrass so we would always come through Nashville. That was back in the seventies. A friend of mine from Carolina lived there. She was a songwriter named Marshall Chapman, a good ol’ gal from Spartanburg.”

“Y’know I didn’t even realise that Nashville was a songwriting town, and that there were people there, on salary, making money by writing songs. I was writing back then, but I never seriously thought I could make any money out of it. I wanted to play music, so I went to Texas where I could make money playing live.” He chuckles at his naivety.

Ball spent almost 10 years playing in the bars and honky-tonks of Texas as a member of Uncle Walt’s Band. An acclaimed Austin-based outfit led by Walter Hyatt, the band recorded several independent label albums. In the mid-1980s, Ball moved back to Carolina, settling with his wife and young daughter in Charleston. He spent his time playing solo gigs at bars, coffee houses and dancehalls. A couple of years later he was signed to the ill-fated RCA contract and uprooted his family once more.

“I came to town on a record deal,” Ball explains. “I didn’t really have a manager and I didn’t have a publishing company. I guess I had the cart before the horse. I also didn’t really know who I wanted to work with.”

Nowadays he knows the pitfalls and is better prepared to handle it all. “These past three years I’ve got hooked on songwriting. My publishing company even gave me the opportunity to come off the road and it gave me the opportunity to write every day.”

Ball’s songwriting is pure honky-tonk and is cast from the same mould as the classic country songs of the 1950s and 1960s that have stood the test of time. His first hit, the title track to his latest hit album Thinkin’ Problem, is a powerful honky-tonk ballad that registers in the memory after just one listen.

“I wrote that one with Allen Shamblin,” says Ball. “He had the idea and we just sat down and wrote it. I’m a big fan of Gary Stewart [honky-tonk star from the mid-1970s] and honky-tonk music. There’s a good song on the album called Honky Tonk Healin’. It’s a sad, broken-hearted song, but we put the smile back into it.”

He starts singing a few bars, before switching to Gary Stewart’s She’s Acting Single, I’m Drinkin’ Doubles. “The fifties and sixties; that’s the era of music I really love. Man, I grew up on all that stuff. I got me a tape of Wayne Walker doing all his demos. Y’know he was a good, good singer…”

I asked if Ball knew that Walker had written Are You Sincere? A big pop ballad in the 1950s. Always ready to oblige, he launches into the song, singing loud enough for everyone in his publicist’s office to hear.

“Man, I really love that stuff. It’s the only style I know. I told my producer Blake Chancey that I wanted to make a good Texas dance hall music record. We went into the studio to cut some demos and those demos ended up on the album. There seemed no point in changing anything.”

Those demos landed Ball a second shot at a Nashville recording career. This time with Warner Brothers. THINKIN’ PROBLEM is already climbing high in the country charts and has crossed over into the US pop listings. Yet it’s one of the countriest albums of the 1990s.

David Ball has a magnificent hillbilly voice. And he’s been around long enough not to get it wrong a second time. “I’ve been ready to do this for so long,” he enthuses. “It’s just great.”