Checking in with Our Amigo, David Ball
by Michael Buffalo Smith
I can remember seeing David Ball, along with Champ Hood and the late Walter Hyatt as Uncle Walt's Band here in Upstate South Carolina during the seventies. The guys were all great musicians, and in later years I would read of each of their individual successes. Ball's major success came in the late '90's with his country Top 40 smash, "Thinkin' Problem." Now, David has released a new album, and he did it his way. The results are astounding. "Amigo" is a sure fire hit, and David Ball is on his way to another major hit. GRITZ spoke by phone with Ball, a true country gentleman and a top notch talent.
The first thing I wanted to tell you is, I am on all of these discussion lists on the web, like lists dedicated to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, The Allman Brothers, etc. Several of them have had thread discussions about your song "Riding with Private Malone." I think you have yourself a hit there.
I hope so!
What was it like growing up the son of a Baptist minister?
Well, I grew up in a big family, and we didn't gamble and we didn't drink.And we didn't dance a whole lot. Mom listened o music a lot, and I was always free to pursue my interest in music and guitar. Went to church twice on Sunday. I didn't have to go on Wednesday night.
We used to go on Wednesday, but the good part was, ever so often we'd have an ice cream social.(Laughs)
Yeah! that was a big part of it too. We used to go out to Rainbow Lake- it was beautiful.
My family used to go to Rainbow Lake.
Yeah, what a spot.
Were you originally from Spartanburg (South Carolina)?
I was born in Rock Hill, but when I was five my father became pastor at a new church in Spartanburg, Fernwood Baptist Church. So I think I came to Spartanburg when I was about six, so it was almost like being born there. I didn't want to leave Rock Hill though. I really liked it over there, it was great. In school, my first grade, second grade, and third grade were all in one room.
I wanted to ask you about your first band, The Strangers.
That was my junior high school band. That had Bill Brannon on lead guitar, Benny Littlejohn on drums and Haywood Hodges on the bass.
Wow. If you can remember junior high, you're doing better than me! (Laughs) Let's talk about Uncle Walt's Band. How did you come to hook up with Walter Hyatt and Champ Hood?
I knew Champ as a great guitar player. As a matter of fact, people in town would mistake me for Champ. I just always thought he was about it as far as lead guitar. Ever since I started playing, I was always more of a fan of the guitar than I was a player. We had sort of tried to put together a country type of band, when we were in high school. A folk-rock kind of thing and it never really got off the ground. The Champ hooked up with Walter Hyatt and started playing as a duo, just two acoustic guitars and some singing. I was going to hear them, and it was then that I got the brilliant idea that I either wanted to manage them or join them, and sing some with them. So I started playing the string bass, I thought maybe to fill out their sound a little bit. I followed them around, and just kind of bugged them a little bit. Of course, you know how nice Walter could be, and he let me play. We spent about a year and half over at Walters after school singing. we'd play a gig every once in a while. But I learned an awful lot about music.
A lot of us were blown away when Walter was killed in the plane crash. Your thoughts?
It was horrible. Terrible. Walter was great. And Uncle Walt's Band, we had it. We just never, for some reason, got the opportunity. Musically, I think it was just up there. I think Walter knew that. I think he realized what a great songwriter he was. On one hand it could be a very exciting thing, and on the other hand it was kind of sad that we never met up with the right people. I think that was what it was all about. We had some opportunities, but they always seemed to slip through our fingers kind of.
After that you moved to Austin. What did you have in mind when you moved to Austin?
By this time, we were just looking for work. We just weren't making enough money in Nashville to survive, and I think the goal in Walter's mind- and he was running the show- was to get a recording deal, but that didn't happen in Nashville and we had to go to work. Of course they have all these great venues in Austin, and we played a lot of venues. That's how we made a living.
What prompted you to move back to Nashville in the late eighties?
Well, I knew I was going back to Nashville when I left Austin. I left Austin about 1984, and I knew it was time for me to go back up there and really focus on the songwriting. Austin was really changing, and had begun to really embrace the pop-new wave scene. I had wanted Uncle Walt's Band to be the band that busted out of there. Then the scene changed again. I believe the blues broke during that time, so half the town was blues and the other half was punk rock. It just wasn't happening down there. Austin kind of did an about face. I have always been interested in songwriting, and I was more leaning toward the country thing anyway, after spending so much time in Texas and seeing how much fun it was to play in the big dance halls. I really came under the spell of Bob Wills and George Strait, all the big country acts that would come through. I began to have a really deep appreciation for music for all people. Uncle Walt's Band had tended to play for a certain age bracket, you know, and it was always kind of awkward when we were put into other situations. Then I began to hear a lot of country radio. Ricky Skaggs was covering a lot of older Webb Pierce, Ray Price kind of stuff. I was living at Isle of Palms, South Carolina when I heard "On the Other Hand," on the radio by Randy Travis, and I said "That's it!" That's what I wanted to do, right there, and finally somebody did it. Prior to that I felt Hank Williams had written the greatest country songs and nobody was going to beat that. So then i felt Nashville was starting to do some of the kind of thing that I did. Then I thought maybe I could get a toe in the door up there.
Speaking of Randy Travis, you and he both do more of the classic country, or traditional country sound. Do you think we're going to see more of that style coming around?
Well I certainly hope so. I miss it. I don't necessarily hate everything that I hear on the radio, but the problem is I am not hearing any great country, and I've got to have it. There;s nothing like hearing a good song on the radio, and I'll tell you what- if you don't know what a good song is, then I don't think you ought to be in radio. I've banged my head on that door enough. I'm just glad to have something back that's working for 'em.
The new album, "Amigo," has a great Western Swing meets Mexicalli sound that sometimes reminds me of Marty Robbins or Willie Nelson. Was it your intention to give it a Western Swing theme?
I've always like that style. We cut "Texas Echo" in Nashville back in about '88, and sometimes you just don't quite capture it. So I was glad to take another shot at it. You know, on a major label you can't do anything like that, kind of Texas Swing or obscure cowboy songs. The whole record has to be aimed at what they perceive as main steam. I'm hoping that that is going to broaden. Because what they put into a tiny little hole and call it mainstream, for the most part, country music listeners are falling off. It's kind of drifting, and I think it may be because it is too narrow. I want to expand that a little bit. And this is what I can do best. Shania Twain can go off and do what she does best. I guess what makes this record unique is that it is me, it's not me trying to sound like Shania.You get what I'm saying. I'm not chasing something. I love Bob Wills music. Back in the seventies that's what I was listening to, was Ray Price and Bob Wills. Then I've been doing my own music for twenty years, my own style, so I'm kind of in a unique spot as far as most people that are out there, that are trying to get on the radio or be on the radio. I mean, I'm not influenced by Elton John, you know what I mean?
I'm on a lot of internet discussion lists for various bands and genres, including a lot of Southern Rock lists, and there has been quite a buzz on there regarding "Riding with Private Malone."
It'd been a while since I'd had a record, and I was till playing Texas and Oklahoma a lot, and I'd go over to Switzerland and stuff. But it was time for me to have a record that I could sell off of the bandstand when I went to Texas. And I knew that Texas was kind of separating themselves from mainstream country music and they had started their own chart called the Texas music chart. You can go to Texas and really work a record and sell gold. If it works nationally, well that's great too.
I think "Private Malone" will be number one.
Well, look out!
What's next for David Ball?
Well, I've discovered this really great way of making records, so I am really anxious to get in there and start another record. of course, I want to hit the road. I want to go out and play them dance halls!
Get that immediate gratification from the audience!
You know it! Concerts are fine too, but every now and then I've just got to get into those dance halls. You know, music sounds real good in those places.