He’s been on countless recordings—and produced quite a number—but Earl Poole Ball is meagerly represented by his own recordings.
But “Mr. Honky-Tonk Piano,” known for his 20-year stint in Johnny Cash’s band as well as recording on the The Byrds’ landmark Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and other legendary sessions for the likes of Wanda Jackson, Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, is just out with Pianography (Tin Tube Tunes).
As the title suggests, Pianography, which contains seven new cuts, four live tracks and vintage recordings form 1967 and 1977, is somewhat autobiographical.
In titletrack “Pianography (And Then Some),” Austin-based Ball, who also has worked as writer, arranger or producer for such varied artists as Cash, Haggard, Phil Ochs, Linda Ronstadt, Wynn Stewart, Terry Stafford and Freddie Hart (he’s also appeared in movies including They All Laughed and The Thing Called Love), outlines his life story traveling from Foxworth, Mississippi in 1961 (with two $100 bills given him by his father along with two new suits, a leather suitcase and a one-way ticket to Houston), to Texas, to California, to Tennessee and back to Texas, where he now performs with the stellar honky-tonk band Heybale! every Sunday night at the Continental Club—and also fronts his Rockabilly Bluze Band as well as the Cosmic Americans.
“For over half a century I have traveled about and played the piano with the famous and the not-quite-so-famous, always making good music wherhever I could,” Ball writes in his CD liner notes. Many of the songs, he adds, “are original musical vignettes that can apply to anyone and everyone caught up in the flow of life.”
Key here is “Something’s Gonna Get Us All”—“an attempt to lighten us up on the prospect of our collective certain eventuality,” as Ball puts it.
“Some people don’t get the irony of it, but it’s really a great song—a humorous look at death,” he says. On the other hand is lead track “Standing At The Edge Of The World,” which Ball co-wrote with Cajun/country legend Jo-El Sonnier, whom he once managed and who co-wrote three other songs on the album.
“It’s a country pop tune I sing around in the bars and people seem to like it,” notes Ball. “It’s where I and others can feel like the answers just are not coming fast enough on how to move on from the past, and how we must rely on spirit for some guidance--and stop ruminating.”
Speaking of Sonnier, he originally recorded the uptempo “Say You Love Me,” which Ball co-wrote. In Ball’s version on Pianography, Ball trades verses with Julieann Banks to give it a “flirty boy-girl thing.”
Sonnier also co-wrote “One Of Those Old Things We All Go Through,” which was recorded by John Anderson, and in modified form, by Jerry Lee Lewis.
“I did a real country take on it,” says Ball, noting that pedal steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness, with whom he played on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, guests on the track. “The lyrics apply to me as well--trying to make sense out of your life to those back home who care.”
Likewise, Ball’s “The Real Me,” is “another introspective thing [about someone] who needs to stop isolating and get back into the game of life.” “Sing It Boy,” which he wrote with Sonnier, derived from Sonnier’s title and Ball’s observations of broken-hearted people who come to bars to lighten their load but end up crying in their beer.
Four tracks—“Big River,” “Down The Line,” “Mean Woman Blues” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”--were recorded live in 2010 at the Johnny Cash Bash tribute at Austin music club Emo’s.
“They take me back to my rockabilly and gospel roots,” says Ball. “I got some good rockabilly players—Casper Rawls on guitar, Tom Lewis of Heybale! on drums and Kevin Smith, who’s now with Willie, on upright bass--and my friend Lisa Mills’ gospel-y blues voice graces ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken.’”
Pianography ends with a two-song segment that Ball subtitles "Long Ago And Far Away."
“'Second And Antone’ was recorded in 1967,” he says. “I was working with Gram and The Byrds, and wanted to make a record. ‘Flowers On Papa’s Grave’ is the original song demo I recorded in Nashville in 1977. It’s about a visit with my aunt and uncle to my great-grandfather’s grave in an old country cemetery when I was 13, and then cleaning it up. I was going to pitch it to Johnny, but everybody was trying to do positive love songs at the time, so I just saved the demo, which has Jo-El singing backup.”
Pianography took the veteran Ball 18 months to put together.
“Many times in recording, you are pushed for time," he says. "You're on other people’s budgets and schedules and have to make compromises, and it sometimes feels like you're making music by the pound. But this music was done slowly, over an extended period of time, giving it a chance to simmer and sizzle and organically become its own work of art----the way I always wanted to present my music.”
Ball is pleased with the early positive response.
“So many people are used to hearing people almost singing on key, and out-of-tune guitars,” he says. “I used professional players here, and everyone’s in tune: I’m out of tune once in a while, but that’s the way I sing!”
But Ball has also learned two important lessons from his release.
“If you’re 72-years-old and not touring much, it’s foolish to put out a record! I’m not getting in a van and riding around with a bunch of kids and going to bars and promoting it. I never made the van scene to begin with: I went right from the piano bars to flying everywhere with Johnny Cash, so I missed the whole van scene—and didn’t see much of the bus scene, either. So I haven’t been in a lot of vans in my life, and I’m never going to be!”
Additionally, Ball cautions against recording “an autobiographical CD and expecting people to buy it in great quantities, unless you’re a household name.” But he reports that a recent gig at the Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid, N.M. (“where we even had dogs on stage!”) brought out a local radio program director, who was big on the album as a whole--and especially “Say You Love Me.”
Ball previously released on cassette a rockabilly/gospel/instrumental album, I’ve Got Jesus In My Soul, which he cut back in the 1990s when he was working with Cash, and is available digitally as Earl Poole Ball And His Honky Tonk Piano. He has another radio transcription recording that he’s making available, and hopes to cut another album’s worth of honky-tonk songs to sell off the bandstand.
“I’ll do it fast and nasty in the studio!” he says, looking ahead to bringing his finished products with him next year if a potential tour of Europe, Scandinavia and the U.K. pans out.
Meanwhile, Ball, who’s been a fixture in Austin’s thriving music scene since moving there in 1999, has performed several Pianography release shows at home as well as Santa Fe, and is looking forward to more back home in Mississippi.
[The Examiner has written liner notes on Jo-El Sonnier albums.]
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