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Honky tonker hopes to play "ball"

By Dan MacIntosh, July 1999

David Ball's press material touts him as the honky-tonk savior. Although such praise can end up saddling a person with a "Life of Brian" complex, Ball brushes off such hyperbole with sincere modesty.

"That's what we call press hype," says Ball on the phone from his home in Nashville. "It's just b.s. and eye-catching stuff."

"I guess I am kind of a honky-tonk singer," continues Ball sheepishly.

Of course, such a statement just shouts understatement, since Ball is, indeed, a great honky-tonk singer. His first two albums ("Thinkin' Problem" and "Starlite Lounge") established Ball as a disciple of one of country's greatest stylistic traditions.

Nevertheless, the singer/songwriter's new album, with the playful title of "Play," will surely stretch his audience in the same way that he himself was stretched creatively while recording it.

And if traditionalists become a little dismayed at the pop punch jumping out of the speakers now and again, they have no one to blame but Ball himself, since he acted as his own producer.

Such an opportunity cannot be misconstrued as any kind of complete creative freedom. "I was still spending Warner Brothers' money," he reminds.

"You get to call all the shots," says Ball, 46, of his newfound role. "And with this (position), I was really comfortable."

With the producer's chair, comes a lot more responsibility than just getting the songs sung right. In addition to his own performances, he also had to line up the musicians and choose all the songs.

Don Cook (perhaps best known for his work with Brooks & Dunn) was brought in to help sort through song selection. Although Ball claims this is the only reason Cook was hired on to co-produce some of the album's cuts, one suspects that Cook was more than likely suggested by Ball's management to give "Play" more of a commercial zing to it. Especially after his previous album, "Starlight Lounge," bombed so horribly at the sales counter.

Cook's name is attached to a few of the new disc's most lighthearted moments, such as "Watching My Baby Not Come Back," "Hasta Luego, My Love" and "For You."

These songs may not sound like typical Ball tunes, a la "Thinkin' Problem," but he hopes these pumped-up tunes will not sound out of place within today's narrow stylistic radio guidelines.

While his second album holds up well-artistically speaking - next to his debut release, it doesn't contain anything close to the kinds of stylistic shifts he's since attempted with "Play."

"That had great stuff on it," says Ball. "It just didn't happen at radio."

The South Carolina native believes radio's bad habit of following slavishly after trends sometimes locks out airplay for his recordings. But great traditional country music has been around for far to long to ever be called merely a trend, even though sincere proponents of it, such as Ball, don't come along everyday.

Nevertheless, Ball will visit some 70 radio stations this year in hopes of convincing them that 1994's "new" flavor still tastes pretty good in 1999.

"My taste is my own personal taste," says Ball of his approach to writing and recording music. "Whether that transfers to radio or not. 'Thinkin' Problem' is exactly what I want to hear on the radio."

When Ball makes an album, he sets extremely high goals for his material.

"I have to like every song and be proud of it.

With the new one, his particularly favorite songs at the moment are "Lonely Town," which applies big bass-y guitars to a story about a fictional city, which must certainly contain a hell hole down at the end of lonely street, called something like the Heartbreak Hotel.

Ball is also partial to the second single, "For You," nothing more than a pledge to brave the most dangerous of elements - from climbing the highest mountains, to swimming with alligators to winning a woman's love.

A much better example of Ball at his best is the song "I'm Just A Country Boy." Set to a gentle swaying breeze of a beat, it uses examples of the farming lifestyle to tell the story of how a man must live through the regrets of losing his girl. In it, the inescapable innocence of a Frank Capra movie just saturates its grooves.

This particular recording is not the kind of whisky-soaked material we've come to expect from Ball. Instead, it has all the emotion-tugging earmarks of a great Springsteen tune.

Written with the help of Dennis Morgan, Ball was initially opposed to the idea of using the simplistic label of "country boy" in the song's title. But ultimately he was quite pleased.

"I'm Just A Country Boy" has a dreamy, sonnet-like quality to it, much like history's best odes to love. "That's the poetry of country music," summarizes Ball.

When Ball's words reach such a high artistic level, it's sometimes as much of a surprise to him as anybody. As any songwriter worth his salt will tell you, the writing process is oftentimes a mystery; one that seems to have a mind all its own.

"There's something to be said for blind ignorance when it comes to being creative," says Ball.

Sometimes that creative touch begins with what seems like the obvious, before leading the listener down an altogether unexpected path.

One such song on "Play" is called "A Grain Of Salt." In this story of regret over lost love, set to a crying George Jones-like arrangement, the song's chorus begins "I'm taking this heartache with a grain of salt." And before you get comfortable with the idea that Ball is waxing philosophical, he continues: "a little lime and tequila/as the teardrops fall."

Instead of coming right out and saying that he's befriending the bottle in order to get over a breakup, Ball gets his point across almost imperceptibly, in the same way alcohol slowly inebriates the mind.

"I'm a real fan of the subtle when I write songs," says Ball.

Ball may not be the honky-tonk messiah his press clippings make him out to be. But in his own quietly charming and subtle way, he is keeping the flame of smart and sincerely emotional country music alive and well.