Riding with David Ball

Jeffrey B. Remz, December 2001

Chances are when most people think of David Ball, they remember his big hit, "Thinkin' Problem," and then probably wonder what became of him.

After a few less than stellar discs for Warner - commercially unsucessful, albeit well done honky tonk - Ball roared out of no place with a new lease on musical life thanks to the huge hit off his new "Amigo" album, "Riding With Private Malone."

The 48-year-old South Carolinian himself is surprised with "Private Malone," which gained much steam in the wake of Sept. 11.

"It really surprised me to tell you the truth," he says in an interview from his Nashville home. "I thoght the record was great, but due to the state that everything was in and all the struggles I had at major labels, I wasn't thinking that DualTone was going to be able to create the success to bring it home."

DualTone label is one of the new labels in Nashville - started by two Arista refugees - with the likes of Jim Lauderdale and Radney Foster on board.

Ball seemed poised for a solid career after his first single for Warner (he had three singles for RCA in 1988 and 1989, but an album went unreleased), "Thinkin' Problem," hit number 2 in 1994.

A follow-up single, "When the Thought of You Catches Up With Me" hit the top 10 later that year and a third single, "Look What Followed Me Home," peaked at 11 in early 1995.

Two later albums, "Starlite Lounge" and "Play," yielded no hits, not even close.

"I'm sure Warner Brothers felt very frustrated being unable to break my records, but just due to the nature that it was a big organization, I was outside the loop," he says.

He and Warner went their separate ways.

Speaking of the break, Ball says, "It's terrible, but at the same time with that comes freedom, which is exciting...With the major labels, it's just a business. That's all it is. If you can catch the right wave...I was lucky with 'Thinkin' Problem' to catch that particular wave. Warner was expanding and hungry and looking to have a lot of success with new artists."

"We both just realized it had come to an end," says Ball. "I really don't know what was going on at Warner Brothers. I had some ups and downs. You really have to have a good team together. That means everybody along the way. That's hard to do when you're trying to come back. We stumbled so badly at Warner Brothers that it was almost impossible to get back up and remain up. It's hard to walk away from a contract at a major label. We both knew it was time to go."

Ball plucked down less than $50,000 to record his own album with no label definitely aboard to release the songs.

"Warner had pretty much given me freedom to do pretty much what I wanted to do. But for some reason, we always wound up in a major studio with one of the top producers. Once you step into that world, that's where you are. We, of course, didn't have a budget. We had to figure out how to do this on our own. We had time. That's the one thing we had. That's what saved us because that's what it takes - it takes heart, soul and time in a record. You can't rush it. Prior to that, you block maybe two months and go in with a record and knock out a record with the pros. Everybody knows the score, and you just go in and do it. I was never comfortable in those situations. The recording can go real quick, but I'm not a fan of modern studio situations. I think they can be a little bit sterile."

"You use those regular cast, and you mike them the same way, and you work with the same engineers. You don't have to do it that way. Lucky for us. It works for some people, but I won't ever record that way around. The next album I do, I hope I'll do it in my living room."

Ball recorded the disc with producer Wood Newton - "we took our time" - over an 18-month period ending in the spring. "We started, and we would just sit on it and do a little bit more. We cut 13 songs."

"When we were finishing it up, we wanted people to hear it," he says. "We wanted to get it out to people. We just go by our gut. We just go by what feels right. That can be a very hard thing to do especially in this town because you got other people telling you what's what. It was so great that I was on the front line with Wood, and there we were."

As for DualTone, "We played them the record, and they got it. That's always refreshing. Wood took the record around to a few places. It was 'it'll probably be about a year and a half before we can put it out.' We knew what we were doing."

Ball says he wanted a label that "did right by the music and we didn't have to sit for hours at board meetings explaining (the music)."

"They, of course have a big BMG distrubtion deal, which helped us out a lot," says Ball. "Any time a certain Wal-Mart is out, bam, they're restocked. That's a real good thing as far as keeping the sales up. This thing took off, and it took off a lot faster than you'd think being on an independent label.

The reason, of course, is the easy going "Riding With Private Malone." The song describes a guy with $1,000 in his pocket, looking to buy a car. He never even drives it, but takes a chance on a 1966 Corvette. Looking around the glove compartment, he finds a note from Andrew Malone, who said "if you're reading this, then I didn't make it home" from Viet Nam. Private Malone then serves as the angel for the owner, saving his life one day in a bad accident.

One day while riding in the car with Newton, Ball says, "he told me about this song. I was intrigued, man. I thought what a unique story. All they had so far is a guy who buys a used car, and there's a note in a glove box."

The story actually has some truth behind it. Newton's first cousin, Jeff, served in Viet Nam and survived the war. But on his very first day back home, he was killed in a car wreck.

Newton wrote the song with Thom Shepherd. "They put a lot of heart and soul in this song. When I heard it, I heard Thom Shepherd play it live on the radio one night, and I told Wood to give me a copy of it. Wood said, 'Shoot man, why do you want this thing?' I said I want to learn it."

"Wood thought the record was done," he says. "I'd been looking for a story song for a long time. I just thought it was one of the best songs I'd ever heard."

"I'm a fan of good songwriting. Number one, bam, it was very well written. I was familiar with all the ingredients of the song, but I had never heard it put together. It wasn't a rehashing of the SOS. It was something new. The message of the song - the Viet Nam war ended on the wrong foot. The country was divided, and all the soldiers who had fought over there had gotten a raw deal. Here's Private Malone coming along. It just fills you with pride whether you were for the war or against the war. It just got to me. It put chills on me."

"The song had been out for three weeks, and we had been getting an overwhelming response to the song."

After Sept. 11, "unity in America became a priority after that. This song has the ability to do that. I hope it will always be able to do that. It's an American song. It tells an important American story. It's kind of modern day legend."

Of course, one song does not make up an entire album.

Ball tackled Count Basie's "Linger Awhile" and penned the lead-off and title track with Kostas. "Amigo" has a Tex-Mex swing feel to it.

"That was one of the things that got me going back into the studio to make a record," Ball says of the song. "It's a great tune. It's of course a nod to Bob Wills and to swing music in general. I'm a huge fan of guitar playing - that's of anybody who can pick up a guitar and play it. This is song is a tribute to the guitar and what it can do for you."

Ball says he's been into swing a long time, only his albums don't necessarily show it. The album also contains the instrumental "New Shiner Polka," also a swing composition.

"My very first album...had what I call disguise swing ("Honky Tonk Healin" and "Down at the Bottom of a Broken Heart") - but we couldn't present it for one reason or another in a swing setting. I wasn't too concerned about what anybody what would have thought of this record. I made a record that I'd like and my fans would like."

And now Ball apparently has a lot of fans.

"I don't tend to make my records sound all alike. I'm trying to get people come with me. I think this record is coming along when radio needs me. It can bring back some listeners and some listeners."

"I want country music to have its place. You have all these huge rock and rollers who like country music, but they won't listen to country radio. It doesn't take a genius to (understand) that."

"The only difference was this record was more of a homemade (record) which is where I was comfortable being," says Ball. "This is just a bunch of friends putting this together. We had time to kill. We enjoyed ourselves. It wasn't work. This was a labor of love. It's just a little more organized. We weren't really going for radio. In the back of my mind, it's more important to have some emotion than to spend all day working on drum sounds."

Ball indicates the timing may be right for him and DualTone thanks to a certain Private Malone.

"Here are two guys from Arista who came out of of a big company just like me. They wanted to do something on their own terms. They knew the problems with major labels. They act and move so slowly with things that it's frustrating. (They) wanted a company that could act quickly on stuff."

"This is the birth of an independent record label, and it happens (when) the majors are downsizing. You got so much music out there, and so much of it sounds alike. As far as a business goes, I guess the point is sell some records. And, of course, they're doing it."

"The great thing about the music business is that anything can happen. That's the thing I love about this. You can knock it out of the park if you get the right pitch. If everything comes together."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com