Covid blues: Marcia Ball writes songs, sews masks

Marcia Ball performed in February 2020 at the Crystal Bay Casino.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Marcia Ball is an award-winning blues singer and piano player based in Austin, and is featured on Alligator Records. The following is an interview between Jon Siembieda of Tahoe Onstage and Ball as part of a series catching up with artists during the Covid-19 pandemic.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your musical schedule?

Marcia Ball: Like all musicians everywhere, my live performance schedule is gone, gone, gone. I typically live by my calendar and fill in every little box.  Right now, I can’t find it. It might be under these masks I’m sewing.

There are a lot of artists performing live streams during quarantine. What are your thoughts on virtual live stream shows? Are there any you’ve checked out?

I watch a lot of live streaming events. My friends Shelley King, Emily Gimble, Joe Krown, Jon Cleary, Eric Adcock, and so many more. I’ve taken part in multi-act fundraising events like Saxon Strong and WWOZ’s Piano Night and some coming up like New Orleans’ Virtual Wednesdays At The Square, the Kerrville Folk Festival, and Live from FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, Illinois.

The interesting up-side of all this streaming, besides the best seat in the house for every show, is that we’ve finally figured out the virtual tip jar. Now, if you sit and watch somebody play for an hour, you can drop a $20 or anything in the Venmo/PayPal/whatever kitty and they make some money.  It’s not gig money, for sure, but they didn’t have to fly to Cleveland to get it, either.

Have you been writing?

I’ve been writing some. The first thing was that knee-jerk kind of funny take on the whole staying in idea, before it got less funny.  My friend Lawrence Wright, a celebrated author (you can look him up), sent me some lyrics to start a song we called “Hunker Down.”  We’ve used it for PSAs and it’s posted somewhere out there on Facebook or YouTube.  Then my friend Kimmie Rhodes, a lifelong professional relentless songwriter, and her son, Gabe, and I wrote two songs: “Make Something Beautiful” and “Hanging By A Thread.” And I wrote a fairly typically silly keep your distance song called “Sweetheart Darling”.  

Where’s the first place you’re going after quarantine is lifted?

I will be cautiously meeting with a few of my girlfriends to play dominos. If you know me at all, you might have figured that. We are all of a certain age and are being extremely careful especially now when so many safeguards are being relaxed, but we really miss our Mexican Train games and cannot figure out how to play online.  The person who creates the Mexican Train With Friends app is going to cash in big.

From what I read, it appears that gathering in enclosed spaces for an extended amount of time is a recipe for viral disaster, so night-clubbing and restaurant eating are going to have to wait a while. I’m speaking fairly lightly about all this, but I’m aware of the disastrous effects of this shutdown.  Austin has lost three long-time iconic restaurants already and there will be more bars, clubs, restaurants, and other businesses that won’t make it. Not to mention the individual economic hardship of everybody being out of work. I think we’ve only seen the tip of this iceberg.

Marcia Ball’s guitarist, Mighty Mike Schermer, splits his time between Austin and Truckee.

What record did you recently get that everybody needs to go and check out right now?

My friend Shelley King has a new record called “Kick Up Your Heels” that will cheer you up while you’re stuck at home.  Shemekia Copeland’s record, “America’s Child,” is so strong, it lifts me up every time.

Ethan Miller (Howlin Rain, Heron Oblivion) has been curating a lengthy and deep quarantine playlist. What at-home listening are you vibing on nowadays? 

For eight solid days I listened to WWOZ in New Orleans broadcast Jazz Festing In Place during the regular days and times that Jazz Fest would have happened. Classic performances from the archives of the festival, it was a dream festival – Fats, Fess, Allen Toussaint, Neville Brothers from 1994, Little Queenie. I listen to a lot of WWOZ streaming live while I’m kicking around the house. One of my favorite listens right now is anything by The War and Treaty.  I have been digging through my vinyl and listening to Johnny Taylor, Otis Spann, Ann Peebles. Comfort music.

Do you have a message for musicians and artists on the search for creative inspiration? In your opinion, what’s the best thing people can do to support the arts during these times?

Musicians can write about the pencil in their hand or the rain on the roof. They find inspiration in the air. People are certainly writing about this incredible event we are experiencing and its emotional toll. They are writing to uplift and offer solace and hope. They protest the inequities and follies of our times. They will do what creative people do — light the way forward and illuminate the past.

For the audience, music has never been more accessible in your home. Whole shows live from the artist’s living room to yours. Tune in and tip heavily. Buy music. Our independent record stores are already struggling. If you have one in your town, they’re selling online, I’m sure. Buy a CD. Remember CDs?  

Where can people keep up with you during quarantine?

Well, after all this talk about streaming, I’m not. Yet.  I’m taking part in the events listed above and thinking about doing some performances, probably as fundraisers for our nonprofit, HOME, www.HOMEaustin.org, which pays rent and utilities for older musicians in the Austin area. We’re giving Emergency Grants to qualified applicants and the applications are coming in steadily. People have been very generous to all of the nonprofits serving their communities — food banks, homeless shelters, health care providers — but the need is great and we’ve got a long way to go, so if you’ve got enough, give a little or a lot. That’s the best thing anyone can do right now.

— Jon Siembieda

ABOUT Jon Siembieda

Jon Siembieda
Writer Jon Siembieda plays guitar in the Southern California-based touring rock 'n' roll band Hunter & The Dirty Jacks. He is an avid concertgoer and album collector. His top five favorite bands are The Rolling Stones, Black Crowes, Faces, Mother Hips and Chris Robinson Brotherhood.

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