Honky-Tonk Healer

David Ball knows what it's like to be at the wrong end of a recording studio, staring into the Plexiglassed control room as the session producer inside stares right back, neither man happy with what's being captured on tape, each for entirely different reasons.

For Ball, it happened back in 1988, when he landed a record deal with RCA after a late Seventies apprenticeship with the folky-tonk trio Uncle Walt's Band. When that critically acclaimed Austin group busted up in the early Eighties, Ball headed to Nashville after hearing Randy Travis's "On the Other Hand," the 1986 megahit that helped bring traditional country and western back to the charts. It was the sound Ball had grown up on in his hometown of Rock Hill, South Carolina, and the sound he wanted for his RCA debut. It wasn't to be: Ball didn't hear enough of that sound in the finished product, titled Steppin' Out, and RCA didn't hear enough hit material on it. The label tested the chart waters first with a pair of singles. When both died without so much as a whimper, RCA put the kibosh on the album and released Ball from his contract.

"Frustrating" is how the 40-year-old preacher's son describes the Steppin' Out ordeal during a phone interview from Las Vegas. "I felt like the music was just slipping through my fingers," he says in a thick, Southern drawl. "I would play certain songs I liked and I'd get no response from the producers. Then I'd sort of throw out some other stuff I wasn't crazy about, and they'd like it. It was just a case of bad communication all the way around. Mostly, I couldn't express in the studio what it was I wanted to do, and when I got down and tried, nobody was interested in what it was I wanted to do."

What he wanted to do, he states, was simply to make a "good dance-hall record," something that threw back to the hard-swinging, fiddle-sawing, pedal-steel-sliding sound of the great Sixties era of tough, white-knuckled honky-tonk. Failing to do that in Nashville, Ball headed back to Austin to regroup, and soon started gigging around town in little dives with a "group of some friends, just fiddle, guitar, drums, and bass, doing my songs and the music I liked."

The work paid off. Taking his new songs back to the songwriters' clubs in Nashville, Ball was heard by some execs at Warner Bros. and was offered the chance to make the record he'd always wanted. This time he pulled it off. Thinkin' Problem, issued in 1994, was a taut, gritty piece of no-nonsense, gutbucket honky-tonk, steeped in the verities of Ball's heroes George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Webb Pierce. While his big, booming voice was a throwback to those Hall of Fame icons, his songs took the tried-and-true formulas of classic country and western for a few new turns on the dance-hall floor. In the process, he made one of the Nineties' best country albums.

It was an album so good that even country radio -- which seems at times to have an aversion to quality singing and songwriting -- couldn't ignore it. "Thinkin' Problem," the first single from the set, cut through the glossy-pop confections of Garth Brooks and his Identi-Kit cowboy clones like a tricked-up tractor ripping through a corn field, and cut a wide path for its followups, the dark, introspective "When the Thought of You Catches Up with Me" and the rollicking "Look What Followed Me Home." "Thinkin' Problem," the song, was nominated in 1995 for the Country Music Association's Horizon Award and Song of the Year, while Ball was nominated for the Academy of Country Music's Top New Male Vocalist, and got a Grammy nod for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. He walked away from all the award shows empty-handed, but Thinkin' Problem, the album, went platinum, selling more than a million copies.

Not surprisingly, Thinkin' Problem's runaway success prompted RCA to dig through the vaults for the Steppin' Out tapes, which they remastered and repackaged as David Ball, a quick-buck cash-in. The artist's assessment of the album still stands, meaning it ain't too good. A few songs click, but mostly it's a spit-slick assortment of trifles that don't do justice to his mountainous tenor, and it lacks the focus and determination of his proper debut.

Better to pick up Starlite Lounge, Ball's recently released second album for Warner Bros. and the creative equal of his sterling debut for the label. Although he's working with a new production team (Nashville vets Ed Seay and Steve Buckingham replace Blake Chancey), Ball's new one is drawn from the same deep well as Thinkin' Problem, and serves up a hot batch of slinky two-steppers ("Hangin' In and Hangin' On"), aching ballads ("I'll Never Make It Through This Fall," "If You'd Like Some Lovin'"), and romping-stomping shufflers ("No More Lonely"). Ball continues to tower over cream-puff newcomers like Rick Trevino and Bryan White, with music that's sharp as the nails in a honky-tonk floor and vocals that are seasoned like the finest amber-color stuff behind the bar. He brings to Starlite an extensive knowledge of country's roots and history, but Ball is neither arrogant purist nor retro-minded doofus: Starlite's production is hot and snappy and radio-ready, and Ball has a knack for writing clever, pun-laden songs that don't insult the intelligence (e.g., the first single, "Circle of Friends," as in "I'm just a square in your ...").

"I think my music is very hooky," says Ball, who has written or co-written nearly every song on his pair of Warner Bros. discs. "I like hooky melodies and I think I can write them. I've always believed that if you hear a song once or twice on the radio, the next day you should be humming it."

The art of great songwriting -- the inspiration behind it and the historical context in which it should work -- is toasted on Starlite's finest cut, a contemplative homage to the creative process titled "The Bottle That Pours the Wine." The song is a humble salute to the power of well-chosen words in which the songwriter is "a fragile vessel of melody and rhyme/Put me on a pedestal, I'll fall and shatter every time."

"People always ask me if I'm writing from true experience, and I've always hemmed and hawed," Ball admits. "Sometimes it's part truth and sometimes you take it from something that maybe didn't happen to you but is still very real. One summer about two years ago, when I was touring behind Thinkin' Problem, I had a lot of people ask me where the songs were coming from, so 'The Bottle' was taken from those kinds of conversations. At the time I didn't have an answer for them, but I started thinking about it later. The title's just an expression you've heard before. You know, sometimes songs just fall on you from the sky and you just have to be there to write it all down. So you have to be the bottle that pours the wine."

Ball's is a refreshingly honest and passionate outlook on songwriting, considering the assembly-line dreck from the Nashville song mills that country radio has for years been passing off as the real thing (especially considering the dearth of Nashville artists who write their own material). That Ball has been able to not only record his insightful, evocative songs for a major label, but to get them played on the radio and have them sell truckloads of records is flat-out amazing. Ball admits that he's "punching the buttons a lot" when he tunes in to country radio, but believes there remains a sizable audience for what he calls his South Carolina-Texas-folk-country music.

"Well, why not?" he asks. "There's a lot of people out there who like good music and are hungry for it, and I'm one of them. There's nothing like hearing a great song on the radio." And though he knows that money is the bottom line in the Nashville music business (it is a business, you know), he says he's found himself a nice, comfy niche. "I've found that in Nashville you can find just about anything you want. You have to be lucky and be at the right place at the right time and stay true to what you do. I have a certain style that I have to follow, and so far, I think I'm doing all right with it."

David Ball performs Saturday, August 24, with Dwight Yoakam at the Blockbuster Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach; 407-795-8883. Showtime is 8:00. Tickets range from $16 to $33.

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