David Ball – For the sake of the single
“Phil Spector had that big sound,” Ball points out, “and I love the power of it. I’m a loud singer, and if I’m wailing, the band had better be right there with me. I think ‘Hasta Luego’ is a smash; it just smells like it.
“But when we had finished most of the album and listened to the whole thing, I realized something was missing. I wanted to bring it down a bit and make it closer to my live show, closer to that old-fashioned country sound. I wanted some of the songs to have that big Brooks & Dunn sound, but I didn’t want the whole album to be that way.
“So I went back in with the engineer, Ben Fowler, and we co-produced half of the album ourselves. We recut one of Don’s songs, dropped some others and added five new songs. It wasn’t that hard to become a producer because on every record I’ve done I’ve always brought the arrangements in and been real involved in every step.”
It takes a certain chutzpah to replace one of Nashville’s hottest producers halfway through an album project, but that’s one advantage of coming at Music Row from an alternative angle. If you’re an outsider, you have a more skeptical view of the insiders’ rules. The decision is justified by the balance on Play: Cook’s grand-ole-operatic production on songs such as “When I Get Lonely” is balanced by Ball’s understated production on songs such as the single “I Want To With You” and Jim Lauderdale’s “What Do You Say To That”.
Ball’s outsider journey to Nashville began on the South Carolina coast. He was just learning the upright bass as an 11th grader when he was invited to form a band with Walter Hyatt and Champ Hood.
“They were the best guitar players I had ever heard,” Ball recalls, “and yet they were so different. Champ could do all that Doc Watson flatpick stuff, while Walter was more of a fingerpicker. Champ came out of a rock ‘n’ roll band; Walter knew a lot of folk material, and they were already writing songs that are still some of my favorite tunes. While I was in high school, we went up to Nashville and played for about a month, and then went back in ’73. People started telling us that we should go to Texas, so we went down to play the Kerrville Festival, and it turned into a 10-year gig.”
“We had a strange chemistry,” says Hood, who now plays regularly with Toni Price in Austin and has occasionally toured with Lyle Lovett. “When we started, David and I were younger than Walter, so we looked upon him as the leader and the artist and learned a lot from him. David was a great bass player and had one of those voices you automatically respond to; you can’t believe that voice is coming out of that body. I was considered a utility guy; I could fill in whatever space they couldn’t. I’d sing a high harmony if it were needed or a low harmony if it were called for. I’d play fiddle or guitar, whatever helped.”
“We liked all types of stuff,” adds Ball. “We could reach back to the ’30s for an old song or bring out something one of us had written the day before. The band was always evolving, always moving; we didn’t just do the same show night after night. Junior Brown played with us for about a month or so. One time we played at Grins, this tiny folk club in College Station, and the opening act was this Texas A&M kid studying to be a German veterinarian. It was Lyle Lovett, and we both became big fans of each other’s work. Those were great times; it was where I got my musical upbringing.”
Uncle Walt’s Band released five albums on its own Lespedeza Records: Blame It On The Bossa Nova (1973), Uncle Walt’s Band (1975), An American In Texas (1980), Recorded Live (1982), and 6-26-79 (1988). Sugar Hill reissued the best tracks from these LPs in 1991 as two 17-track CDs: The Girl On The Sunny Shore and An American In Texas Revisited. In the reissue liner notes, Lovett wrote, “They demonstrate a sensitive, sophisticated understanding of the dignified South.”
“It was a great band,” claims Ball, “but at the same time it was frustrating because Walter was so restless that he’d always be on to the next song when the audience wanted to hear ‘As The Crow Flies’. We never made an album as good as we were sometimes live. Our biggest asset was our spontaneity, which often worked against us.
“Walter always wore his heart on his sleeve; you could always tell just what he was feeling. We’d do label showcases, which can be very stressful, and we would show it. We’d choke up, and I’d say, ‘What’s going on? It sounds like we’re playing underwater.’ We never had that ‘Let’s go out and kick some ass’ mentality, which you really need in the music biz.”
Uncle Walt’s Band finally broke up for good in 1983. Hyatt went on to cut three solo albums: 1985’s Fall Thru To You (Lespedeza), 1990’s King Tears (produced by Lovett for MCA), and 1993’s Music Town (Sugar Hill). On May 11, 1996, Hyatt died aboard the Valujet flight that crashed into the Florida Everglades. Many longtime fans — including Lovett, Ball and Hood — turned out to play his songs at memorials in Nashville and Austin. Lovett included four Hyatt compositions on his 1998 album Step Inside This House.
This year Ball and Hood have been finishing up their own tribute album to Hyatt. The songs include “The Sheik Of Shaboom” (sung by Lovett), “Motor City Man” (Shawn Colvin), “Foolin’ Around” (Toni Price), “Tommy’s Tail” (Billy Burnette), and “The River Road” (Hood). Ball sings five Hyatt compositions: “Gone To New Orleans”, “Message In A Bottle”, “Tell Me, Baby”, “Something Funky About You”, and “The Evening Train”.
“Walter wrote all these great songs,” Hood says, “but he never got the cover versions he deserved. Not only were his lyrics special, but he came up with chord changes that weren’t your ordinary thing. Basically, we did this album so the songs would get out there.”
“We did it on our own without a label,” Ball says, “because we didn’t want to do a business thing; we wanted to get the music right. If a label gets involved, they try to steer it in a certain direction, and we wanted to let it evolve. Once we’re finished — and we just have some mixing left — we’ll shop it around.”
Even before Uncle Walt’s Band broke up, Ball found himself drifting away from the trio’s folk-swing sound. Once they relocated to Austin, he started hanging out in the local dancehalls, listening to big swing bands such as Asleep At The Wheel or Alvin Crow & the Pleasant Valley Boys. It was his first musical conversion experience.