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David Ball Reflects on Americana Roots with Uncle Walt’s Band

David Ball grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina with no real musical direction. But he started playing whatever music was around him at a young age. He knew Champ Hood, a local musician that was a year older, and was fascinated with the music that he and his partner Walter Hyatt were creating. After some pleading with Hood, Ball joined Uncle Walt’s Band, a musical nomad in an era of pop and disco. They didn’t quite fit anywhere, thus becoming one of the forefathers of that exact genre — Americana.

David Ball interview
Warner Bros. Records

Ball eventually made his way to Nashville after signing a publishing deal and he eventually turned that into a solo career. He was 41 when he released his debut solo record, Thinkin Problem. It reached number six on the U.S. Country charts.

During his solo career, Ball spent some time with major labels. His time with Uncle Walt’s Band taught him something else though — that he could also do it on his own. But last year, he released his ninth solo studio album, Come See Me. He has also recently celebrated reissues for his former band, as that work has gained a new audience after being championed by Lyle Lovett.

When we chatted with Ball, he discussed that journey, which spanned half of a century.

Nashville Noise: Last year, Uncle Walt’s Band reissued some music. What led to that happening?
David Ball: That’s very special music. We’re doing a few concerts in support of that with Champ Hood’s son. Champ Hood was a founding member of Uncle Walt’s Band and his son Warren lives in Austin… His nephew, Marshall, also lives there. And they’re great musicians and they’ve kept alive a lot of this Uncle Walt music and that style of music. With various other super pickers, we’ve been playing in and around Texas and occasionally South Carolina. We haven’t been to Nashville yet but I imagine that’s coming soon.

Omnivore Records has been fantastic; the packaging is real good and they’ve gone in and remastered these old recordings and put a little sparkle on them… Some of these recordings go back as far as 1974. I was just such a big fan — those two guys were my heroes growing up. They were both a little older than I was and they really formed me as a musician and a songwriter, Walter Hyatt and Champ Hood… I love it. It’s very powerful music. But there’s the sadness of it because both Walter and Champ have passed away. Walter died in a ValuJet and Champ died of cancer a couple of years after that.

Omnivore Recordings

You mentioned that Champ’s son has had a big hand in keeping that music alive. What has that music’s connection to Texas and other artists like Lyle Lovett meant to your career?
DB: They were kids. We first ran into Lyle — he was a student in college, just kind of getting started playing music. Uncle Walt’s Band would come into town… He became a big fan of what we were doing. Most of the music that we played was original… Uncle Walt’s Band was sort of folk, our instrumentation was folk. It was acoustic and it was sort of an intimate sound. We came to find out that people like Shawn Colvin and Nancy Griffith, they were very encouraging. We did a few shows with people like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Champ would play fiddle with Guy out on the road.

In Texas, there was music everywhere and there still is — that was a big part of Uncle Walt’s audience and our success. We had quite a good following going. Off-and-on we were out there for about 10 years. Uncle Walt’s Band did go through a lot of changes. We had various musicians playing with us, fiddle players. Junior Brown used to sit in a lot and play steel and guitar. It was fantastic. We were having a good time trying to play some good music.

It was mainly a vocal band and I think that’s what people found so different about us in Texas. They liked our harmony and the songwriting. It was all new music.

That band is often credited as being one of the first Americana bands. And that genre has become huge over the past decade. What does “Americana” mean to you and how has it evolved since what you guys were doing?
DB: We were our own entity. It became obvious that instead of trying to chase down a major record deal, which people were doing that right and left, we kind of put one foot in that world and it was not the best fit for us. So, we decided to do it all ourselves. I think we were one of the first bands in Texas to just go into the studio and cut a record and put an LP out and it was at a time when people weren’t really doing that.

We were playing so many dates between Carolina and Texas, we were able to print up these records and sell them. We did our own business. We didn’t rely on a major label. We pursued that for a little while but people didn’t know what to do with us. They didn’t know who the lead singer was. They didn’t know what kind of music this was that we were playing and they didn’t know how to market it. This was in the era of the singer-songwriter: Kris Kristofferson, James Taylor, Randy Newman. We were sort of folky, country versions of that. It was just different. It was a whole different type of music.

I’m not sure much has changed with labels trying to figure out how to market an act.
DB: Yeah, and when you go with majors, they can do a lot. They can do a lot. But sometimes it’s not the most musical experience. We were big fans of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and The Eagles… that California-type country… We were doing a lot of Lead Belly music. Walter was a true folk musician years before I met him. And I was playing… What kind of music would somebody in the eighth grade be playing? We were doing Top 40 — “Love Potion No. 9” and “Louie, Louie.” [laughs] You know, stuff like that. It was very exciting to start hearing Walter and Champ together and hear the music they were playing.

Why did you decide to leave for Nashville? Was that an easier path?
DB: Uncle Walt’s Band moved to Nashville and we stayed here for about a year. We left too quick. We were starting to make inroads, but… We were on an odd path. We got hooked up with people that were more into [the] pop music scene in Nashville. That wasn’t really the scene we should have been in because we weren’t really a pop band. We played melodic folk music. We jumped on the opportunity to go to Austin and play some shows and make some money. There was a lot of work in Austin. We were starving to death in Nashville. But I made some contacts, and the band made some contacts. I always kept one eye on Nashville.

I had to work a day job for like a full month period — I laid rock. They had a radio at the work site and they kept it on the country station all day long. It was fantastic. I really started drifting that way, listening to Johnny Rodriguez; KOKE-FM in Austin, Texas in the 70s would play anything. They played Bob Wills; I started hearing that stuff and thought, ‘That’s unbelievable.’

Uncle Walt’s Band started playing some of that stuff. I’d sing some Webb Pierce and some Bob Wills, much to the dismay of a lot of true Uncle Walt fans. They grew up hearing that music but it was new to us.

One thing or another and I ended up getting an offer to write songs for a publishing company in Nashville. That was something I was very interested in because, at that time, I was hearing all of this good music coming out of Nashville like Randy Travis… Prior to that, it was not Randy Travis, it was a different type of music. I avoided it. I was not a big proponent of Nashville but Nashville is wide open and you can find anything you’re looking for. But you do have to get on a certain path and pursue that. You can’t leave it up to the fine folks in Nashville to help you with your direction. Those days don’t exist anymore.

I got this offer to come to Nashville and I thought I’d like to study that and learn how to really write something that good. So, I jumped at the chance. I was kind of on my own; I was back in Carolina at that point. I didn’t think we had anything going on… Uncle Walt’s Band was kind of at a loss… We were all three going in different directions. That ship had kind of sailed. It was always a joy to get back and play and here I am still doing the same songs with Marshall and Warren. We’re close. We’re not quite as good as Uncle Walt’s Band was, but we’re getting there.

Your new album, Come See Me, it has a southwest border swing to it. That’s not what’s happening in Nashville these days, which is home for you now. Was this kind of a throwback to those days in Texas?
DB: Exactly. Musically, I grew up out there. I came under the spell of all kinds of music. Sixth Street is full of Mexican, Tejano bars and you can go down there on Sunday and these old men would be in there playing their music: accordion, guitar. I love that kind of music. It has a danceable quality. I think that’s the Baptist in me — I was very fascinated sitting around drinking beer and listening to that kind of music. Every record I’ve ever done has a good chunk of that kind of sound. And I guess it always will. It’s guitar music — guitar, fiddle and that’s what I love. Cha cha cha.

David Ball interview
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