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GREAT BALL OF FIREMARCIA'S PUMPIN' PIANO EARNS HER AUSTIN'S KEYBOARDTO THE CITY

Although the fame and riches usually associated with legends have thus far escaped Texas-blues Queen of the Keyboards Marcia Ball, there's no detectable complaint in her lovely, lazy drawl. A pinch of bemused irritation, maybe, but no chip on the shoulder for this Vinton, Louisiana, native. Given her accomplishments--which include helping to pioneer the Austin Sound of the early Seventies--one could forgive a Cajun wail or two from Ball.

"It's really kind of funny," she chuckles during a phone conversation from her Austin, Texas, home. "My band, Freda and the Firedogs, was playing straight country music for hippies all over Austin when we decided to go see what this Willie Nelson character was all about."

We all know what happened to the Red-Headed Stranger, but what about Freda and the Firedogs?

"You want irony? Our last gig was in 1974--at Willie Nelson's Fourth of July picnic."

Yet, getting to toss big Texas barbecues isn't why Ball crossed the Red River to the home of the armadillo. 1970 found her in Baton Rouge, majoring in journalism and English at Louisiana State University. She quit mid-essay, partly because she wanted to pursue music, but also because of the prevailing political climate. "There was great danger in acting in any kind of counterculture way in the South," she remembers. "There still is, to some degree, but back then Austin was seen as a friendly outpost, a place where musicians and longhairs could live and prosper. There was a great migration then, and progressive country hit its stride. The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jerry Jeff Walker, Asleep at the Wheel--they were all over town."

So were Freda and the Firedogs, with Ball gussied up in fringe-filled cowgirl drag, belting out country-western standards for a harmonious following of rednecks and tie-dyes. The translation from stage to studio, however, didn't seem to take. A 1973 attempt at an album failed and led to the group's dissolution.

The Firedogs' demise, however, didn't put any damper on her personal vision. In 1978, Ball released Circuit Queen on Capitol Records. Critics who years earlier had compared her stage product to a yodeling Patsy Montana were now associating her sharp and bluesy piano style with the likes of Fats Domino, James Booker, and Professor Longhair. Her last three solo LPs have been on the upstart Rounder label, including 1985's acclaimed Hot Tamale Baby and 1989's Gatorhythms. On the latter, Ball was backed up by fellow Austinites Lou Ann Barton, a fiery Fort Worth-born singer (whose gutsy growl once prompted Linda Ronstadt to admit, "This woman scares me to death"), and Angela Strehli, a veteran of James Polk and the Brothers. The women also collaborated on the recently released Dreams Come True, an album produced by blues Pooh-Bah Dr. John.

Recorded on Antone's Records (co-founded by Strehli), the fire-and-ice harmonies on Dreams Come True have met with much applause. The disc's contents are uniform in excellence, disparate in style. New Orleans-flavored blues, Memphis soul and Texas rock mix with covers of tunes by Ike and Tina Turner, Houston blues legend Lavelle White, and Helen Miller. The end product, a rich melding of personal influences and styles, took no less than five years to complete.

"We are all so busy with our own things, it was just a matter of grabbing a few days here, a week there, whenever we all found ourselves here at one time," says Ball.

The highly opinionated nature of the musicians didn't help speed up the sessions.

"Well, we're no shrinking violets, that's for sure," says the pianist. "We're all strong people who have definite ideas about the way things should be done. So we decided that if someone didn't like a song, they didn't have to be around. They could just stand aside. For instance, Lou Ann didn't like the title song, which I wrote. No problem. I mean, sometimes people were late or not in the mood. We just didn't let it get to us. We decided that friendship was more important than the product. Besides," Ball laughs, "Clifford Antone kept it going. With all the studio time and money he invested, he wanted a doggone record."

Antone's club is known in Austin as the city's blues headquarters. Over the years it's played host to Etta James, Dinah Washington and the Dixie Cups, Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Billie Holiday, and Sippie Wallace. Ball, Strehli, and Barton now play there more or less regularly and are known affectionately as "the girl group." The success of Dreams Come True and the talents of the three women render them, as far as Antone's regulars are concerned, legends.

Nevertheless, it wasn't until Dreams that the trio developed into a full-fledged sorority.

"We had played together, sure, mostly weekend gigs, but we really didn't know each other that well, even though Angela wrote a Firedogs song in 1973," says Ball. "We just weren't that close, and our personalities are quite different. We don't have much in common, but now we're good friends."

Still, don't look for the threesome to become a thing in the near future. Ball plans another solo effort ("something with more New Orleans-style piano"), busy schedule permitting, in the spring. The five-year saga of Dreams Come True, was revelatory, though.

"I plan on being more assertive," claims Ball, whose onstage delivery seems nothing less. She is known for her dramatically rigid posture, keeping her wrists cocked high and furiously beating the piano leg with her foot to keep time. "And patient, too," she adds in her soft drawl. "After five years of making this record, I've learned about moods and patience, that it's sometimes best to just let it go."

Marcia Ball will perform at Chuy's on Tuesday, January 8. Showtime is 9 p.m.

"My band was playing straight country music for hippies all over Austin when we decided to see what this Willie Nelson character was all about.

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Larry Crowley