Earl Poole Ball Finds the Keys to a Long Career

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Earl Poole Ball’s Pianography backs transcendent originals with carefully chosen covers (“Big River”). The piano man behind Johnny Cash and many other stars spoke with CMT Edge about his new solo album, spirituality and life in Austin.

“Being weird ain’t no big deal here!” the Mississippi native exclaims. “There’s a lot of weirdness but not a lot of judgment. Being from the South, I was in a very conservative atmosphere as a teenager, and Austin’s lack of judgment impressed me a lot. Austin’s different than Texas — this little blue area in a big old red state.”

CMT Edge: Explain how the new album took shape.

Ball: I had these songs lying around, almost all of them finished. I was in the Lucky Tomblin Band, and we were at a listening party for [Tomblin’s] last album. Terri Hendrix and [Austin radio promoter] Jenni Finlay came over to me and said, “Earl, you need to make your own record.” They were both pretty pushy about it, and I really thank them for it. They were right! Terri and Jenni really were the impetus to get off my duffer and get in the studio. They’re really sweet people.

How did you approach putting the pieces together?

I wanted it to be my own production and call my own shots. The seven studio cuts took the longest and were the most expensive. Those live tracks [from a Cash tribute in Austin in 2010] were easy. There wasn’t a whole lot we could do except mix them down. I thought, well, we’ll do seven new tracks and I like these four from the show and I’ve got two old tracks that are demos that nobody’s hardly ever heard — “Second and San Antone” and “Flowers on Papa’s Grave.” So it’s got live stuff and new stuff and stuff from the past. That’s just perfect.

Tell the story behind writing the title track.

It sort of came to me as I reflected over my life. I have no idea where the line “Back when I was young and tough, Mississippi wasn’t strong enough to hold me” came from. At one point, I went to California and had to go to Nashville because Capitol Records transferred me there. Where am I now? Well, I’m in Austin, and I really like it here. My son gave me the phrase, “Awesome Austin.” That’s what he’d call it every time he’d come to visit — “Awesome Austin.” I thought, well, I need to convey that. So, how can I say all of that? That’s how the song started. I finished “Pianography,” and I thought, “That’s the name we’ll call the CD.”

Real-life experience seems essential to your songwriting.

Oh, yeah, that’s how I approach writing. I was told a long time ago to write what you know or write about what you’ve lived or what you’ve closely observed. That’s what I write about. The song “Standing at the Edge of the World” that kicks off the CD is all about a guy who’s standing at the edge of a whole bunch of decisions he has to make about his life. He’s living really close to his nerve center and heart center, trying to figure out what to do. He’s also trying to get over a lost love at the same time. That particular person at that time is trying to lose himself with drink or drugs, trying to use something to drown the memory with overkill.

When it comes to the first chorus, “The witness is mine to the answers I seek,” the witness is the Holy Spirit. That’s where the answer is. “You’ll find the treasures down in the water so deep.” That could mean a lot of things, death or baptism, but it’s searching for the truth about yourself and the situation. I didn’t think about all that when I was writing, but it seemed to flow out to be the right thing to say. In the last verse, there’s hope for the future. There’s always a rainbow after the rain.

Have you always been a religious or spiritual person?

Oh, I’ve been a spiritual person ever since I was a kid playing piano in the Baptist church. As I got away from that and started to encounter other religions, I got into some metaphysical Christianity and some of that made me question literal translations of the Bible. I got into that because I was looking for a Unitarian church one day and ran into a Unity church. I got them confused, but at that Unity church, I was exposed to metaphysical interpretations of scriptures. I read everything two or three times to get all the different meanings. I go through periods of reading scripture every day. I see different meanings, and I’m thankful for that ability.

Do feel compelled to write about spirituality in your music?

You know, I suppose I do feel the need to write about those things. I lean that way, but it’s not a conscious decision. It’s just part of my makeup now, and those things come out when I write. Some of the best poetry has more than one meaning to it. My mental and emotional and psychological makeup is to try to live on different levels.

Johnny Cash had a similar view. Describe performing with him.

Oh, it was a marvelous thing. The people would light up. He would walk from one side of the stage to the other, acknowledging the applause, and you’d watch this master showman at work, doing what he did the best, playing his guitar and singing his songs. Nothing was ever the same twice, so you stayed on your toes. Then his wife, June Carter Cash, would come out and do a comedy routine, and that was always hilarious. It was a fantastic experience. It was addicting. It became a total addiction, a positive addiction, doing a job you like to do and traveling with people who were all like family. There was a unity there, a shared experience.

Describe Johnny as a friend.

He was really cool and had a great sense of humor. He liked to tell little jokes and do fun things. Every once in a while he’d astound people just by being himself. He was very, very intelligent and could talk about a lot of things. If you wanted to talk Bible history, he could get into that. He was well-read in his Bible history and spiritual natures and things like that. That leaned me a little more toward spirituality. He even had a game he liked to play called Gospel Trivia or something like that.

He also did amusing things, like he got this bus that was all decked out with everything new. Immediately, he had the digital radio removed and put something in where he could turn the dials to get to the stations he wanted to listen to. He was a good friend, very supportive of whatever you might be doing. He liked to be in on things. He liked to know what was going on, not a closed-off person at all.

You introduce his song “Big River” on the album as a favorite. Why?

I have no idea. It just plays good and sings good. It’s a really great piece of writing, all about traveling down that river of life, meeting a woman and having her disappear down into the Gulf. It’s a slice of life and it feels real good to play.

Have you mastered the piano at this point?

Oh, no. Oh, no. There’s so much left to learn. I think I’m gonna take a few jazz lessons one day if things slow down enough. I can play blues. I’m a blueser and a country-rocker, but I don’t know much about jazz and I’d like to know more. There are guys around here that I really admire, like Floyd Domino. There are some swing and jazz things I’d like to know. I’ve got a lot to learn yet. You play music, too, right? Aren’t you a pianist?

I play guitar, but I took classical piano lessons for about 10 years growing up.

That classical music gave you a good background with theory and all that.

Sure. I hated it growing up, but when I found out playing piano could get girls in college, I called my mother and thanked her for making me take lessons.

I know that feeling! (laughs) My mother was the one who said I should play piano. I said, “Why do you want me to play piano, mama?” She said, “Well, if you learn how to play the piano, you can be popular at parties.” I thought, “OK, I’ll give it a shot!”

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