David Ball is already at the bar. It’s 2:00 p.m. on a Tuesday in Nashville, and the place is packed. Everywhere you look, there’s a songwriter clutching a bottle or a glass in his hand. It’s as noisy as a Saturday night in a dive bar.
“It’s not usually like this,” Ball says. “Every time I come in here during the day, it’s pretty quiet.”
He settles into a picnic table in the back of the bar. A few songwriters recognize him, coming over to shake his hand. Ball points out a few others in the bar. Nobody is in a hurry. Over small talk with his producer, Wood Newton, the first round of beer is quickly drained and a second round is on the way.
The jovial setting seems perfect to talk about Freewheeler, Ball’s first studio effort since “Riding With Private Malone” dominated country radio in 2001. After all, Freewheeler is heavy with the honky-tonk influences he’s been famous for since 1994’s “Thinkin’ Problem.”
“I always wanted the chance to cut a 78 record,” he says, and in spirit, that’s what he’s accomplished with one of his originals, “Mr. Teardrop.” Or as Ball sings it: “Mi-yi-ister Teardrop.” Its tickled ivories make it just as catchy as a doo-wop classic from the 1950s.
In other words, it sounds just like a hit song, and Ball loves hit songs.
“When I was a kid,” he says, “you’d turn on the radio and Bam! You’d hear a hit song and it would make my day.”
Growing up in Spartanburg, S.C., his mother played piano (and toured with the USO) and his father was a Baptist preacher. As children, Ball and his brothers would listen to the radio and insist they could write a better song than what they heard.
But Ball did something about it.
In high school, he formed a trio with his slightly older friends Walter Hyatt and Champ Hood, and they billed themselves as Uncle Walt’s Band. They all moved to Nashville for the summer before Ball’s senior year, but Ball returned home for high school in the fall. After graduation, he quickly moved back to Nashville to make a regional name for the band.
“We were doing kind of a folk circuit,” he says. “We kept meeting all these Texas folk musicians like Willis Alan Ramsey and Guy Clark, and they were like, ’You gotta come to Texas.'”
So, Uncle Walt’s Band relocated to Austin in the early 1970s and quickly captivated the city’s music fans. Legend has it that other bands would cut their last set short to catch the trio on stage. Ball also claims that Uncle Walt’s was the first Austin band to release a CD on its own.
In the 1980s, Ball left the ensemble to pursue a solo career. A publishing contract came his way, and he briefly landed a development deal at RCA. The label released three singles, but nothing happened.
“I was night club singer for 10 years before I came to Nashville,” he says. “Being in a studio was not something I grew up doing. Man, when you start working with a bunch of … sheesh, whatever … up here in Nashville, I mean, it can be a disaster. I viewed producers and record labels as hurdles, you know, because everybody wants to be a star and they’re no help.”
However, a move to Warner Bros. resulted in a major hit, 1994’s “Thinkin’ Problem,” which earned a CMA nomination for song of the year. He was also nominated for the CMA Horizon Award — at age 42. The album was certified platinum within a year.
“It got me started,” he says. “It was a great way to start things off. In a way, it was like ’Achy Breaky Heart.’ It’s what you call a hit record. That’s what I like. Hell, I love ’Achy Breaky Heart.’ I love a hit record. I don’t care what it is.”
He orders another round just as his story takes a downward turn. After the Thinkin’ Problem album, his commercial fortunes plummeted when his label’s radio promotions staff shifted to a sister label. RCA released the songs they’d previously cut on him to capitalize on his success, but country fans thought it was a follow-up project without any hits. Two more studio albums on Warner Bros. tanked. Meanwhile, songs like “Strawberry Wine” — sung by women for women — were all the rage.
“I felt like a dark cloud descended on this town as an artist and as a writer,” he says. “All I was doing was reinventing honky-tonk music. I was bringing new honky-tonk music to the table, and man, (the music industry) just didn’t want it. They didn’t want to hear it for about two years there.”
But after “Riding With Private Malone” — which he considers a tribute to Vietnam veterans — dominated radio in 2001 and 2002, Ball was back in business, soon playing theaters with a full band. The corresponding album Amigo sold well, and Freewheeler continues its streak of traditional country music with fiddles and clever wordplay. Jesse Winchester wrote the title track, told from a perspective of a wanderer who has no guilt about his itinerant lifestyle.
At 51, Ball is ready to hit the highway again, hoping to find favor with country radio with Freewheeler, he says, because more airplay means bigger crowds on the road.
“That’s the boat I got in because I love a hit record,” he says. “I aspire to write a hit song. That’s what I want to do for this minute. It could change, though. There’s a big world out there and it doesn’t revolve around Nashville. I certainly don’t want to play some sort of second-rate music. Right now, I’m doing exactly what I want to do, and I’m proud of it.”