Marcia Ball returns to the Broken Spoke

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     Marcia Ball’s earliest friendships formed with young democrats at the state capitol helped her to gain her first singing gig at the Broken Spoke in 1973.

Ball performed at the Broken Spoke as part a band known as Freda and the Firedogs, who entertained at Sen. Lloyd Doggett’s fundraising campaign the same year he began his first run for the Texas state Senate.

Since 2005 Doggett has served in Washington D.C. as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas’s 35th district.

Ball began her own rhythm and blues band in 1975 and became a successful songwriter and singer as well as a local supporter of liberal political causes.

More than 500 people packed Doggett’s private party nearly 40 years ago on that Monday night at the Broken Spoke. Hippies, either barefoot, or wearing moccasins or tennis shoes, made up a large portion of the audience. Few of them knew the traditional Two Step, but improvised by dancing what James White likes to call the “hippie hop.”

“We were a little hippie country band that played at the Split Rail every Sunday night and other college bars and places around town,” Ball said. “We were pure country then, but we just didn’t look the part so much. We were playing some of the most classic country in town of anybody. We weren’t playing radio country even then, we were playing older stuff – Merle Haggard and George Jones and stuff like that.”

Back in those days, Ball sang a lot of Tammy Wynett and Loretta Lynn stuff and she also yodeled a bit.

“We were singing ‘Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ with Lovin’ on Your Mind,’ and stuff like that,” she said.

“I remember how happy we were that first night that we played there at the Broken Spoke, standing on the old loading dock hauling our stuff in. We thought we had made it, we really thought we had.”

Playing at the Broken Spoke had been the ultimate goal for Freda and the Firedogs, she said.

“Playing the Broken Spoke legitimized us in a way that we were aiming for and the best way to get in there was to play this fundraiser for Lloyd Doggett,” Ball said.

“He was a political candidate who we loved anyway. That university and state house crowd had been followers of ours. We were playing for the protest rallies held for the shuttle bus drivers at the University of Texas who were striking for wages, and we played at the Armadillo (World Headquarters) for whatever cause that anybody could think of. We had always done that and I still do. So the politicos knew about us,” Ball said.

The original members included founder of the band, Bobby Earl Smith who played bass, guitarist John X. Reed, drummer Steve McDaniels, steel player David Cook, and Ball on piano. The band played together from 1972 until 1974 as Freda and the Firedogs before Ball left to start her own band.

“I wasn’t the most experienced musician in that band. The steel player was younger than me and everybody else had been in more bands and had more success than I had,” she said.

Ball had moved to Austin a few years before from Baton Rouge, LA where she had played with a rock and roll band. In Austin she joined a short-lived little rock and roll band for a while.

“A lot of us at that time liked the kind of cross-over music that The Band was playing and the Byrds were playing — people who were mixing country and blues with rock. There was a lot of that Bob Dylan and (his record) Nashville Skyline and the Rolling Stones,” she said.

She arrived in town in 1970 and met Bobby Earl Smith in 1972 while he performed in another band who enjoyed performing what Ball calls “a mixed bag of music.”

“Kirby Gupton was a great singer and great guitar player who could play George Jones, Merle Haggard, B.B. King, and Van Morrison and stitch all that together and it was just a wonderful gig. I went to see them one time and I met them and sat in that night. Afterwards, Bobby Earl called me that week and asked me if I wanted to play some gigs and we started,” she said.

Ball comes from a musical family on her paternal side: her grandmother played piano, her great-grandfather composed music and she has an aunt who played piano. Her brothers don’t play music, although she has a younger brother who plays drums a bit.

She has fond and favorite memories at the Broken Spoke as both a performer and a fan, including the night in 1976 that she saw the original Texas Playboys perform there without Bob Wills who died the year before.

Sleepy Johnson, Jesse Ashlock and Keith Coleman all played fiddle, Smokey Dacus played drums, while Leon McAulliffe performed on steel guitar, Al Stricklin on piano, Leon Rausch on vocals; with Tommy Allsup and Bob Kiser both on guitars.

“It was the night after the Texas Playboys had performed for an episode of Austin City Limits. That night they played at the Broken Spoke and they used my piano. My son was a baby and I had him with me and I hauled the piano in and set it up and then I had to take him out to his grandmother’s house so I could get to the Spoke to see the gig,” she said.

“I was a little late getting back to the Broken Spoke. The place was full and people were sitting on the dance floor. That was something I had never seen – it was weird to see people sitting on the Broken Spoke dance floor; people usually danced. Everybody had packed in there that night to see the Texas Playboys. As I walked it, they were playing the song, ‘Maiden’s Prayer.’”

Ball had heard all day about how well the Texas Playboys had performed the night before at ACL.

“Earlier that day everyone who had seen the Texas Playboys perform at Austin City Limits just went on and on about them. I thought that perhaps they had exaggerated. When I saw them perform that next night at the Broken Spoke it was just better than I could have imagined. It brought tears to my eyes; it was just wonderful,” she said.

Ball said at the time, James White’s step-dad, Joe Baland and mother, Lela Baland, helped to run the Broken Spoke.

“I remember that you couldn’t wear a hat on the dance floor,” Ball said. “Joe would come out and tap you on the shoulder and make you take your hat off. It was like it was impolite to wear a hat on the dance floor, it also started fights,” Ball said.

Unlike other clubs in town, inside the Broken Spoke cowboys could still wear their hats – just not on the dance floor.

“I came to Austin to live in a more liberal place than Baton Rouge. We actually were on our way to San Francisco, but we had a lot of friends who had moved here from Louisiana. We stopped to take a little break in the trip and to visit and then have our car worked on, but we never left,” Ball said.

In Austin and in other cities throughout the United States known as music meccas, the times were changing — fast. During the party at the Broken Spoke for Doggett, hippies and cowboys mingled together and everyone got along.

“There was already a movement in that direction at the time, the Armadillo was already having Willie (Nelson) play regularly. Music everywhere always brings people together and music certainly in Austin was bringing all kinds of people together,” Ball said.

“James White was happy to find somebody else who could fill his club. He really gave us more credit than we were due. He saw us and a big crowd that night and put those two together. Really, we did have a good following, but there was a whole lot of promotion on the part of the politicos that made it look like we were ready to play the Broken Spoke. It was the ‘big show’ for us.”

As Freda and the Firedogs, the band led the way for other crossover bands that played the Broken Spoke.

“I played with that band and loved it. That was not my background. Other bands, like Asleep at the Wheel and Alvin Crow, those guys were completely country and still are. They’ve had a long history with the Broken Spoke,” Ball said. “Although we played through several reincarnations of my band; we became less and less country. We have still always had an open door at the Broken Spoke, which has always been great.”

After the Firedogs broke up in 1974, Ball’s sound began the transition to her rhythm and blues roots when she started her own band in 1975

“I just started writing some and I just realized as a piano player and a background as I had, that was just the direction that I was going to be going,” Ball said. “I had a very varied repertoire that ranged from jazz to country and western, to swing and then in 1980 I went to pretty much blues, or R&B.”

She continued to perform at the Broken Spoke well into the 1980s drawing crowds, despite the fact her band no longer performed pure country classics. Over the years, Ball’s music changed, but the Broken Spoke has remained the same.

“I have to say if anybody has held the line on being the same club, doing the same thing he was doing the day he opened his doors, it would have to be James White at the Broken Spoke,” Ball said.

The Broken Spoke has a history inside its walls that cannot be found anywhere else. While multi-story condominiums and commercial real estate has encroached upon the Broken Spoke, it continues to hold its own.

“The Broken Spoke is a little bit like the Alamo now,” Ball said. “The Broken Spoke draws tourists to town, to Texas really.”

Ball’s friendship with James and Annetta White spans more than 40 years.

“James White weathered all of the competition that ever existed in this town. In the late 1970s when Austin was overrun by pre-fab metal buildings pumping out Urban Cowboy type country music, James White just stayed there in his little spot and kept it real,” Ball said. “Now they’re all gone and James is still here and it’s still real.”

The Whites have helped to nurture a generation of musicians, songwriters, and singers who have made their way into the world of professional music. The Broken Spoke stands today as a symbol of Austin’s love for pure country music.

“I love James and Annetta. I’ve always just thought the world of them,” Ball said. “Their hearts are totally in the right place as far as music and community are concerned. He’s helped a lot of musicians. They’re very loyal to their musician friends who have played there all these years. Of course James brought to Austin all of the great country artists. What Clifford Antone was to the blues here, James White is to country music in Austin.”

 

 

 

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