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David Ball steers for charts with "Freewheeler"

By Brian Baker, December 2004

If you ask David Ball to give his definition of success, he's not going to blow a lot of smoke up your skirt in the process. A lot of artists might answer that question with a wheelbarrow full of soil enrichment, telling you that success lies in the self-satisfaction of a guitar well played, a song well written, a show well performed.

Make no mistake, David Ball considers all of those things of supreme importance. It's just that he has a very specific and very concrete definition of success for himself.

"I hate to say it, but I view a hit record as success," says Ball from Nashville. "And I can live by that. The thing is, I've cut some hit records that never saw the light of day at radio, but, boy, you get out there and play them in front of know a hit record when you've written one and when you hear one. That's my goal. That's all I'm after."

Ball knows a thing or two about self-satisfaction and chart success. Everything he's gleaned about both circumstances - from his long stint with Uncle Walt's Band (along with late, great songwriting legends Champ Hood and Walter Hyatt) and his decade-long solo career - are poured with purpose and abandon into Ball's newest album, "Freewheeler."

Ball's long, strange professional trip is filled with deserved acclaim, roadhouse obscurity and platinum success.

Ball, Hood and Hyatt, who had been hometown high school pals in Spartanburg, S.C., formed Uncle Walt's Band in the early '70s and inspired a lot of regional excitement (they were once dubbed "the bluegrass Beatles" by a friend in the scene) before heading off to Austin.

UWB became a sensation among Austin's audiences as well as the city's musical community, including friends/fans Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Jerry Jeff Walker. Lovett was coming up in the scene just as UWB moved to town, and the two appeared together on numerous occasions.

Lovett would eventually cover several Hyatt songs on his albums and in his shows.

After four albums and incredible regional success, Uncle Walt's Band called it a day in 1983. Hyatt, Hood and Ball stuck around the Austin scene, playing solo shows and picking up session gigs wherever possible.

Ball, in particular, had been mesmerized by the Texas area's preponderance of Western swing and honky tonk and began working those styles into his own songwriting repertoire.

In the early '90s, Ball headed for Nashville to secure a publishing deal and explore the next level of his solo career. His songs attracted a lot of attention, which ultimately led to his signing with Reprise as a solo artist.

In 1994, the label released Ball's solo debut, "Thinkin' Problem," which went on to light up the country charts with an impressive string of 3 number 1 singles - "Look What Followed Me Home," "When the Thought of You Catches Up with Me" and the album's rapturously received title song.

The three singles and a whole lot of love at radio drove "Thinkin' Problem" into double platinum sales figures and led to tours with Alan Jackson and Dwight Yoakam as well as Grammy, ACM and CMA nominations.

At this point, Ball should have been in prime position to capitalize on "Thinkin' Problem's" enormous success and gotten whatever he desired from the label in order to achieve it.

Sadly, things that should happen rarely work out the way they ought to in Nashville.

Just as Ball was ready to drop his second album, Reprise went through a period of reorganization. Instead of being feted and pampered like the hitmaker he had just proven himself to be, his album was picked apart by unfamiliar and clueless middlemen.

"When I put out a second record, everybody went, 'Is there a 'Thinkin' Problem' on there?'," says Ball. "You knew kind of what they meant, but they were looking for that honky tonk attitude on there. At one point, Nashville had credibility as far as musical leadership, but I've been here 15 years, and I haven't seen anything along the lines of Harold Bradley and Chet Atkins and a little bit of quality."

With little or no understanding of what Ball had already accomplished, the label mishandled promotion and misdirected Ball through his next two albums for Warner - "Starlite Lounge" (1996) and "Play" (1999).

BMG snuck in an eponymous, never released prequel album in 1998, and Warner tried to revisit Ball's early glories with "Super Hits" in 2000.

Notices were generally good on all three, but the phenomenal commercial success of "Thinkin' Problem" clearly didn't matter without any sustained label push, and Ball was unwilling to consciously try to replicate his or anybody else's success by revisiting old territory.

"When I write something, man, it's not going to be like everything else that radio has already played," says Ball adamantly. "That stuff's already been written. It's going to be an original sound. That's what frustrating. You cannot get people to embrace something that they've never heard before. And to me, that's the drawing card of music. Maybe I'm in the wrong town or the wrong genre, but I am a big country music fan, and I've always loved to hear something new, so, hell, that's what I'm doing."

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