Although David Ball's career dates back to his work in the '70s with Uncle Walt's Band and continues well past post-9/11 hit "Riding with Private Malone," his legacy still hinges on the 1994 album Thinkin' Problem and its title track.
"That was my kickoff, and it made a lot of noise," Ball says. "My goal, really, was to put out a single and let it kind of take care of itself and do its thing. That's what I wanted to do. Not a lot of push or having to buy it. Just put it out and let the people hear it. I was lucky that you could still do that."
Ball co-wrote the song "Thinkin' Problem" with former Wilson Pickett side man Stuart Ziff and "The House That Built Me" writer Allen Shamblin. Its runaway success sling-shotted Ball to a No. 2 hit in the United States and a chart-topper in Canada, plus a Grammy award nomination and multi-platinum sales for the album bearing the single's name.
While in Austin, Texas for over a decade with Walter Hyatt's influential outfit Uncle Walt's Band, Ball operated far away from corporate interference. The Hyatt-led group shaped country music and Americana to come, influencing such heavy-hitters as Lyle Lovett without catching a sniff of mainstream success.
"I had been working as a musician for at least 15 years and had a pretty good thing going with Uncle Walt's Band out in Texas," Ball says. "We got real close, but there was no real business going on in Texas. We had some real close... but they were all kind of sketchy deals, and we just couldn't get one foot after the next. The good thing about Nashville is they know how to do business. You might not fit in or whatever, but if you've got a good team, you can get a lot of stuff done here."
After parting ways with Uncle Walt's Band by the mid-80s, Ball sought a solo career in Nashville built on country songs similar to hits by George Strait and other old souls.
"It certainly was what I wanted to hear coming out of the radio," Ball says of "Thinkin' Problem." "I was always a little bit shocked at some of the stuff that did make it to radio because I just didn't get it. Then on the other hand, there was a lot of stuff coming out on the radio at the time that's why I went to Nashville. I was hearing a lot of music I really, really liked at the time, and I thought it was very similar to what I was doing. People like Ricky Skaggs and, even though I don't sing like Randy Travis, I really was a big fan of his music, his style and everything. I thought it was top-quality stuff: good songwriting and great production."
Recording the kinds of songs he enjoyed as a fan netted Ball more success with the next two singles off Thinkin' Problem: "When the Thought of You Catches Up with Me" and "Look What Followed Me Home." Although hits dried up fast, strong albums followed, including 1996's Starlite Lounge and 2001's Amigo.
When trends shifted away from Ball's sound, he reclaimed his independence. His preference of back-to-basics recordings over Billboard hits brought fans the richness of 2007 covers album Heartache By the Numbers. Chasing freewill over a full wallet took Ball away from industry events, freeing him up to play such throwback haunts as the Nashville Palace and American Legion Post 82, home of Honky-Tonk Tuesdays.
"It's people that are there to hear the music," Ball says of the crowds at two of his favorite performance spaces. "If you play a show in Nashville, you're usually going to get an industry crowd. They try, but they're not a lot of fun. They stand around and look at what the other guy's doing and what his reaction is. They play it pretty cool. I don't know if they teach that at Belmont--how to be like a bowl of oatmeal when you are listening to music. Have no emotional connection to music whatsoever. I can't do it. I have to start tapping my foot if I like it."
Ball's earliest work gets celebrated Nov. 1 with Omnivore Records' release of Uncle Walt's Band's An American in Texas, featuring rarities and unheard recordings. An expanded 25th anniversary reissue of Thinkin' Problem follows on Nov. 15. The latter includes eight bonus tracks plus liner notes featuring quotes from Kix Brooks, Terri Clark, original producer Blake Chancey and other peers.