Album Review: Earl Poole Ball — Pianography

Juli Thanki | September 10th, 2013

earlpooleballEarl Poole Ball has spent most of his career backing some of country’s biggest names. With the release of Pianography, he’s taking his own turn in the spotlight. The honky-tonk piano pounder (who was a member of Johnny Cash’s band for 20-plus years and has done session work for Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and The Flying Burrito Brothers, to name just a few of the artists whose work he’s been featured on over the years) combines new originals, a handful of live tracks, and two songs that were recorded “long ago and far away,” according to the liner notes, into the full-length Pianography.

Title track “Pianography (And Then Some)” jams a lifetime’s worth of music and travel into five minutes, as Ball traces his musical journey from his childhood in Mississippi to his current home in Austin, with stops in Houston, California, and Nashville along the way. Though the song has a happy ending, there’s an undercurrent of sadness as Ball realizes, in his weathered baritone, “Leaving ain’t hard when you’re leaving alone.” The highlights of Ball’s seven original songs are the three co-written with Cajun music whiz Jo-El Sonnier. “Standing at the Edge of the World,” featuring Cindy Cashdollar’s superb steel guitar, finds Ball trying to drown his memories on a song that sets the tone for the rest of the album. The boozy heartbreak continues on “Sing It, Boy,” a raucous honkytonker that’d sound at home on a James Hand record, as Ball tells a dive bar singer, “I’ve lived every word and I have suffered every line of the song you sing…you’re helping me to remember what I came to forget.”

The album’s four live songs, recorded in 2010 at a Johnny Cash tribute show in Austin, crackle with energy as Ball and his band rip through “Big River” and Roy Orbison’s “Down the Line” before inviting big-voiced blues rocker Lisa Mills to join Ball for a stirring duet of “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” Closing out Pianography is a pair of songs from earlier in Ball’s career. “Second and Antone,” recorded in 1967, is a revved up rockabilly tune, while “Flowers on Papa’s Grave,” a demo that Ball recorded a decade later, is a song whose poignant lyrics are belied by its toe-tapping arrangement and catchy call-and-response chorus.

Though the transitions between the new songs, the live tracks, and the older originals are a bit jarring when you listen straight through as opposed to setting your iPod on “shuffle”–it feels as though three different EPs were combined to make a full-length record–Pianography is a fine introduction to a honky tonk treasure.

3.5 Stars

Preview or purchase Pianography

  1. Rick
    September 10, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    I get to hear Earl every time I listen through my copy of Heybale’s “The Last Country Album”. I had no knowledge previously of his association with Johnny Cash though. Nice article Juli.

  2. Dave D.
    September 10, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Thanks for alerting me to this. I’ve got a couple of great Earl stories that, unfortunately, propriety prevents me from posting on the internet.

  3. Barry Mazor
    September 10, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    I was introduced to Earl by our mutual friend, the late Joe Gracey, some years back. He’s long been much in demand on keyboards..

  4. Jan Sestak
    September 30, 2013 at 2:15 am

    Beautiful review, it is always nice to read what other people think about the record one loves, because every time you learn something new that so far escaped your attention no matter how often you have already listened to it.

    Just one comment to this ” …he’s taking his own turn in the spotlight.” It is only partly true as practically during all Johnny Cash´s shows throughout those more than twenty years around the world in all the biggest halls Earl sang one rock and roll number himself, as well as played one instrumental song on his piano. In the first place not because Johnny would welcome a little rest but because this way his show would be more colorful.

  5. Strictly Cash
    October 1, 2013 at 5:08 am

    Earl Ball, a true gentleman.

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