The Sweet Grass Arts Alliance is bringing rollicking blues pianist, songwriter and vocalist Marcia Ball to the Sweet Grass Arts Theater in Big Timber for two concerts, 7 p.m. Nov. 17-18. These two shows mark the five-time Grammy nominee’s only stop in Montana. Receptions with the artist follow each concert at the Two Rivers Gallery, located across the street from the theater.
It’s no accident the musician lauded by Billboard for her “potent blues, sweet zydeco, soulful, fast and furious Texas boogie” is landing in Big Timber. Her husband, painter and Austin restaurateur Gordon Fowler, is a good friend of Big Timber artist Tom English.
“She’s a real hoot,” says English of Ball, who was named the official Texas State Musician and inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame in 2018.
She’s also amassed 11 Blues Music Awards, 10 Living Blues Awards, and won Living Blues Reader’s Poll for Best Keyboard in 2021.
The artist was born in Orange, TX, raised in Vinton, LA, and grew up in a family whose female members all played piano. She began taking lessons at age 5, playing old Tin Pan Alley and popular music tunes from her grandmother’s collection.
Ball arrived in Austin in 1970 and began performing in local clubs with a band called Freda and The Firedogs. When she discovered Professor Longhair, the seminal New Orleans piano player, “I knew I had found my direction,” she recalls.
Ball has released 14 albums in a recording career that spans nearly 35 years. Her most recent effort, Shine Bright, brings together the most musically substantial, hopeful and uplifting set of songs of her five-decade career.
“It is a ridiculously hopeful, cheerful record,” she said of the 2018 release. The secret, according to Ball “is to set the political songs to a good dance beat.”
Ball has appeared many times on national television over the years, including the PBS special “In Performance at The White House” along with B.B. King and Della Reese, Austin City Limits and HBO’s “Treme.” She performed in “Piano Blues”, the film directed by Clint Eastwood and on The Late Show With David Letterman with The New Orleans Social Club.
Since the onset of the COVID pandemic, Ball has filled her time with work on a nonprofit organization she co-founded called HOME – Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers, which pays rent and utilities for older musicians in the Austin area.
But she’s ready to return to the road. “I still love the feel of the wheels rolling,” she says, “and the energy in a room full of people ready to go wherever it is we take them.”
In Big Timber, she’ll take the stage with Eric Bernhardt, a Montana native and New Orleans-based freelance saxophonist. He joined Ball’s band in 2014, and continues to work in New Orleans leading his original group, nolaNoggin, and a swinging jazz quartet called the Four Sidemen of the Apocalypse.
Sweet Grass Arts Theater
In Big Timber, Ball and Bernhardt fill a small venue (100 seats) with a big sound.
The historic theater opened around the turn of the last century, and has served as the community’s movie theater for many years. The nonprofit Sweet Grass Arts Alliance raised $160,000 to purchase the building in 2018 during a three-month fund drive.
The previous owner helped the newbies learn the ropes, and in early 2019 they closed for a month for an extensive renovation that included remodeling the lobby, purchasing a new screen, and adding a small stage with lighting and a sound system, plus a new marquee.
In the wake of that project, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the refurbished theater to close for 15 months, and it’s been rebuilding audiences and enthusiasm since June.
“Lots of people are coming back to see what we’ve done,” says board president Shirley Layne. “We’re moving along, we’re making progress.”
Layne is optimistic that Ball – a well-known performer with a national reputation – can help raise the theater’s profile in Big Timber and beyond.
“To have a big name like Marcia Ball is huge,” she adds. “It’s a lot of fun for us and hopefully a winner for her.”
Tickets are $30 and may be reserved by calling 406-932-4685 (callers should leave name, phone number and number of tickets and concert date they’re requesting). For more information, head to www.sweetgrassartsalliance.org.