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The Blue Front email interview with US harp player  Tom Ball    November 2003

BFBR:  What were your early musical influences?
My father Jim had played drums when he was young and he had a strong interest in jazz, so my first influences were the 78 RPMs in his collection.  Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Goodman, etc.
In 1961 when I got to be about ten, the Great American Folk Scare hit, so I got swept up in the whole craze: Guthrie, Baez, early Dylan, Buffy St. Marie, etc etc. My folks got me a Japanese gut-string guitar for Christmas, and off I went skateboarding down hills while banging away on Kumbaya.
Meanwhile my older brother Steve became interested in bluegrass -- he became quite a fine 5-string banjoman who gigs frequently -- and through him I got acquainted with Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, etc.

BFBR:  How and when did you get into blues?
By way of the folk music, really.  In listening to folk-oriented shows on the radio, I noticed that in between Pete Seeger and Cisco Houston, they were also playing Leadbelly and Lightnin Hopkins. By then I could play the guitar and had taken to playing harmonica on a rack -- similar to Dylan.  But when I heard Sonny Terry I realized there was a whole lot more to the harmonica than what Dylan was doing with it.

BFBR:  How (and why) did you start playing in public? Can you
remember you first gig?
First paying gig was when a local supermarket called me up when I was about 12.  Hughes Market.  I have no idea how they knew I could blow harmonica, but they wanted to give me three dollars to come down there on the Fourth of July and stand in the parking lot playing patriotic American songs on harp. Sounded like a good deal to me, so I did it.
After that there were several attempts at bands when I was 13, 14 years old. One band I sang with was called "The Footmen" -- our big schtick was that we all played barefoot.  Pretty clever, huh?
Then I was in a band called "The."  (Not "The The"... just "The.") Thunk that one up myself.  Figured that was just about the coolest thing in the world outside of blowing up a building.
The first really serious band I got in was called the "Yerba Buena Blues Band."  I was about 15 or 16. The rest of the guys were older, more experienced and quite good musicians.  We played clubs on the Sunset Strip, Love-Ins, etc etc.  Great fun, and an excellent way to meet humans of the feminine gender

BFBR:  What made you decide perform professionally? How did you get started?
The Yerba Buena Blues band already had gigs set up when I joined them... actual paying gigs.  But none of us had any equipment.  One of our guitar players had a guitar but no amp; the other guitar player didn't have a guitar OR an amp.  I was supposed to be the singer, but I didn't have a PA or even a mic.  So every gig we had to scramble all over L.A., borrowing stuff so we could do the gig. It was inept to the point of hilarity, but the music was pretty good.

BFBR:  What are your preferred instruments at present?
For harp, I play Hohner Special 20's (the US variety -- not the European modular ones.)  I just play 'em right out of the box - no regapping or mods at all.
For guitar I'm playing a 1936 Gibson L-00-PG that was originally a 4-string plectrum guitar until I broke the neck off and luthier-extraordinaire Jim Lombard converted it to a 6-string.

BFBR:  What are your views on the best types of instruments for your style
of music?
Everybody's got their own taste regarding harps, I suppose.  But most folks agree that it's hard to top a good vintage acoustic guitar.

BFBR:  If you could have any instruments you wanted (past or present) what would they be?
An early '30s Martin OM-45 Deluxe.  But then I don't happen to have $200,000 lying around.
Recently I spent the afternoon at the (London) Victoria & Albert Museums' Musical Instrument room -- there were some astounding looking string instruments there by a luthier named Joachim Tielke, from the early 1700's.  I would have LOVED to have tried them out, but of course they were under glass...

Some more personal questions, about what makes you 'tick' as an artist?
Guinness.

BFBR:  Why do you think you are drawn to performing blues and blues-based material?
Ummm.... it's honest and direct.  But then, so is most all indigenous folk music. I love Celtic stuff, bluegrass, jazz, Renaissance lute music, classical guitar, Caribbean and African stuff.... there's simply no end to all the great music out there, once one abandons The Backside Boys and all the crap we're all force-fed on the radio.

BFBR:  Pundits often express strong views on the merits or value of
contemporary artists performing 'covers' or 'interpretations' of pre-war or
Chicago blues originals ("yet another Robert Johnson" etc) and or the artist's own original material . What are your current views on this on-going debate?

Interesting and complex question.  On the one hand I'd feel a bit foolish and pretentious singing about working in a coal mine or saddling up my mule... after all, we're from Santa Barbara.  Out here people get the blues when their surfboard wax melts.
But I certainly have no problem with other folks covering (or not covering) anything they want.  I reckon music is meant to be fun, inclusive and cathartic. There's a reason people say, "Let's play some music!"   You never hear anybody say, "Let's work some music." I'm not such a purist as to fault someone for covering Robert Johnson -- but I'd personally have a hard time doing it, because Robt Johnson already did Robt Johnson perfectly and you can't improve on perfection.

BFBR:  What do you think is your inner inspiration for writing and
performing your own material or for conveying the emotional content of
someone else's song?
Not to seem flip, but that's very difficult to quantify...  a muso can only throw stuff out there, and hopefully it connects with somebody?  Not that any musicians are in his league, but I wonder how Michelangelo would have answered?

BFBR:  How do your new songs/material come about?
Very slowly!
Seriously, Kenny and I aren't exactly inspired songwriters who carry around legal pads and write down what we dreamt about the night before. Usually we don't write songs at all until it's time for another record, at which point we kind-of say, "Shit! Better get to work and write some new stuff!"

BFBR:  How do you feel your playing style has developed since you began performing and more recently?
Well, I've been playing professionally for about 40 years, so I'd like to think I've gotten at least a little bit better. (?)

BFBR:  What are you views on playing in UK /Europe/ The US - the
current scene & gigs?
I think the interest is as strong as it's always been, but the whole world is in a bit of financial doldrums right now... for example, we used to play the continent MUCH more frequently than we do now -- many of the festivals have folded up their tents. But then, these things tend to run in predicable patterns, and no doubt another upswing is on the horizon. And things couldn't get much worse than they were during the mid-70's Disco Vomit Craze.

BFBR:  How do you see the future for acoustic blues?

One very encouraging factor is that a lot of younger artists - both black and white - are rediscovering acoustic blues.  I'd say the scene is fairly healthy -- but it'll never be the Flavour Of The Month, despite artificial proclamations about Year Of The Blues, et cetera ad nauseum.

BFBR:  What advice would you pass on to players and to 'amateur' and
semi-pro performers?

Don't ever give up the dream!  Remember, money can't buy poverty. Try to keep your overhead low, so that you can afford to play music for a living...  Start your own publishing company and don't give up the publishing rights, ever!  And if you're the type of person with expensive hobbies, you may want to consider another career.  Like counterfeiting or drug dealing.

BFBR:  What music are you currently listening to?
Kate Rusby, Leo Brouwer, Manuel Barrueco, Blind Blake, Dolores Keane, the Neville Brothers, Paul Brady, Otis Redding, Brendan Power, James Harman, Alison Krause, Skip James, Tim O'Brien, Ry Cooder, Fiddler's Bid, Segovia and Dwight Yoakam.

BFBR:  Where are you headed musically at present?
Well, this has very little to do with blues, but my most recent CD
just came out - a solo guitar project, mostly classical stuff but
played on the steel-string Gibson.  If anybody'd like some info on it, it's at: http://www.cdbaby.com/tomball

BFBR: What are your current musical and career developments (recent or planned
Hmmmmm....  well, it's about time for another Tom & Kenny duo CD, so I'm sure we'll get into that next year.
We always enjoy playing the UK, and our agent Mark Ringwood has
assured us we'll be back over in 2004.  Meanwhile the phone keeps
ringing for studio work, which I enjoy the hell out of. And I've still got the fiction bug -- my first novel came out a year ago...  http://www.booklocker.com/books/1023.html and I'm halfway into another. So I'm happy to say there's plenty on the plate!

BFBR: Thank you for giving us these insights into you and your music.
You're very welcome, John -- thanks for the opportunity to blab. And if anyone reading this would care to visit our web site, it's at:
http://www.tomballkennysultan.com in the meantime, cheers to all and keep the Guinness cold!