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Stringing The Blues, With The Hard Times and Icon Marcia Ball

Roger Stephenson
Steve Eagon (left) with Al "Piper" Green on the January night in Memphis when Piper and the Hard Times won the International Blues Challenge.

The blues has been an integral though sometimes occluded part of Music City since long before it got its world famous nickname. Historians have studied the poor but vibrant Black Bottom district of town with its speakeasies and street performers in the 1920s, including DeFord Bailey’s stardom on the early Grand Ole Opry. The Jefferson Street R&B scene of the 40s to the 60s nearly faded into history before its story was captured 20 years ago by the Night Train To Nashville exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, revived online recently and in person starting April 26. And of course without the blues, country music as we know it wouldn’t even exist.

I wrote here in January about the newly energized Nashville Blues and Roots Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to cultivating blues careers and spreading its history through public schools. The group had just held its first-ever local competition to nominate contestant artists at the 2024 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. And in a nice Music City surprise, the NBRA’s delegate in the band category, Piper & The Hard Times, went to Memphis during the coldest week of the year, put on several sizzling sets, and came away with the grand prize.

“It is amazing to have the Hard Times come out on top man,” says lead vocalist Al “Piper” Green in Episode 279 of The String. “I mean, truth be told, I wasn’t expecting to go down there and win. I knew we was gonna give it our all. I knew we was gonna go down there and do what we were supposed to do. But to bring it back to Nashville - bring it back home. Oh my my!”

Also in on this conversation is Piper’s longtime friend and guitar player Steve Eagon. “We had always had a really good reputation as a live band. We improv on stage. We almost treat the blues like a jam band,” Eagon says. “Because we never know what Piper is going to do. He's very emotional when he sings and performs. So we follow his lead. And then we've always had just amazing players in the band that can follow and improvise and just roll with it. We have a great time on stage because of that.”

They also know each other at a cellular level, because they’ve been kicking it on stages in Nashville and the region for more than 20 years. Eagon moved to town in 1999 and began scanning the scene listening for potential collaborators to chase the hard-rocking blues idea he had in his head. He heard Green singing as a sit-in at Bourbon Street, the longstanding blues bar in Printer’s Alley downtown. The voice was cavernous and passionate, and the singer had a showman’s charisma. Eagon asked if Piper wanted to jam, and after bringing in drummer Dave Colella, Piper & The Hard Times was born. Bourbon Street’s been their most reliable residency through the years, as well as Martin’s Barbecue more recently.

What they’ve not done is tour widely or make records, but that’s about to change, thanks to the IBC win. The prize package included slots at the Telluride Blues Festival, another big festival in Las Vegas and a well-regarded blues cruise, among other boosts. Other invitations have started flowing in organically. Piper says it’s been game changing. “Man, I was a nine to five guy. Everyday job. And now here I am, a full time entertainer!” he emotes. “I mean, it has truly changed my life. So I'm very, very happy. I'm still pinching myself wondering if this is truly real. Because as a kid, this is what I wanted to do.”

Eagon’s got wide eyes on the road ahead as well. “I'm thrilled because other people get to experience what we've been doing all these years and honing the craft - and just the fun, the enjoyment.” Plus, they say, they’ve finished tracking their formal debut album, which will be ready by late summer.

The Hard Times fellows appear in the second half of this episode, but only because my featured guest in the first half has twenty years of blues seniority even on the 54-year-old Green. Marcia Ballis a certified veteran and heroine of the southern roots music scene, and I’ve been eager to share our full interview ever since I teased it in Episode 273 from the 2024 Sandy Beaches Cruise, founded and hosted by Delbert McClinton.

Ball has been on all 28 of those cruises, but she was a big deal when she first appeared, having launched her career in the early 1970s in Austin, TX. In this conversation, she talks about the profound influence of growing up around the Gulf Coast music scene of the 1960s, including some of her core heroes like Professor Longhair and Irma Thomas. After getting started playing old-time country music in her first serious band, Ball went solo and recorded for Rounder Records and Alligator Records. She’s been nominated for five Grammy Awards, and she’s a member of the Austin Music and Austin City Limits Halls of Fame. Most of all, she’s toured relentlessly for decades, pounding the piano and leaning into songs from across the spectrum, from pure blues to R&B, including many of her own originals.

I ask her how a young woman from Vinton, LA got swept up in a touring, roadhouse life that was likely never going to lead to hit records and great fortune, and if her family supported her. “They didn't like it on one hand, and they were trying to get me to go home and go back to school and or get a job in a plant down there in my hometown,” she says. “But at the same time, my mother was making really cool costumes for me to wear! So she was kind of backing me. I don't know, I just fell into it. And never, never left it. I think it was my calling.”

Marcia Ball

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>