The Edge of America
I have to admit that I was surprised to see Marcia Ball listed as an R&B artist on our review list. But after Ball’s pounding piano and belting voice blew my mind open, I had to admit, it’s hard to find more rhythm than her stomping chords, and this Gulf Coast artist can definitely get blue.
While at first I read the album title Peace, Love and BBQ—accompanied by Ball’s huge smile and a red white and blue album cover—to be an all-American take on the recent marketing strategy of KFC, or maybe even a reprise of Ludacris and Lupe Fiasco’s chicken-and-liquor-inspired album titles, listening reveals that the album is about more than consumption. Ball’s strong, unapologetic voice disrupts any idea of easy packaging or smooth listening, which means we have to take the words she is belting seriously.
The first track on the album, “Party Town”, is a question. What does it mean, at this particular moment in national history to insist, “New Orleans is a party town!”? Is this track meant to participate in healing, reviving the city with the energy of a piano that shakes the ground, or is it meant to cover over the quick superficial reclamation of New Orleans as a tourist destination and a real estate market wiped clean in very dirty ways? The title track, “Peace, Love and BBQ”, doesn’t exactly help us to answer this question, leaving us with happy images of barefoot children and a hungry grandpa at a family gathering.
It is the third track, “Miracle in Knoxville”, that teaches us how to listen differently. Ball adds an accordian to her her mix of vocal and piano work, sneaking into a mode that haunts instead of flaunts. Telling a Flannery O’Connor-esque childhood story about a young preacher struck down by lightening and plagued by untimely sexual desire on the night of Haley’s comet, Ball rejects an easy Christianity while recuperating a gospel sound, and introduces suspicion and cosmic disgrace into her authentically “American” narrative.
And the gift of the South is that it interrupts any heroic tale the United States tries to tell about itself, even when we have to trace the racism for ourselves from the underside of the electric guitar or the failed exorcism of bongos. The edge on Ball’s voice, which comes out of the suffering edge of the place where Louisiana and Texas meet, threatens peace, love, and eating. Ball, who used some of these songs to raise money for Hurricane Katrina Relief, must know that violence, neglect, and hunger are equally, if not more relevant contexts for listening to her work.
Therefore, towards the end of the album when Ball sings “Ride It Out”, a story song about a family home that survives numerous hurricanes, first due to the strength of its foundation and then due to its a ability to float along the river from Mississippi to Alabama, I wonder about the heritage that survives here. Is this a song of affirmation for the resilience of the Katrina Diaspora? Is it a warning that the US will only survive if it can adapt to change in these uprooting times? Or is it a lullaby towards business as usual, reminding listeners that everything will settle down again?
Either way, there is something to learn about America in between the barrages of Ball’s voice on Peace, Love and BBQ.