Earl Poole Ball was gracious enough to sit down with me and discuss his beginnings, his time with Johnny Cash--and a plethora of other music legends--and his latest work, the great Pianography album. It was a real treat to sit down with country music’s finest piano player for a couple hours on September 23, 2014 and January 9, 2015 to complete this interview for the Johnny Cash Infocenter.
Interview by: Jeff Emond
How did you get in the music business?
[When] I went into the music business I was young, and I had learned how to play the piano. My mother had told me said if I took some lessons I’d be popular at parties. And so I took piano lessons, and I enjoyed playing the piano. I didn’t like classical music that much but I learned to play the pop songs through a chord book.
Then these guys but a band together around Columbia, Mississippi, and they asked me to play with them, so I did. I didn’t necessarily think that was what I would be doing for living, because I had other interests. I wanted to go to college to study law, or theatre arts, or maybe some other stuff. I liked political science when I was a teenager. And then I got involved with this band, and I saw it was a pretty easy way to make money. They were a little country-rockabilly band. They were called the Hillcats. Then I got involved with a lady and wound up marrying her, playing piano at night. I dropped out of college, though I should have stayed in college and not got married. But we make these mistakes when we’re young, we all do. That’s what I was doing for a couple years in Mississippi.
I’d been working with Jimmy Swan, a popular disc jockey there. I got a job with him playing his TV show when I was a senior in high school, and then playing with him after I graduated.
So that’s how I became a piano player: it didn’t leave me any time to do anything else. I just sort of drifted along with it.
My marriage had gone bad in Mississippi so I moved to Texas for three years. My father gave me two hundred dollars and a bus ticket one-way to Houston, Texas, and told me to get out of Mississippi and make something out of myself. I played in Texas and became friends with Mickey Gilley. I played there with a friend of mine who actually sang a lot of Johnny Cash tunes and helped me get that Memphis-style piano down.
I was pretty much in the music business just for a living at that time. I was enjoying it, because as a young man I learned to drink beer and party a lot, and it went along with the job. [Laughs.]
Where you always attracted to country music?
Rock n’ roll and country, and rockabilly. I played some blues with different people. I love the blues.
What was it like to make your first album?
Well, my first recording, which wasn’t an album, was made in Houston with Mickey Gilley producing me. He wanted to give me a chance. I took the record to radio stations around Houston, and I got some air play and moderate success.
After three years in Texas, I had moved to California, I got a job at the Palmino Club, which was world famous at the time for being the top country music club in the nation. Then I became a member of a band called Red Rose and the Detours and everybody in the band got a chance to make a record for Crown Records. They way they made those albums, they were kind of knock-off things. You would record a really popular song, then you would fill the rest of the album up with your own original tunes, which you still owned the rights to. So all the members of that band who sung and played recorded an album. So for my album, the song “Love of the Common People” was popular by Waylon Jennings at the time. I sang that song, then I filled the rest of the album up with originals. I think we recorded each album in about two hours. Then I didn’t cut another album for a long time.
I recorded another one, first on cassette tape, called Earl Poole Ball and His Honky Tonk Piano. It’s on my website store now. I made the album while I was touring with Johnny. Half of it is made of piano instrumentals, the other half is rockabilly. A good cut on the album with “Crazy Arms” and there’s a great gospel tune there called “I’ve Got Jesus in My Soul.”
So let’s go back to California. I jam sessions on the weekend with my own band called The Sessioneers. We played The Aces Club on Friday and Saturday nights, and it was a big deal. A lot of people came from San Diego and the large surrounding areas. We started around 3:00 a.m. in the morning. It was fun, but it was tiring. I did it for about five years. During that time, I got to know Cliffie Stone, who was a record producer and publisher. He hired me to work at his publishing company, and that became my day job. It was a great training ground. Later on, I became a producer at Capitol Records. I was also recording with Buck Owens and the Buckaroos at the time. I was also working with Gram Parsons, on the International Submarine Band album, then Parsons pulled me over to record The Sweetheart of the Rodeo album with The Byrds. I also cut a couple of tunes with The Flying Burrito Brothers.
I was with Capital in Texas until 1972, until I moved to a branch of Capitol Records in Nashville and worked there for about three years. I moved because of the company. I wouldn’t want to go on my own, I loved my California existence. Then I met Johnny Cash through Harland Howard and Don Davis, and Cash asked me to join his band. I put it off for about a year because I was enjoying playing sessions and not traveling, but then Cash made it such a good situation that I left Capitol Records and soon went to work with Cash.
Did Johnny hear a song that convinced him that you had to be his pianist?
I don’t know if there was a particular song. I came into his picture when Don Davis, who had brought Cash the “One Piece at a Time Song.” I demoed “One Piece at a Time” with the guy who wrote it. I don’t know if he heard my piano playing on that or not, but Don Davis was producing “One Piece at a Time” with Johnny. When I came back, he was producing Look At Them Beans and shortly after that he was doing The Rambler. Cash had heard me play, and he really, really liked that I knew that Sun style of music. The piano player he had at the time was getting ready to leave and form a gospel group.
Don Davis was instrumental, because he worked with both Harland Howard and the music company owned by Tree. He was also producing Johnny. Davis was an ex-brother-in-law of Johnny; he had been married to Anita Carter. He found some songs for Johnny, and Johnny was grateful that he did, so we recorded out of Johnny’s House of Cash Studios. Johnny liked having his own studio.
Do you remember the first song you played with Johnny?
I think it was one of the songs on Look At Them Beans, but I can’t remember which one.
One album I wanted to talk about is one that is almost a cult-favorite, one that you produced, Rockabilly Blues. How did that come about?
I had a song recorded by Johnny called “I Don’t Think I Can Take You Back Again.” That song did two things. It looked like Johnny’s contract was coming to an end with Columbia. I went up to see Rick Blackburn. I told that I had heard the rumor that Johnny was leaving the label. I said, “I’ve got this great recording that he did called ‘I Don’t Think I Can Take You Back Again’ and I think it would be a great single if Johnny does leave the company. I just want you to consider it, because I know you’ll want to release more Cash songs like Sun did even if he goes to a different label” Blackburn looked at me quizzically. It was a very stupid thing for me to do, but maybe it helped. I was still naive at the time--I’m still not over naivety yet!
I thought that I did the best I could for the song: I was the publisher, the writer and composer. I left, and before long they wanted Johnny to do another album. I don’t know if it was because I had been there, or they changed their mind about dropping him from the label. Cash asked me to produce the record, and we started cutting some good songs.
Then one day, we were walking down the street, he and I, going to our cars from the studio. And I said, “Johnny, we’re doing these good songs but what are we doing to call this album? Rockabilly something?” He said, “Blues. Rockabilly Blues. Let’s call it that.” So the title came after we started recording. Then Cash wrote a song called Rockabilly Blues to have a song of that title on the record. This was in the day before people did albums with great tunes just for the heck of having a great album. Before, it seemed most of the artists in Nashville were getting a hit single and putting mediocre material around it to make an album. But Rockabilly Blues changed that because it became an album with great tunes, but not big single. But they learned that they had to promote an album as an album, and not just a collection of songs that could be singles.
That’s how that came about. Johnny asked me to do it and I did it. He had a track that had been recorded with his son-in-law in England, Nick Lowe, and he had Jack Clement do a couple tracks. We were challenged to add Bob Wootton and W.S. Holland to the Nick Lowe tune, and put proper sounding Johnny Cash electric guitar on that. I worked with a very skilled engineer who managed to make it all gel together--he was fifty percent of the whole thing. And Johnny had a lot of input, so I was mainly helping to keep everything coordinated. I wish I had written a song for it, but I wasn’t writing much at the time.
It was really highly rated. It was one of the top ten albums of the 1980s in Country Music Magazine. Another album I produced with Merle Haggard, Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player, was also selected as one of the top ten. I figured I wasn’t going to be able to top myself, so I might as well play the piano and travel around and see the world with Johnny, and have a good time. That was about the same time I got my last divorce, and I was ready for a good time.
Did Rockabilly Blues feel like a hit album while making it?
It felt like something spectacular to me. We had a Billy Joe Shaver tune, some Johnny tunes. “The Twentieth Century is Almost Over” is one I thought would be a hit. But Columbia just dropped the ball, they didn’t know how to promote that record. That’s when I decided to quit being a producer
You played on the Gone Girl album?
One of my favorite songs on there that you play on is “Song for the Life.”
Oh, yes. That leads us to another subject. I think that was just me, Johnny and Rosanne Cash. That lead to a whole different chapter of my life. Peter Bogdanovich, the movie producer, was a big fan of Johnny’s. Peter was doing a movie in New York called Everybody Laughs. Peter heard “Song for the LIfe” while he was doing this movie, and it came about that wanted to use “I Don’t Think I Can Take You Back Again” sung by Johnny Cash in the movie. Some coordinators called. I said of course they could use it, I gave them a decent little price, nothing they couldn’t afford. Then I told them during a phone call that you don’t just need my song, you need me to come up and play the piano, I want to be in your movie! They said really, what’s some of the stuff you’ve done? I said that I’ve done some production and played on a lot of Johnny Cash records.
It turns out, “Song for the LIfe” was a favorite of Peter Bogdanovich, he loved that song. So I had a meeting with Peter in his suite at a big hotel in New York. He decided he wanted to have me on to be the bandleader in his movie, and to help the singer. She was an actress who could sing good, too, named Colleen Camp. We played on the soundtrack for all of the songs. That was a thrilling experience.
And that led to many small acting roles?
Yes it did. I did Murder in Coweta County with Johnny because the bug bit me. I also did The Pride of Jesse Hallam with Johnny. Johnny would show up and know all of his lines, and seemed to be a natural. Gary Nelson directed a lot of Cash’s movies. Gary was a nice guy to work with, and he and his wife were really sweet. He was a great director for John.
And I did Texasville with Peter Bogdanovich. It wasn’t a giant role but it paid really well, and I worked with Peter on some TV shows as well.
Since you worked on Texasville and live in Texas, are you a fan of Larry McMurtry?
I’m a fan and I met him one time, when we were filming in New York. He dropped by the set and I got to meet him. I recorded with his son, James McMurtry, here in Austin. He’s a good singer/songwriter. I recorded two tunes on one of his albums about eight years ago.
Johnny made the piano a prominent part of his live show. How did that come to be?
Yeah, that just sort of fell into place. It has the basic sound he liked from when he started in Memphis. Johnny really liked the piano, and I played with him on a lot of the gospel sounds he was featured. He especially liked the gospel sound on the piano. He gave me a chance to sing and play some instrumentals, I played the “Tennessee Waltz” and “Last Date” a lot. I’m glad that he liked it and kept me going. Johnny and June became like family to me after a couple of years, they were just such great people.
Did you have a favorite song to play live?
I got the most reaction to “I’ve Got Jesus in My Soul.” And “Music Box Dancer.” People just seem to love that song. I did it with a boogie-woogie part in the middle, then slowed it back down. It was sort of a show piece, and Johnny had me play that everywhere: Europe, Australia, New Zealand. Cash liked that for several years, and I think we wore it out a little bit.
Did you meet any famous leaders or presidents?
I didn’t meet any presidents. I met Billy Graham when Graham was in Nashville and John had me come down to have a meal. I think we were at an Italian restaurant, and then I got to see him again at Johnny’s home. That’s the most prominent person I think of, and Billy Graham sent me a Christmas card for years.
Do you remember doing many prison or Native American benefit concerts?
The first shows that I worked with Cash were prison concerts. I think we did three in one day in California. I started working with him in 1977, but I think it was at the end of 1976 that we played those concerts, as sort of an audition for me. It was remarkable. I did go into Folsom one time with Merle Haggard when I was working for Capitol Records in California. But it was different this time with Johnny. There were bigger audiences and Johnny played for the entire population of the center.
What can you tell us about Johnny’s activism or humanitarian work?
I remember going to Jamaica and playing there for an orphanage. This was just before going to Europe, we went to Jamaica to raise some funds. Hugh Waddell put together a fundraiser, Rock for the Animals, that was a fundraiser for animals. We played that in Nashville. I know Cash did a lot of individual humanitarian things. He did some fundraisers for the Carter Fold out of Bristol. It was almost a humanitarian thing when we went to Czechoslovakia because those people really needed some sunlight in their lives. But it was a paid performance situation.
Is there any live concert that you have a vivid memory of?
One of the concerts that really sticks out for me, maybe above all of them, is the very first Czechoslovakian concerts. We did two days, and we played for over forty thousand people. That’s on video.
Is there any piece of advice Cash gave you that’s memorable?
Yeah, one in particular, and I think about it a lot when I have to go to the doctor. Cash said, “Be careful of going to specialists, Earl. Or else somehow they’ll figure out a way to work you into their speciality.”
There was one time in my career when I would have little panic attacks, and I’d feel like the stage was spinning around. I went to a doctor for that, and he gave me medication that I took for maybe too long. I decided it wasn’t the miracle drug I hoped it was, but something the doctor gave me to pacify me. These panic attacks started on a freeway in California when big trucks surrounded me, and I had to pull over to the side of the road. I had another in Nashville. I finally got the right diagnosis and they recommended counseling.
Sooner or later, I talked to Johnny about what was going on. We had some important dates coming up that I felt I might not be able to make. I was ready to change doctors to figure out what to do. I told Johnny about what I was going through, and that I couldn’t make all these upcoming dates, but I’ll make what I can. Johnny said, “Don’t worry about it Earl, make what you can. I can handle it if you can.” I never missed a paycheck, even when I had to get into a treatment situation. I never missed a paycheck. Johnny Cash was very loyal, and very caring about the people in his band. He was always very, very good to his people.
It was such a pleasurable experience for twenty years. At one point I got to thinking, when I was in my forties, that maybe I need to go to college now. I told Lou Robin and W.S. Holland that. I said maybe I need to go to school and figure out something else to do. They both looked at me and said, “Earl, it’s too late now.” I had an ideal job, and it was entertaining with different places, people and situations every day. It wasn't like a job, the only hard part about it was traveling. But the actual experience playing the shows, and being a part of a huge traveling family, was a really great experience for me. And because I did that, at this point in my life I get enough work.
Can you talk about how your latest record, Pianography, came about?
I had these songs laying around that I always wanted to record, some in my publishing company and some that I had written--all noteworthy songs. A friend of mine who does record promotions, Terry Hendrix, suggested that I make a record. She heard me singing in The Lucky Tomblin Band, a great that I was in. She told me I had to make my own record, so I got the [recording] bug. I had some extra money--lately I found out there’s no such thing as extra money--and I took the money and put it toward Pianography. I got the band that I was playing with at the time, a rockabilly/blues band, with some great musicians in it, and we went into what I considered one of the best studios in sound. Finally we got something acceptable down after mixing it three times, going through several different versions.
Three or four of the tunes were recorded live a Johnny Cash tribute show, which were just part of the many that I did. I didn’t even know they were being recorded. I got my friend Lisa Morales to sing on it, she’s been my favorite gospel and blues singer forever. I got a couple of other ladies to sing with me, [including] Cindy Cashdollar. It was just something I felt I should do, though it was ridiculous for someone at my age. I bought a ton of promotion with the press all over the world. I didn’t take out ads, but I used a guy who does magazine promotions. It went out mainly to Americana stations. I don’t think stations that play the real country music got serviced that well, [but] I want to re-service it to those people. In a sense, except for the few people who have heard it all the way through and got the message, it’s a lost cause. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do the songs. It’s the last production I’ll do, probably the last record I’m ever going to make. People that have listened to Pianography more than once dig into it and they really like it.
One song, “Something’s Gonna Get Us All,” is a really humorous song about mortality. Did you write it?
No, it was written by a friend of mine, Bucky Lindsey. I knew him from when I was in Nashville. He’s a really great writer who writes a lot of blues. He’s had some award-winning compositions. He sent me a copy of “Something’s Gonna Get Us All” and I said, “Well that sounds great!” So I learned it and taught it to my band, and we pretty much used his demo arrangement. I like the song, I thought it was great for a good shuffle, and it as a great lesson, too.
You talk a bit about the musical horn arrangement on “Say You Love Me”?
Right at end [of the song] I put a Dixie Band thing together. There’s a trombone and a tuba, and it fits in with the rest of the band. That song had been written for a long time. Joel Sonye and I wrote it years and years ago. I thought it was a great song. I got Julian Banks to sing that with me, she’s a really great singer.
The opening track, “Standing at the Edge of the World,” has some really cool whistling in it.
Jody Adere did the whistling. She’s a girl who was in the band that we had, and she was a really good whistler. The idea came about because she would whistle on stage. She just started doing it one day, and I didn’t even know she could whistle. And so, I got her to come in and whistle on it.
It’s a catchy song.
I always thought it was a catchy song. Somebody might record that one of these days and have a big hit with it. It has a lot of good verbal and musical hooks to it.
We talked about how the title track is autobiographical. Were the songs “The Real Me” and “One of Those Old Things We All Go Through” also autobiographical?
I wrote “The Real Me.” It’s autobiographical too, but partly about me and partly about a friend I know. I believe Joel Sonye and I wrote “One of Those Old Things We All Go Through” years ago, and it’s also autobiographical.
Sometimes I think that maybe, unless you’re a household name like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings or Johnny Cash, you shouldn’t even put out an autobiographical album. A lot of people don’t have enough to read about you to know what you’ve been through and what you’ve done to know it’s an autobiographical presentation.
So what are you up to now musically?
Right now I play on Sundays nights with a band called Haybale. We play from 9:45 to midnight on Sunday nights. Tom Lewis organized the band and plays the drums. Redd Volkaert is a preeminent electric guitar player. Johnny Cox plays the steel guitar. Dallas Wayne, a great singer, songwriter and disc jockey who hosts Willie’s Roadhouse on Sirius XM, plays the bass and sings. Sometimes the original bass player for Willie Nelson plays the bass with us. And I play the piano and sing. It’s either a five or six piece lineup. We play at the Continental Club, a preeminent kind of place in Austin. It features rockabilly, country, and alternative music styles. A lot of Americana acts come by there.
Last night I played with a band called Rick Broussard and Two Hoots and a Holler. I just love playing with them. I play with them once a month at a place called The High Ball. He does a lot of cajun stuff. He uses me to augment his band on one Thursday night a month. Another band I play with is called Deuce Coupe. Kevin Fox, a major songwriter for the group and a delightful and talented young man, has a drummer and a bass player that are some of the best rhythm section people that I’ve ever played with. I work with them two or three times a month. They work as a trio mainly, but for certain gigs they put me in. Those are the main people I play with.
I’m seventy-three years old. It’s such a hassle to have your own band and keep them booked fully enough to keep the same people most of the time. The nature of the beast here in Austin is one where very rarely will you have a really great guitar, drum or bass player, but very rarely will you have those particular three together. All of them have other jobs and are in other bands. You always have to call in substitutes, so nobody knows you original songs--you can only play the classics. I’m in semi-retirement and I’ve abandoned the thought of having my own band for now. I might want to create an all-girl band. An old man and three beautiful women playing good music would be something kind of different--we might even be able to get work! Without a hassle! [Laughs.]
Living here in Austin, I’ve noticed how the city is growing and changing from the city I moved to in 1999. I floated around for about a year after Johnny quit touring and moved here because Dale Watson suggested that I should, and he was right. I’m trying not to work a lot. It kind of takes care of itself--if you don’t go out there and beat the bushes, people don’t think about you. Other than that, I’m just hanging in there, trying to enjoy life a little bit. I don’t have any major hobbies--music is my hobby.
What is one of your favorite books?
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. I’ve just read a Jerry Lee Lewis life story called Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg. It’s a new book and it’s very, very good. Jerry Lee told the co-author his story, and the author elaborated on what happened, where it happened, what happened next. I mostly read biographies and autobiographies. Buck Owens has one too called Buck ‘Em!, and I [have found] that my favorite readings are about entertainers. There’s one called Unconquered: The Saga of Cousins Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Swaggart, and Mickey Gilley, written by J. D. Davis that I’ve read.
Thank you so much for your time.