Since moving here from her native Louisiana in 1970, Marcia Ball has been one of Austin’s most prominent and colorful musicians. A five-time Grammy nominee who served as the official Texas State Musician in 2018, Ball is well-known for her versatile and exuberant piano playing and for her soulful stage presence as she melds Texas and Louisiana cultures together into a glorious musical melting pot.
She’s also long been outspoken on social and political issues, working over the decades for environmental causes and charity programs. She serves on the board of the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians and co-founded Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers, which recently accelerated mini-grants for musicians in need during the coronavirus pandemic.
For this occasional series, "What We Need to Hear," Ball talked with us about how she’s been getting through these challenging times.
"What I have told my grandchildren is, you have to have faith that we will get through this and that the world will keep turning. People and societies have endured hardship and fear and gone through it and come out on the other side. You have to have faith in humanity. You have to continue to hold your own truths sacred. Morality, integrity, decency: Those are the things that matter.
"We have five grandsons — one in New York, two in the Boston area, and two here in Austin. And I know that all of our children are instilling in them these qualities, and also generosity, empathy, compassion. These are all things that will get us through hardship, as well as courage.
"One of the fortunate things is that we're in Austin. We're in Central Texas, and particularly, we're in Austin, where I think people are, for the most part, being as careful as anybody anywhere. And the weather is gorgeous. … We're not shivering in the dark. I think that's important. If we're going to be locked down, I can't think of any better place for me to be locked down than in Austin.
» READ MORE: Our 2018 interview with Marcia Ball
"Another blessing is that we can be so well-connected. In another time, we would have been isolated, but we are far from isolated right now. We can have a Zoom happy hour, or a FaceTime with the grandchildren. I play chess with my grandson.
"I've been writing songs with other people who are writing songs, because that's what we do. A lot of people are streaming music, and one of the many positive outgrowths of having to take our music to the virtual platform is that people have figured out how to put a tip jar out there on their virtual livestream. I've always thought that if you spent a couple hours at night watching somebody’s YouTube videos, you ought to be able to hit a button and send them $10 or $20. And now they can do that. It's certainly not gig income, but it's not nothing. So that's been great.
"One interesting thing that I've never done before is that I'm journaling, just ever so slightly. About two weeks into it, I realized that I didn't know what I had done that day — I had been really busy all day, but I couldn't tell you what I had done, except sweep the porch and walk the dog. And I thought, well, at the end of the day, maybe I'll just note down what it was I've done, and how this is affecting me and the people around me. So I'm writing down a little bit every night about this experience.
"Another thing is that everybody I know who has enough is sharing and helping others. We all budget; we all know what we can spend. My grandmother used to say, ‘Skip a meal if you want something,’ so in this case, if you want to help somebody, skip a meal. Another interesting part of this is learning about food management in a very comprehensive way — to know that you've got what you need for a while.
"My New Year's resolution last year was, ‘Count your blessings and watch your step.’ I'm grateful for everything I have; I take nothing for granted. … I’ve been so fortunate, but I don't live in fear so much as with caution. When I say, ‘We will get through this’ — it's easy for me to say, sitting in my nice patio with enough. But there are people for whom this is a great hardship. ... They don't know where they're going to get their next meal. There's a lot of people like that. I'm already worried about the homeless and the underserved; that’s going to increase.
"When I lay down to sleep at night, I tend to think of people near and far — people I love, people I know. It's kind of my form of praying, I guess, to think of people. And pretty often, the next day I will call or write to some of those people if I haven't heard from them. The same thing is happening apparently all over, because I'm getting calls from people all over the country, checking in.
"I put a sign out on the front of my house that thanks everybody, starting with doctors and nurses and emergency personnel, and going through teachers and mail carriers and delivery people and grocery clerks and all the way down to Capt. (Brett) Crozier from the U.S. Navy (who on April 2 was relieved of his command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt amid a COVID-19 outbreak) and Dr. (Anthony) Fauci.
"We have a daughter and son-in-law and grandson in Brooklyn, which has been a hotspot (for COVID-19). But I know they're being super careful and they're working at home, and they're smart. … We worry, of course, about our children and our families and our loved ones everywhere. But honestly, as frightening as coronavirus is, Donald Trump scares me worse, and the willful reactionary ignorance of that brand of conservatism, which is radicalism. How badly we have gone off the track, in terms of our country and our democracy — that scares me worse. I just think we're in deep, deep woods, as far as our government is concerned.
"As for the long-term effects on our economy: Things will definitely be different. We may have learned some lessons about how we can work at home, which is OK, and good. But there's a lot of businesses that are not going to recover, or it's going to take a long time. So we have to prepare for that. … It’s going to be a different world. You don't know who's going to be able to weather it or not.
"One other observation about this whole condition that we're in right now. I moved here in 1970, and there were 250,000 people here. When you go out in Austin right now, in central Austin, it's a lot like when I moved here in 1970. It’s got the same amount of traffic. Even in the early ’80s, you could ride a bicycle in the middle of Congress Avenue on a Sunday afternoon. With 75% of the people staying at home and not moving around my neighborhood and in the town, it seems like it did in 1970."
We asked Marcia one last question: What do you most look forward to being able to do, after this is all over?
"Just to be face-to-face with my people again. To go to Antone’s and play a gig and hug our friends and dance."