Grammy dark horse David Ball

By Alanna Nash
Updated February 10, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Honky-tonk singer David Ball may not bring home the Best Male Country Vocal trophy on March 1 — after all, the first-time nominee is up against Vince Gill, Dwight Yoakam, and John Michael Montgomery. But he’s already being credited with a somewhat bigger feat: making country fun again.

”Thinkin’ Problem,” his single from the album of the same name, hit No. 2 on the country charts and pushed the album gold. Fans love Ball for his wit and seductive dance beats. Critics rave about his simultaneous send-up and celebration of ’50s honky-tonk (Webb Pierce, George Jones) and Texas dancehall. Ball, 39, admits the attention was not completely unexpected. ”You sort of smell it before it comes,” he drawls. Not so the Grammy nomination — he says it ”floored” him.

Raised in Rock Hill, S.C., the son of a Baptist preacher, Ball moved to Austin, Tex., in 1977 as part of Uncle Walt’s Band, an acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful folk trio whose opening act often was a ”broccoli- haired kid named Lyle who wrote quirky songs.” Ball abandoned folk for a harder-edged sound after hearing Bob Wills and moved his act to rougher roadhouses. His first solo album, Steppin’ Out, was recorded in 1989 but was shelved after two singles faltered (RCA has just released a rerecorded version as David Ball). ”I wasn’t happy with it either,” admits the singer of the ”too retro” sound. ”After the RCA thing, I felt like my music had sort of slipped through my hands.” For the next few years, he played around Nashville, ”to get back in touch with what I do.”

In his unassuming, charming way, the singer almost blew his current Warner Bros. contract over a pair of sneakers. Two years ago, he called producer Blake Chancey to hear him play at one of Nashville’s divier honky-tonks. After the show, Chancey sat him down to negotiate a deal. ”While talking, this cabdriver comes in with a bunch of sneakers he’d gotten off a tractor trailer wreck on the interstate,” says Ball. ”At $12 for an $80 pair of Nikes, I wanted ’em bad. But I let ’em go. You know, you can’t do but one thing at a time.”