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Almost everyone played piano in Marcia Ball's family.

Her grandmother. Her aunt. Lots of her kin in the tiny town of Vinton, La. So when she reached age 5, Ball's parents slipped her behind their living room piano and encouraged her to play.She did. She had to.

``I was too young to fight back,' Ball now says. ``I remember my first recital piece. It was something about falling leaves, and it was a three-finger affair. I used my left hand and my right hand. I was no prodigy, let me assure you.

``But I practiced when I had to, just enough not to embarrass me at recitals.'

These days, when it comes to playing, Ball doesn't get embarrassed anymore.

She is the queen of the boogie-woogie, creating what some call the Deep South swamp swing. She's a must-see draw at many music festivals, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where she's become a main-stage staple.

But that almost didn't happen. Ball gave up the piano at age 14 and later become a high school cheerleader. She didn't start playing again until 1970 when she moved with her first husband to Austin, Texas, in search of a more easy-going, liberal locale.

``We were hippies,' she says from her home there. ``It sounds so funny now, you think, 'That's odd,' but everybody was hippies back then. Picture 1970.'

That's where she rediscovered the piano.

``We were shopping for our first appliances for this big empty house, and we went to the junk stores to buy second-hand appliances, and the first thing we bought was a piano,' she says. ``It was in amazingly good shape. It was hard to get perfect pitch, but all the keys worked.'

Since 1978, Ball has recorded six albums. Rolling Stone magazine described her most recent release, ``Blue House,' as ``more intimate, more reflective (and) more indicative of the openhearted grace of her mature artistry.'

Her seventh release on Rounder Records, one of the country's most influential independent labels, comes out next month. The album's title: ``Let Me Play With Your Poodle.'

``It's an old Tampa Red song on a Lightning Hopkins reissue,' she says, laughing. ``I thought it was fun, and I ready for fun. 'Blue House' had all these serious connotations, and I wanted to get back to the 'Hot Tamale, Baby' implications.'

Ball, a willowy brunette almost 6 feet tall, is no stranger to the Carolina Lite Blues Festival.

She played five years ago when the festival unfolded at The Depot in downtown Greensboro. That day, she climbed onstage wearing a sharp red dress. She smiled at the crowd, crossed her legs at the knee and played songs showcasing her signature boogie-woogie style.

As she played, she bounced her left foot like a conductor's baton, keeping time to the music. The crowd loved her.

``I always have a lot of fun in the Carolinas, especially North Carolina,' Ball says. ``They've got that shag thing going on, and they like to dance.'

Ball travels worldwide with her music. But she always finds time to come back home to Vinton, a 10-block town in southern Louisiana, a place near Lake Charles where she graduated from high school with 51 other people.

Last year, Ball played at her high school reunion (don't ask what year). She played at the American Legion Hall on the edge of town, raising money for an academic scholarship named after one of her high school classmates who died in a car accident.

``I remember she got together to decorate a float for the town parade, and here we were, eight of us who all had gone to school together since kindergarten,' she says. ``To them, I'm just Marcia.'


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