Veteran singer/harmonica player/guitarist Tom Ball is best-known for his longtime partnership with Kenny Sultan, who is also a guitarist. When Ball and Sultan are performing together as a blues-oriented acoustic duo -- often without bass or drums -- Ball's primary role is that of a singer who plays harmonica. In the blues world, people tend to think of Ball as a vocalist instead of an instrumentalist. But in fact, Ball is both a singer and an instrumentalist -- and when he isn't performing blues-oriented duets with Sultan, he can be a fine acoustic guitar picker along the lines of John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho, and Stefan Grossman. The late Fahey (born 1939, died 2001) wrote the book on what has been called picker music -- pickers are essentially folk instrumentalists who play acoustic guitar (often unaccompanied), and Ball is among the many rootsy, earthy, down-home guitarists who has been greatly influenced by Fahey's innovations. While picker music pretty much falls into the folk category, a picker can have a variety of influences; typically, pickers will listen to anyone from Woody Guthrie, Bill Monroe, and the Carter Family to Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Acoustic country blues, bluegrass, old-time country, and string bands have had a strong influence on the picker field, and Ball has been affected by all of those things. He has also been affected by European classical music; admirers of Ball's instrumental work have been impressed by his ability to play Johann Sebastian Bach one minute and Merle Travis the next. Regrettably, Ball hasn't recorded very many unaccompanied solo projects, although the self-produced Guitar Music (which was recorded for the Kicking Mule label in 1987) is a fine example of what he can do by himself. What do Ball's duets with Sultan and his unaccompanied instrumental work have in common? Both are examples of what has been loosely defined as roots music; Ball brings a great deal of blues feeling to the table regardless of whether or not he is playing something with 12 bars.
Ball, who was born in 1950 and grew up in Los Angeles, started playing guitar at the age of 11 and harmonica at 14. The virtuoso moved to Santa Barbara, CA (a few hours north of L.A.), in 1978, and he formed a duo with Sultan the following year. Ball and Sultan, whose duets have been greatly influenced by the legendary Sonny Terry/Brownie McGhee team, provided their first album as a duo, Who Drank My Beer?, for Kicking Mule in 1983. The Ball/Sultan duo went on to record several albums for the Chicago-based Flying Fish Records in the '80s and '90s. ~ Alex Henderson