Frankie Ballard's transition from Michigan-based singer/guitar slinger to major-label recording artist was, by most standards, an enviable one. His debut album, Frankie Ballard, produced two Top 30 singles, "Tell Me You Get Lonely" and "A Buncha Girls." He gained national media exposure, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and played packed arenas opening for Kenny Chesney and on major tours with Taylor Swift and longtime idol Bob Seger.
But for Ballard, a music junkie with a restless spirit, there was still too big a gap between that first taste of success and the dreams he'd nurtured working 230 nights a year in crowded clubs back home. Call it a working man's sense of mission, call it a gut check, but Ballard took time out to step back and to reassess where he'd come from and where he was going.
"I was disappointed those two records weren't bigger hits," he says, "and I looked at everything that had gone into them."
What was missing, he realized, was a blue-collar sense of crafting his own product from the bottom up, of putting his stamp on every step of the process. He decided to retool, looking for a like-minded producer.
"I wanted to get somebody that would let me get my hands on the music," he says. "I wanted to let it grow organically, to build tracks an instrument at a time and play a bunch on the record."
His search led him to Marshall Altman, whose work with "bayou soul" singer Marc Broussard he was particularly fond of.
"Marshall and I found a connection," he says. "I quickly realized he was my kind of guy. He loves to work and to experiment. Sometimes we would just mess around with guitar tones, or I'd go, 'Hey, man, I've got this little banjo part in my head' and he'd go, 'Go ahead, man, play it.'"
They would get together for late-night sessions he describes as "freeing. I was making music that was coming from deep within me. If I didn't like something, we'd change it, and if we liked something, we'd chase it and try to get it perfect. It was an unbelievably cool experience."
The first sign of magic from that collaboration is the single "Helluva Life." It's perfect summer uplift, a song about the magic inherent in small moments that can bring joy and perspective to modern lives with more than their share of challenges and big questions.
"It's a song that parallels my journey over the last 18 months," he says. "There is good stuff and bad stuff that happens to us. Nobody's immune to that. Your girlfriend leaves you but your buddies pick you up and take you out on the town and make you feel better, or you lose your job but your brother steps in and helps you find another one. We lean on each other in the good times and the bad times, and sometimes it's hard to see where we're going when we're in the middle of it. I found myself feeling that big time."
In capturing all of that complexity, the song represents the perfect re-emergence for a singer whose journey reflects all of the ups and downs of an entire society facing long-lasting challenges.
"I know this song sure makes me feel connected to so many people struggling in this economy," he says. "There are people who've lost the corner office and people who've lost blue-collar jobs. I hope they see in my story that the music business isn't necessarily limos and private jets. Sometimes it's just busting your butt--at least that's what my journey has been. I want people to go, 'This guy knows where I've been.'
His story is proof that he does. He's a product of Battle Creek, Michigan, a working-class town where he grew up "loving Elvis and Johnny Horton." Sports-obsessed as a kid, he played baseball at Western Michigan University, while he gradually turned a minor interest in music into an obsession. He studied guitarists, including blues greats like Buddy Guy, and locked himself away until he could excel at the instrument. He began playing open mic nights and played drums in a band as well. By the time he was out of college, he was leading his own band, playing 200+ nights a year within a 300-mile radius, and taking once-a-month trips to Nashville to expand his networking opportunities. In 2008, he earned an opening slot with Chesney in Grand Rapids and Detroit. Not long afterward, the songwriting skills he'd been developing earned him a publishing deal with Sony/ATV, as well as a management deal and, finally, a label deal. He moved to Nashville and began recording.
He is presently at work on his second album, and both he and the label are anxious for his fans to hear what he's been working on.
"I knew and the label believed I was making music that mattered," he says. Legendary producer and label executive Scott Hendricks (Trace Adkins, Blake Shelton, Brooks & Dunn) signed on as co-producer. Meanwhile, Ballard is doing what he does best--taking his music to the people.
"My bread and butter is playing live," he says. "The band and I really hammer the road and I don't want to slow down. We keep it lean and mean out there and give everything we've got to put on a heck of a show. On stage, it's all about connection. I've always been a firm believer if people just wanted to listen to music they could easily do it from the comfort of their home or their vehicle, but when they come out they want to see something. They want to experience something. They want to be part of something. That's why I go to shows. And the best is when the connection comes through one of your songs. To watch someone sing your song back at the top of their lungs because they've been through the same thing, well, that means as much to a performer as it does to a fan, and that's what keeps me going."
That connection is still at the heart of what he does.
"There's a line in 'Helluva Life' that goes, 'The bad times make the good times better,' and I really believe that," he says. "That's why I don't resent the tough times I've been through. Maybe I needed to take the long way around and learn some lessons before I was able to handle success. It may just be God's way of helping me cope with what is to come."
And his growing legions of fans are more than ready to take the rest of the journey with him.