“The guys are going to like it because the girls are cute, and the girls are going to like it because they’re going to see the things they do with their girls,” Ballard noted during a recent visit to CMT. “That was the point of the video — for them to say, ‘Oh! That looks like us!’ It’s just warm and it feels good like summertime. It makes you feel like grabbing a margarita and heading to the beach.”
That sand-and-sun trip will have to wait, though. The Michigan native is currently on the road with Taylor Swift, holding down the opening slot on her tour. He’s also playing his own shows to promote his self-titled debut album, released in May. In this interview, Ballard talks about his initial fear of ballads, his recent tour dates with Bob Seger and his longtime “romantic obsession” with Texas.
CMT: What are you looking forward to the most about the Taylor Swift tour?
Ballard: A couple of things. First of all, I look forward to getting to know Taylor and picking her brain and talking to her production crew about getting better and learning how it’s done in the big leagues, at the top level. I think there’s a lot to learn there. And secondly, just getting in front of her fans because I think they’re really going to like my music. The album’s out, and it’s just an incredible opportunity.
For her fans who haven’t heard your music, how would you describe it to them?
It’s definitely not traditional. It’s a little edgier. I’m a guitar player, so my guitar-playing is on the record. It’s got some different sounds. I’m an up-tempo kind of guy. Anything that could be considered a ballad on the record still has some movement in it. It’s just some great country songs that are going to hopefully speak to their lives. I feel like a storyteller in some ways on this album. I hope they connect with the lyrics and dig the vibe, too.
Why was it important to get that edginess in your debut album, rather than playing it safe?
It’s who I am. When we started, I was much more hell-bent on being ultra-different and edgy at the cost of some great songs because I had this irrational fear of the ballad. But songs like “Tell Me You Get Lonely,” “Rescue Me” and “Sober Me Up” made it on the record because of my A&R [artists and repertoire department] and my producer. And I’m so glad they did.
Looking back on the Bob Seger tour, what was your most memorable moment?
I think it was probably the first night. I had no idea what to expect. We got there early and were loading in. As we were staging our stuff, all of a sudden, in comes Bob Seger. It’s like 4 o’clock in the afternoon — and he’s there! He does a full sound check, not messing around at all. None of this I knew. I thought maybe he’d show up five minutes before the show. So I go out into the seats, and I’m watching him in this empty arena. He’s like, “All right, bring my acoustic out and let’s do ‘Night Moves.'” I was like, “Oh, my God. This is the greatest thing in the world.”
What was going through your head at that moment?
It was overwhelming to me how much of a professional he is. He still cares. He’s still so passionate about his music, his fans and being the best he can be. He puts the time and effort in. I was just blown away. It totally inspired me and it has ever since. If I’m ever feeling like, “Ah, I don’t really feel like sound checking today … ” Seriously, as corny as it sounds, I think about him up there at 66 years old, still bringing it.
What is your hometown like?
Battle Creek, Mich. — it’s the cereal capital of the world. Kellogg’s and Post are both there. Downtown smells like cornflakes. It’s blue-collar, man. It’s just blue-collar. Very laidback. A lot of hard-working people. My parents still live in the same house I was raised in. It’s very down-home.
Did you grow up listening to country there?
I did. My dad is a big Outlaw country guy — Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, Waylon, Willie. He loves Elvis and turned me onto Elvis. He was always playing me stuff. He and I would sing and entertain the family. We’d have a little skit on Thanksgiving or whatever. He turned me on to all that stuff, which I ended up loving. From there, it was always country music for me.
Who are some of your favorite country artists?
Again, I’ve always leaned toward an edgier thing. I’m a huge Travis Tritt fan. I’m a big Southern rock guy. For modern stuff, I’m loving what Randy Houser is doing. Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton. It’s great country music.
After reading your Twitter page, I get the feeling you’ve connected with Austin, Texas.
I’ve been there about three times, and there’s just something about it. I really, really love that place. It’s a great city. It’s got some funky restaurants and bars and places to get clothes. It’s a cool, cool place. I’ve always had a romantic obsession with the state of Texas, anyway. All of my favorite guitar players are from Texas, it seems like. There’s always been something about Texas, so that city for me is a little special. I just love it.
Did you go find the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan?
I did. I gave him a big hug and took a picture! (laughs)
When you’re on the road, how do you pass the time?
It sounds boring, but I’m such a guitar junkie and a gear junkie. I’m always fiddling with my stuff. It’s relaxing to me. … I’m always pulling my stuff apart, getting my pedal board out and fiddling with it or changing guitar strings.
So, it’s easier to pass the time when you’ve got a guitar around?
Absolutely. I’d probably get into trouble without it!