“If I’m honest, it was kind of a dark time for me. It was tough,” he says. “Your second single comes off the air, and you’re left thinking, ‘What’s going on here? Is this me? Is it the music? I mean, what is the issue here?’ And I felt by talking with radio guys that it wasn’t a me problem, you know? I had a lot of friends out there. I just wasn’t sure the music connected.”
Now he’s on course with a brand new video, his highest-charting single so far and a fresh perspective that is reflected in his music.
CMT: What was your first impression of “Helluva Life”?
Ballard: It took me somewhere. I started getting all nostalgic and thinking about high school and thinking about stupid things I did back when I was 16 or 18 or whatever. It’s such a cool message — that you’ve got to appreciate what you have in your life. And it even goes so far as to say you should appreciate the bad times because they make the good times better.
Was that something you needed to hear, maybe?
Oh, it was incredibly parallel with what was going on in my life. It’s such an appropriate thing for me to be releasing as my first single off the new project. I thought my first single was gonna come out and, ka-pow, be off to the races, but that didn’t happen. But at the end of the day, I feel very blessed to be in the game and to have a new single.
For this new album, what was it like working with Marshall Altman as your producer?
He was an L.A. guy who had recently come to Nashville, so he had a really open mind with regards to making music — probably because he was new in town and also probably because he was from L.A. I wanted to get my hands dirty and experiment and mess around the studio and let these things come organically and not try to slam it into one session.
Frankly, we were experimenting a lot. … For a while there, it was lacking direction. I started to think, ‘This is awesome. I feel very free as an artist, but what is this? What are we doing here?’ Because we were doing some wild stuff. So I thought, ‘I’m gonna ask [producer] Scott Hendricks if he can come in here and rein this in a little bit and add his two cents, because Marshall and I are way over here somewhere and Scott has his sights set on hit country music.
When Scott came in, it was next-level, man. … I had never done any trial on what microphones or what compressors would sound best for my voice. Scott has all this gear, and he brought in some incredible equipment. I think we got some of the best vocals we ever got because of that.
When you have down time now, other than going into the studio, what are you up to?
I truly don’t have any hobbies. I don’t. I am a music junkie. That’s all I do, all day, every day. People are like, “How do you relieve stress?” I do that by playing drums. I’ve got a drum kit in my basement, and I put on some of my favorite tunes and play along. … I’m constantly working on a live show or writing a song. I try to hit the gym every once in a while, but that’s hard to do.
On your Instagram, I saw a photo of you playing drums, with a wild mane of hair.
Yeah, the long hair? I had like an Allman Brothers thing going for a while. It was scary.
That was taken at a place called Wonderful’s Funky Basement, right?
Yeah, it was a blues bar. There were blues jams around Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, and I’d hang out at those as a guitar player. I ended up getting into a couple of blues bands and touring around a little bit. It was a cool time in my life because I didn’t have to worry about singing or fronting the band. I could focus on being a guitar player and develop as a guitar player.
Was this somewhere in your teens or early 20s?
Early 20s. I remember the first time I ever went into Wonderful’s. I was playing baseball in college and I used our catcher’s ID to get in because I was only 20.
How did you get interested in blues music?
My first love affair with the blues was Stevie Ray Vaughan. … My mom was making dinner and I was sitting in the kitchen talking with her. At the time, I was playing Kenny Rogers songs and Elvis tunes and Merle Haggard. I was a strummer. I was a rhythm man.
Stevie Ray Vaughan at Austin City Limits came on, and it changed my whole mind. I didn’t even know that was possible on a guitar. I was listening to old country songs, and here was this guy just laying it down. It was the most inspiring musical moment in my life so far. I locked myself in my bedroom, and I was determined to not exit until I could play like that. He really made me fall in love with the blues.