Get Frankie Ballard talking about the blues, and he’ll be quick to name at least 10 of his all-time favorite bluesmen off the top of his head.
“I love Lightning Hopkins, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, Slim Harpo, Sonny Landreth, Sonny Boy Williamson … I can keep going forever,” he says. “I love that kind of music, and I think that’s obvious when you listen to my music. You can hear that I love the blues.”
Along with the blues, listeners will hear a deep appreciation for the hearts of women on his highly anticipated third album, El Rio, which was tracked over 10 days at the Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas. Although Ballard only co-wrote two songs on the collection, each track resonates with him personally and showcases him as a true recording artist.
He completely charms his audience whether he’s navigating a woman’s curves in “Sweet Time,” reflecting on a relationship that began at a bar in the nostalgic lead single “It All Started With a Beer,” or trying to win back the affection of a former love in “Good As Gold” and “You Could’ve Loved Me.”
He didn’t even bat an eyelash when it’s mentioned I like to rock out to the funky finger-picking on “Little Bit of Both” in the morning.
“Get some,” he says fired up with a grin. “That’s the dream, man. That’s the dream that somebody tells you, ‘Hey, I like it.’ That’s what I’m doing it for. I’m doing it for people who need music as much as I much as I do.”
Chris Janson, Craig Wiseman and Ben Hayslip co-wrote the song about a lady with certain je ne sais quoi who can handle her business just as well as she can handle a party.
But Janson’s isn’t the only recognizable name listed on El Rio’s songwriter credits. Kip Moore, Chris Stapleton and The Cadillac Three’s Jaren Johnston wrote the lustful track “Cigarette,” and Stapleton co-wrote the opener “El Camino” with Lee Thomas Miller. There’s also a homage to Bob Seger with a rocking cover of “You’ll Accomp’ny Me.”
He is seated at an office at Warner Music Nashville on a sunny afternoon while Dan + Shay run through a sound check on the rooftop patio outside for a happy hour showcase.
So far, Ballard’s day has been stacked with media interviews to promote El Rio, but the blaring music outside never breaks his concentration.
CMT.com: One of the best parts about this album is how you celebrate a woman’s spirit. What do you like most about singing about ladies?
Ballard: Well, I’m a guy. You know? It doesn’t matter if I’m a musician or what I am, the man in me is always going to be thinking about the things on that album. If I’m not singing about them, then I’m just being dishonest because that’s life. Life is relationships and what we’re trying to do together. And please, that’s what people have been singing about forever. That’s what the blues is all about — the good, the bad, the fun, all of it — that lies there in between a man and a woman.
How cool would it be to share a No. 1 with Kip Moore, Chris Stapleton and Jaren Johnston?
It would be awesome! I love that song. I’m an adult man and I know a lot about lust. And that’s what “Cigarette” is about. It’s about lust. We’re all good friends, and we’ve all been writing songs and trying to make something coming out of Nashville. And I’m proud to be the person that got to record this song and put it on an album. I just hope that I did it justice. I know I wrenched on it as hard and as long as I could to get it where it is. But we’ll see what happens with that tune. The future is still wide open with that song.
And the guitar part on “Southern Side” is super addicting.
That song and “Little Bit of Both” really reveal how I’m into blues, rhythm and blues and funk. It definitely shows my Jerry Reed influence to get swampy and funky like that. I think those are going to be a couple good dancers especially to play live.
How important is it to have strong guitar instrumentation in the structure of your music?
I’ve always expressed myself on guitar and so I look at it as another voice that is available to say what you need to say. I’ve always loved when a guitar is right there supporting a song in such a way or is doing some heavy lifting for the song. I mean, a song is lyric and melody. Everything else around it is supporting what that lyric and melody is trying to say in every way. A great guitar part and a great guitar tone can be such a great companion for a lyric and a melody. We went deep catalog on these guitar parts and tones and how they work together with the other instruments that were happening. You can hear that in the album. And it doesn’t come by accident. You have to pursue those kinds of things in order for them take shape and we did. We chased those guitars all over the studio. And I’m proud of the tones and stuff we got down.
Rehearsing at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and the Granada Theater in Dallas, talk about how working in these sacred music places gave El Rio a different story.
It’s about what it did for me and what it did for the players and my producer Marshall Altman. We’re all deep catalog junkies — music junkies, gear junkies, tone junkies, guitar junkies, song junkies. So, put me in Muscle Shoals sitting on the floor where the Rolling Stones cut “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses,” that’s going to make a guy like me think about things differently. I’m a spiritual guy. So I’m trying to soak up the mojo of the room. I wanted to put us in a position to succeed and to be inspired. Inspiration for us is everything. So being able to put our boots on the same tile where some of this music that matters so much to us was made put us in a different head space. That’s everything for guys like us.
Talk about the significance of recording music you didn’t write for this album.
I think this is fun to talk about because so few people really understand how this town works. Music City U.S.A. is a community of music makers. Not everybody is a recording artist in this town. Some people are songwriters and some people are just recording artists. I’m both. I write and record. People deserve the best songs and they’re counting on me to filter all that. But I always put my songs up against what everybody else is doing. They have to compete to get on the record. “Cigarette” is a perfect example. I didn’t write “Cigarette.” If I had, I would have recorded it because it’s about what the song is and what it means to me. It’s something I know a lot about, and it’s something I knew was right for this album in my soul. Until I hear a song or write a song that beats my work, it’s not right to put something in there that’s not as good because I wrote it. But it’s for the fans. I’m making this music for people to have, and for myself because I have a lot to get off my chest. That’s what will continue to make this town great. I’m always going to be that way. I’m always going to try to record the best songs I can get my hands on whether I wrote them or not. Maybe somebody else will record a song I’ve written, which has happened before. It’s always a real blessing when that happens. But we’re songwriters, and we’re recording artists. Those things are sort of two different worlds sometimes, especially for guys like me who do both. But it’s a really interesting thing to discuss.
What about “Accomp’ny Me” made it the Bob Seger song to record for this album?
And I’ve been covering Bob Seger forever in the bars and in the honky tonks. “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” is a song I’ve always really cherished. The guy in that song is just so courageous. He’s saying this to the girl, “I know you’ve got to go do your thing but eventually, we’ll be together. I feel that strong and I know it in my soul.” And there’s something really cool about that. I’ve felt that way. I know what that feels like and how courageous it is to say that. I love the confidence in that song. There’s a lot of that spirit in this album, and it felt like that song fit this group of songs so well. I really wanted to honor what Bob Seger has done for me as an artist. I think it’s a perfect fit.
“Good As Gold” and “You Could’ve Loved Me” — what themes in those songs resonated with you the most?
“Good As Gold” is the heart of the record. It’s right along with “You’ll Accompan’y Me.” The courage of that is so inspiring to me. It’s saying, “I know you’re with this guy, but you need to be with me.” It’s the action of saying it, not just feeling it. I just love it. “You Could’ve Loved Me,” everybody who’s like me, who’s a dreamer and has something that they have to do in their life, or has something that they have to go and see, at some point in that person’s journey, they end up leaving. Sometimes they leave a lot. I’m a leaver. I’m always chasing the next thing that I’ve got to do. When you leave, sometimes you leave somebody behind. And the real difficulty in that is it’s not always because it wasn’t working, it’s just because you left. That’s heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking for me because I’ve done it. To think about, “Well, if I would have just stayed, it might have worked.” It’s a strange feeling to have because it’s hard on them. It’s hard on you. It’s an emotion that I know a lot of people have experienced. I’ve experienced it firsthand. It’s a little bit revealing in some ways. But I think being honest about some of those emotions that I’ve experienced in my journey, I think welcomes people in who’ve been there, too. I hope people hear it and go, “I’m not the only person who’s ever felt like that.”
It’s a sacrifice that most creative people have to make because you’ve got to do what feeds your soul and spirit, but you definitely have to be with someone who is onboard with that all the time. That takes a lot of sacrifice.
Yeah. And that song is definitely about that sacrifice.