With a debut album ready for release and his first single, "Tell Me You Get Lonely," landing firmly in Top 40 of Billboard's country chart, Frankie Ballard has had a memorable 2010. But in the midst of a whirlwind year, what's at the front of his mind? Sales? Reviews?
Nope. It's meeting his fans -- or in this case, those he soon hopes to claim as fans.
Ballard will get that chance when he opens for Uncle Kracker, a fellow Michigan native, on the headliner's Good to Be Me club tour. The circuit is sure to thrust Ballard in front of an audience generally unfamiliar with his music, but he hopes fans coming for Uncle Kracker's performance will be pleasantly surprised by his opening set.
"Hopefully, if they didn't come as fans, they're leaving as fans," he said. "I'm going to do my best to get them fired up."
So what exactly is his plan to accomplish that? He answers in one word: "face-melting." Now, the term may or may not have come from a certain rock-inspired Jack Black flick, but Ballard has developed his own definition for it. He describes it as his band's intent on "being so hot and so rockin' that it's going to melt the faces off the people in the first couple of rows."
Watching him play live, it's apparent his music is underscored by his guitar style of smooth licks and Southern rock-style riffs. Those, coupled with his raw, gritty vocals and catchy melodies, are what characterize his music.
"Being a guitar player is the heartbeat of my music," he explained. "If I didn't play the way I played, I wouldn't write the same kinds of songs. My show would be a lot different."
When gauging the success of his live performances, Ballard says it's important to connect with each audience member -- both lyrically and musically -- throughout the set.
Perhaps that desire to relate is inspired by some of his own musical heroes, whose work he personally connected with at a young age. From rock 'n' roll to blues to Outlaw country, Ballard grew up listening to a broad spectrum of styles. Ultimately, he says his respect has always been strongest for artists who offer their audience something worth seeing and feeling, not just hearing. As a kid, he recalls humming along to the backbeat-driven music of Elvis Presley and admiring the works of B.B. King and Johnny Winter. In fact, it's those soulful riffs and melodies that inspired Ballard to pick up a guitar at age 18.
"They just put so much emotion into their guitar playing," he said. "It would make me want to get up and play in front of people. I always felt that emotional connection."
From the first time he picked up his dad's old guitar, Ballard says he was hooked. He would often lock himself in his room for hours at a time -- just him, the guitar and a Springsteen or Buddy Guy record -- and wouldn't come out until he could skillfully imitate their melodies.
That work ethic paid off in more areas than one. As a high school student, Ballard honed his skills as a baseball player. He was bent on becoming the next Willie Mays until he decided to focus on Willie Nelson, but the complete transition took some time.
After garnering attention for his athletic abilities in his hometown of Battle Creek, Ballard accepted an offer to play for West Michigan University. As a college athlete, he balanced games and practices with gigs and songwriting sessions until one show settled the score. That defining moment occurred during Kenny Chesney's 2008 regional Next Big Star competition. Ballard took first place and won the chance to open for Chesney at the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids and Ford Field in Detroit. Then that opportunity led to a songwriting deal with Sony/ATV Music Publishing.
Ballard finally moved to Nashville in April 2009. He immediately began work on his Warner Bros. debut album, which includes songs written by hitmakers such as Dallas Davidson and David Lee Murphy. It was produced by Michael Knox (best known for his work with Jason Aldean) and is set to be released in early 2011.
Because fans spend hard-earned money to get into his shows, Ballard says he wants to be certain those shelling out the cash aren't left disappointed. He wants to create an experience for them that they could only encounter in person.
"If they just wanted to listen to music, they could've stayed at home and put a CD in," he said. "But they paid their money to come out and watch, as well as listen, so I want to entertain them."