Frankie Ballard Reflects on a Rock 'n' Roll Renaissance

He Recalls Encounters With Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen

When asked what he thought about his time in music, Frankie Ballard took a deep breath before giving his answer.

“It’s always impossible for people to know really anything about their time in music because it requires perspective to really understand what things were, what had the real impact, what mattered and what didn’t,” he said during our interview. “Sometimes it takes years to understand. So, an artist, I don’t think ever really gets that full picture.”

He added he believed the time between the 1950s through the early ‘80s will be remembered as a rock ‘n’ roll renaissance, citing that what musicians did during those 30 years changed the way people approached music, live performance and major arena tours.

“The dust hasn’t even really settled on that,” he said. “People will look at those 30 years from 1950 to 1980, and they will think of it as a renaissance period, a magical time where all these different kinds of music exploded into this form of music that was going to change the world and it did in a big way. And the truth is after a renaissance, there’s always going to be people that are still doing what happened in a renaissance, and that’s what I’m doing.”

For our interview, Ballard kicked back in the party room of the Motown Suite at Nashville’s historic vinyl pressing plant, United Record Pressing. Downstairs, employees ran old machines that cranked out the final stacks of vinyl during the last week of manufacturing at the original plant. After nearly 70 years in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood, the company has moved all future manufacturing to its new facility near the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere. (According to the owners, the original pressing facility will be preserved).

The scent of vinyl melting into discs filled the checkered hallways of the upstairs apartment where some of United’s first clients once stayed. In the early 1960s, when the company began pressing records for some black-owned and managed record companies (particularly Motown and Vee-Jay), the black executives and artists of those companies could not get hotel rooms or eat in restaurants when they came in town to oversee the pressing of their records, due to lingering Jim Crow attitudes.

So, United flipped the uppermost floor of their main building into a large apartment for its visitors and named home-away-from-home the “Motown Suite.”

And it has stayed pretty much a time capsule ever since. On a coffee table in the television room, a teenage Candace Bergen on the cover of a vintage Time magazine peeks through old copies of Cash Box magazine. One is from July 22, 1972 listing Charlie McCoy’s Real McCoy at No. 1 album on its top country albums chart, while Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” sits at the top of the Cash Box Top 100.

Exploring the Motown Suite, Ballard noticed how the place was similar to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio -- one of the sacred music places where he rehearsed before recording his most recent album El Rio at the Sonic Ranch in El Paso, Texas.

“I think about my experience as an artist, and if you think about those artists and their experience, it’s different in so many ways,” Ballard said comparing his journey in music to the experiences of Motown acts. “I feel like I got a lot more freedom with my music and the musicians I wanted to pick.

“My producer Marshall Altman and I definitely handpicked the musicians for El Rio. We had an idea for a really powerful rhythm section. That’s the beautiful thing about making music the way we were making it. What’s old school about it is counting on human beings and the human element to make it happen.”

Ballard recorded his newest single, the Bob Seger cover “You’ll Accomp’ny Me,” as a tribute Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s impact on his career. As a fellow Michigander, Seger’s music has been a staple in Ballard’s sets for as long as he can remember. What drew him to cut it for El Rio was the confidence in the song. He loves how courageous the male lead is when he tells his love interest that one day they’ll be together.

The two toured together in 2012, and it was at Madison Square Garden where Seger first introduced Ballard to Bruce Springsteen, a music memory Ballard will never forget. He had just performed his 45-minute opening set and rushed to change into a clean shirt so as not to miss Seger’s grand entrance onstage.

“I hustled back around, and Bob and his band had made their way up by the stage,” Ballard recalled. “It was really dark and the fog machines were all rolling. I could see Bob was kind of hanging out and he’s talking to some people. I was trying to stay out of the way and be a fan.

“Out of the darkness, Bob goes, ‘Frankie, come here.’ And so I walked over to him and he goes, ‘Frankie, this is Bruce Springsteen.’ I didn’t realize Bruce was standing over there. And Bruce goes, ‘Yeah! I caught your show, man. You sounded good.’ It was a big moment in my life to be in that place to be on that tour and to get to meet Bruce. I definitely respect the men and women who came before me and how much those people gave to me musically.

“I think my position is unique because I’m a direct descendant of those musicians and 100 years from now there won’t be any direct descendants. All of our positions are special because we’re the last generation that’s directly connected to those in that renaissance. I’m definitely not doing it to just make money. I’m in it for the right reasons.”

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