Exclusive: Frankie Ballard Immerses Himself In ‘El Rio’

Frankie Ballard

Frankie Ballard

After finally getting his shot in Nashville, Frankie Ballard decided to get out of town to make his newest album, El Rio.

The Warner Bros. Records/Warner Music Nashville artist rode a wave of success with “Helluva Life,” “Sunshine & Whiskey” and “Young & Crazy,” all No. 1 singles from his 2014 album Sunshine & Whiskey. But when it came time to follow up with new music, Ballard and producer Marshall Altman needed to figure out the next step.

As Ballard tells MusicRow, “He looked at me and was like, ‘What is it? What are we going to do?’ And I said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get better.’”

From there, the pieces started falling into place. Ballard assembled a five-piece band – including himself – with two musicians from Nashville and two musicians from Los Angeles. After selecting the 14 songs to record, the entourage traveled to Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama to rehearse and arrange the material. (Not coincidentally, it’s the same room where his musical idol Bob Seger recorded “Old Time Rock and Roll,” although it is no longer a functioning studio.) After that, everybody headed west to Tornillo, Texas, just south of El Paso, to the Sonic Ranch.

El Rio

“It’s a 3,200-acre ranch, 2,300 of which is pecan trees. And in the middle is this big hacienda and a lot of state-of-the-art recording studios,” Ballard explains. “I learned about the place from an engineer friend of mine and it sounded like a magical place to be.”

In contrast to recording in Nashville, all the meals were home-cooked and everybody slept at the ranch. Plus, Ballard was able to walk up to the banks of the Rio Grande River when he needed a moment of reflection. Overall, the change of scenery proved to be exactly what he craved – no personal distractions, limited cell phone service, and a full focus on creating. After soaking up the mojo in Muscle Shoals, Ballard and his band were ready to rip into El Rio, which will be released Friday (June 10).

“For any artist, the best they can be is when they get closest to what really turns them on,” Ballard believes. “So I said, ‘Marshall, let’s do it like a five-piece band. And try to do it live. Not a lot of overdubs and let’s try to make the music translate immediately to the live setting. And sound just like the record live, immediately. Let’s try to step out on this and refine my sound even more.’”

In response, Altman produced the record almost as if he were a sixth member of the band, standing on the studio floor instead of in the control booth. Just as other mainstream country artists have embraced their hip hop or urban influences, Ballard brought his own musical background into the mix too.

“I love that there’s all these new artists putting their influences, their genuine influences, into their music, and into country music. Guys like Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line, and they’re bringing a lot of ears and eyeballs and people to country music and making it this big, broad brushstroke, which I think is so positive,” Ballard observes. “But their influences are different than mine. I’m into blues and old country and rock and roll and Elvis and stuff like that, so I need to be there. I need to do that.”

 

Ballard says he has been building toward this moment for 12 years. He grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan, and grew up loving the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Horton, George Thorogood and Buddy Guy. He played baseball for Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo while simultaneously starting his music career in the clubs. His band won a local contest in 2008 to perform prior to two of Kenny Chesney’s area concerts.

About once a month after that, Ballard started traveling to Nashville and signed his record deal with Warner Music Nashville in 2010 and a publishing deal with Sony/ATV around the same time. An EP the following year was met with tepid response. However, the tides have since turned. “Helluva Life” became Ballard’s first gold single in 2014. The single “Sunshine & Whiskey” reached platinum certification at the end of 2015.

“I’ve been putting it together brick by brick by brick by brick. Here’s an opportunity to go say something, finally,” Ballard states. “I feel like Sunshine & Whiskey got us in the door after all those years of, ‘Hey man! Just listen. Listen to us over here!’ And now everybody’s like, ‘What! Let’s hear it, let’s have it.’ And I wanted [the direction of] this album to be what that is, now that we’ve got everybody paying attention. I feel like we took a giant leap forward toward what my sound is, and trying to find it, so I’m really excited for it to come out.”

Pictured (L-R): Eric T. Parker, Troy Stephenson, Molly Hannula, Frankie Ballard, Robert K. Oermann, Sherod Robertson, Craig Shelburne

Pictured (L-R): Eric T. Parker, Troy Stephenson, Molly Hannula, Frankie Ballard, Robert K. Oermann, Sherod Robertson, Craig Shelburne

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Craig Shelburne is the General Manager at MusicRow.

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