When Frankie Ballard was growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, his father played him one classic album over and over again: Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, featuring Robbins' signature hit "El Paso." Now Ballard, a quick-draw guitarist and rough-hewn singer, has cut his own metaphorical gunfighter album, decamping from Nashville to a gritty El Paso studio to record the follow-up to his 2014 breakout Sunshine & Whiskey.
For Ballard, who scored three consecutive Number One singles off Sunshine & Whiskey - "Helluva Life," the title track and "Young & Crazy" - it was imperative that he leave behind the safety of Nashville for the wilds of the Mexico border. Setting up shop at the famed Sonic Ranch, just south of El Paso in Tornillo, Texas, Ballard, producer Marshall Altman (Sunshine & Whiskey) and his band threw themselves headlong into the music, eating and sleeping at the studio. Their goal: make a bona fide album.
"I grew up listening to albums and I loved them as bodies of work," says Ballard. "But today, everyone cuts singles. Even Sunshine & Whiskey was recorded in chunks. We'd go into one studio, cut four, then go into another studio and cut another four. It's groovus interruptus, man."
To keep that groove steady, Ballard went on the lam, leaving Nashville for a few days of bare-bones rehearsals at ground zero for rock & roll and soul, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. From there, he continued on to the Granada Theater in Dallas for another workshop session, before arriving at the Sonic Ranch, locked and loaded.
The change of scenery worked. Ballard has created an urgent, thriving record, a project that showcases Frankie the artist. It's the type of album his heroes like Bob Seger and the Rolling Stones made, a collection of 11 songs with a sonic through- line, driven along by swagger but also respect for the music.
If Ballard has an endgame, it's the longevity of someone like Seger, a career that continues well into the future and transcends any genre. And returns actual, honest playing to the fore.
"I miss musicianship on the radio. Everyone is doing this digital thing and they're putting all these pop sounds into country music, and I love it. I dance to it at the club. But I don't do that personally. I don't even have a computer," says Ballard, going on to lay out his plan for country music dominance.
"There is something you have to fundamentally understand about me: my dream goes the whole way. It goes all the way. So I want more people hearing my music," he says. "So what are you going to do, Frankie? Well, I guess I'm going to try to make some better music. And if it's not better than what I did before, there's no reason for it to come out. I don't want to maintain altitude - I want to fly, man."
And with the MLB.com exclusive debut of the video for "Good As Gold" Ballard is on a clear trajectory toward his goal of bringing musicianship back to the radio.