The best music is about connection, that place where words and music allow an artist's reality to fire real emotion in listeners. And it's just that connection that has been at the heart of Frankie Ballard's rise as an artist.
"I see people relating to the words of these songs," he says, "using the lyrics to reflect on their own lives."
Nowhere has that been more evident than in Ballard's breakthrough Top 15 hit, "Helluva Life." Fans are owning every line as they sing it back in concert and use social media to share their own stories of good times and bad, and the way romance puts a shine on all of it. As they sometimes do, the song's maxim that "bad times make the good times better" has become a rallying cry and a life-affirming motto.
It also rings true to the life Ballard himself has been living.
"I've been slugging it out on the road for a long, long time," he says with a characteristic smile, "and it's great when I'm far from home to have people out there know who I am and to feel like we've created a real bond."
"Helluva Life" is the opener from Sunshine & Whiskey, an album that announces Ballard as one of the genre's most nuanced singers and writers, someone whose long road history and wide musical taste add substance to his obvious surface appeal. He first hit the public spotlight with two Top 30 singles, "Tell Me You Get Lonely" and "A Buncha Girls," appearing on the Grand Ole Opry and playing packed arenas opening for Kenny Chesney and on major tours with Taylor Swift and longtime idol Bob Seger. But he took a different musical approach for Sunshine & Whiskey.
"I'm really proud of this album," he says. "It's got songs that really mean something to me and I knew they would mean something to other people. It's got lots of different emotions, from partying and having fun to some really deep stuff. It's an emotional journey as well as a musical journey."
The fun side includes "Whiskey" and "Drinky Drink," about which Ballard says, "I've been making music for a living for about ten years now and I've found myself in a bit of trouble from time to time. The two things that always put me there—women… and whiskey." "Don't You Wanna Fall" is about a singer, "a high-wire act without a net," with a woman he wants off the pedestal he's put her on. "He's saying, 'Come down here to my level where it's real,’" Ballard says. At the deep end is "Don't Tell Mama I Was Drinking," a song that hearkens to the stories of tragedy and despair that were once a country mainstay--"It sounds like something Waylon Jennings would cut," he says.
That diversity is a key component of the record.
"My approach was to pick great songs," he adds, "whether or not I thought they fit any trends. Some are old school, some are new school, but if it moved me, I'd record it. People are going to be able to sink their teeth into this from track one all the way down to track eleven."
The album also revisits two songs from his earlier recordings--"Tell Me You Get Lonely," which he calls "a song people identify with me that we're including as a bonus," and "Sober Me Up, "a favorite song of mine that I felt slipped through the cracks."
In fact, it was those earlier recordings that led Ballard to his re-energized approach to writing and recording Sunshine & Whiskey. What had been missing, he realized, was a blue-collar sense of crafting his own product from the bottom up, of putting his stamp on every step of the process. He decided to retool, looking for a like-minded producer, and his search led to Altman, whose work with "bayou soul" singer Marc Broussard he was particularly fond of.
"I wanted to get somebody who would let me get my hands on the music," he says. "I wanted to let it grow organically, to build tracks an instrument at a time and play a bunch on the record. And Marshall and I found a connection. He loves to work and to experiment.”
The pair would get together for late-night sessions Ballard describes as "freeing. I was making music that was coming from deep within me. If I didn't like something, we'd change it, and if we liked something, we'd chase it and try to get it perfect. It was an unbelievably cool experience."
The excitement translated easily to his team.
"I knew and the label believed I was making music that mattered," he says. In fact, legendary producer and label exec Scott Hendricks (Trace Adkins, Blake Shelton, Brooks & Dunn) signed on as co-producer, providing additional direction.
The album, Ballard says, "represents the beginning of what people will call my sound." It's a mixture of influences, from country classics to blues legends, from Southern rock to contemporary sounds, all held together by the force of his artistic personality. Like heroes including Willie Nelson and Hank Jr., he makes everything he touches his own, a result, more than anything, of a decade of honing his craft on stages all over the country.
"This music was born on the road," he says. "I'm the product of going out and making it happen, finding out what works. My influences fall everywhere from Bob Seger to Howlin' Wolf to Jerry Reed, and through the years it’s all come together in my songwriting and playing. People who listen are going to hear me from top to bottom."
They will hear his background in every note. He's a product of Battle Creek, Michigan, a working-class town where he grew up "loving Elvis and Johnny Horton." Sports-obsessed as a kid, he played baseball at Western Michigan University, while he gradually turned a minor interest in music into his main passion. He studied guitarists, including blues great Buddy Guy, locking himself away until he could excel at the instrument. He began playing open mic nights and played drums in a band. By the time he was out of college, he was leading his own band, playing 200+ nights a year within a 300-mile radius and taking trips to Nashville once-a-month.
Through it all, he has never lost his love for doing what he does best--taking his music to the people.
"My bread and butter is playing live," he says. "The band and I really hammer the road and I don't want to slow down. We give everything we've got to put on a heck of a show. And the best is when the connection comes through one of your songs. To watch someone sing your song at the top of their lungs because they've been through the same thing, well, that means as much to a performer as it does to a fan, and that's what keeps me going. I'm always trying to push myself to the next level with my stage performance. The fans deserve something great."
Capturing the essence of his energetic stage shows, Sunshine & Whiskey represents the perfect re-emergence for a singer whose journey reflects all of life’s ups and downs.
“Sometimes it's just busting your butt--at least that's what my journey has been. I want people to go, 'This guy knows where I've been.'"
Night after night, show after show, that's just the connection Frankie Ballard is making.