Growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, country singer-guitarist Frankie Ballard had his fill of Pop-Tarts. The small town is home to a Kellogg’s plant, and Ballard says he ate enough of the pastries to last a lifetime. Not that he resents his upbringing.
“It was really cool to grow up there,” he says via phone from his Nashville home. “It was a small town. It’s a real town. Believe it or not, downtown smelled like cornflakes. It’s a blue-collar town and my parents worked really hard. I had a regular childhood. I played baseball and listened to country music.”
For Ballard, a terrific guitarist who released his latest album Sunshine & Whiskey earlier this year, his dad inspired him to want to learn to sing and play guitar.
“He and a neighbor buddy of his used to get together and jam,” he says. “Looking back on it as an adult, it seems weird. There was no reason for them to get together. My dad was a good singer. They would sing old country songs. My dad had a guitar, but he didn’t really play. As I got older, I strummed along. It became me and my dad playing and we’d be the Thanksgiving entertainment. It just started organically like that, playing old Elvis songs and having fun.”
Ballard eventually put a band together and started playing local clubs. He auditioned for Kenny Chesney’s Next Big Star competition and won, setting his career on a different trajectory.
“I was just trying to make a little money,” he says. “I was doing it for a living, which was cool. [After winning Next Big Star] I got to open a couple of shows for Chesney in Michigan. That was a game changer. It gave me the confidence to try it at the next level. I thought I needed to go to Nashville and see what was going on. I always look back on it as a turning point where I got that confidence to make it in the big leagues.”
Ballard released his self-titled debut in 2011 and the album turned out a few hits. Thanks in part to the video featuring an attractive group of flirty twentysomethings who traipse around town in bikinis, the John Mellencamp-like “A Buncha Girls” became a big hit. The song also showed off Ballard’s ability to play guitar too as it features some fierce solos.
“I didn’t have a lot of experience in studio, but it was a real joy,” he says. “I discovered a whole different side of me. To me, making music was playing it live. To sit down and be creative and try different things was incredible. I just fell in love.”
For his second album, he took a bit more time picking and choosing the songs he would record.
“This record was all about making music the way I want to make it,” he says. “As a new artist, you get a little bit rushed. There are budgets and you want to get stuff down. I felt like I was getting a chance to be me. I wanted to take my time and play guitar. I found a producer, Marshall Altman, who allowed me to take my time on this record. We experimented for months with guitar tones and tried out different microphones. I think that’s what made the difference. It sounds like me. It sounds different. It sounds original. It sounds like we spent a lot of time on it and we did.”
While Ballard didn’t write all of the songs on the album, he does identify with them (you can hear him talk about each track on a special track-by-track interview he conducted for Spotify).
“The best song wins,” he says when asked about the recording process. “I think sometimes songwriters get in the way of themselves. The pride of ‘this is my song.’ I take an objective look at songs. For me, no matter who wrote them, they have to be the best material. I don’t steer away from any subjects. If it matters to me, then everything is game. That’s what the country music fans deserve. So that’s what I did. Some of mine got on there and some didn’t. They were messages that meant something. The lyrics mattered and they are things that are true to my life. The first song, ‘Helluva Life,’ isn’t one that I wrote. But man, is it ever true for my life. It meant something to me.”
Ballard says that the song’s lyrics about scrounging up enough money to get by and appreciating life’s simple pleasures have really resonated.
“It’s the journey we’re all on, man, no matter what you’re trying to achieve in life,” he says. “There’s a line that the bad times make the good times better. It’s a message of hope. If you don’t get to that pot of gold that’s in your mind, maybe that’s not what it’s about. Maybe it’s about those relationships and what we’re living. People have sunk their teeth into that message, myself included.”
After spending the past couple of years opening up for acts such as Taylor Swift, Bob Seger and Rascal Flatts, Ballard, who has plans to hit the road with Florida Georgia Line in the new year, says he’s looking forward to headlining for the very first time.
“I’ve opened so many shows and been on tours before where it’s not your show,” he says. “I’ve been honored and blessed to do it. This one is different. I get to play a whole set of music. When I was opening, it was 35 to 40 minutes. I’m excited about that but at the same time, it’s a lot of pressure. You’re the one who has to sell the tickets. We’re playing lots of House of Blues and lots of theaters. They’re really rich venues and it will be fun. We’re going into December. It will be rocking. I’m excited and nervous at the same time. We’re going to give it everything we got. I’ve been looking forward to it for so long. We’re going to leave every drop of sweat out on that stage.”
Frankie Ballard, A Thousand Horses, 8 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 30, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $20 ADV, $22.50 DOS, houseofblues.com.