INTERVIEW: Country newcomer Frankie Ballard talks whiskey, women and God
Frankie Ballard drawls like Merle Haggard, looks like a long-lost Skarsgard brother and pours his heart and soul into every song. Oh, and did we mention he just scored his first No. 1 hit? After chatting with country music's rising star, we're more convinced than ever that this Michigan native is the total package.
Never mind that he's not from the South. Country music is a state of mind, and Ballard embodies the best of what the genre represents: hard work, genuine humbleness and a fun-loving spirit.
"Country music is everywhere, and it's huge," the Michigan native asserts. "It's about relating to the people… that's what country's always been about. As long as there's people to be related to, country music's gonna work."
When it comes to Ballard, boy does it work — a fact that can be at least partially attributed to his Michigan upbringing (which, for the record, he's damn proud of). Being raised in the state's blue-collar town of Battle Creek molded him into the musician he is today.
"You know, I've got some rock 'n' roll roots and those things have definitely influenced my sound," he said, "but most people would be very surprised to see how big a country music following there is up in the Great White North."
It was in that Great White North that Ballard grew up listening to country and rock legends like Elvis and Johnny Horton. A sports fanatic as a kid, he went on to play baseball at Western Michigan University before his "minor" interest in music morphed into his true passion. By the time he graduated, Ballard was playing gigs more than 200 nights a year.
It was in 2008, though, that the bona fide road warrior landed on a stage that would truly change his life — he entered and won Kenny Chesney's Next Big Star competition, giving him the chance to open for the "There Goes My Life" superstar.
He went on to tour for Taylor Swift and, in 2011, realized a dream opening for one of his biggest influences, Bob Seger.
"Here I am, a new artist, and I had a 45-minute set, a full band and it was just me and Bob… it was just like, 'Wow,'" Ballard elaborated on one particular gig at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.
After finishing his set and coming back to watch Seger's, Ballard could see Seger talking to a man in flannel. "Hey Frankie," Seger called out to Ballard, "this is Bruce Springsteen. Bruce, hey, this is my Michigan guy." Springsteen then looked at Ballard and said, "I caught your set, it sounded good man."
"I was like, 'Oh my God!'" Ballard gushed. "That was probably my favorite touring moment of all time."
It's a pretty safe assumption that Ballard is poised for many more memorable tour moments. In addition to hitting No. 1, "Helluva Life," the debut single from Ballard's well-rounded Sunshine & Whiskey album, has sold more than 300,000 digital copies already and was recently featured on ABC's hit show Nashville.
"Of all the things I've ever done in my career, I never got as many text messages about anything as I did being on that show," Ballard laughed. "People were like, 'Man, Frankie, you've really made it man! You were on that show Nashville — congratulations!"
For Ballard, this kind of success has been a long time coming and not without a few bumps in the road along the way, which is why "Helluva Life" resonates with him.
"I hope, if nothing else, that people just get a little hope to kind of hang in there, put one foot in front of the other and get up the next day and keep on tryin' at whatever they want to achieve," Ballard drawled with his trademark rasp.
As for the rest of Sunshine & Whiskey's stellar roster of songs, which Ballard calls his "little children," the musician has a soft spot for "It Don't Take Much" — which he co-wrote with a friend — and "Don't Tell Mama I Was Drinking."
When we ask (after reeling in our jealousy) if he'll be playing them at the Rock the Ocean's Tortuga Music Festival in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in April, Ballard can't stifle his excitement about the upcoming gig. "Oh, you won't be able to get away from 'em!" he laughed. "They're gonna be raining down from the stage!"
Of course, we had a sneaking suspicion it wasn't just the music Ballard was amped up about. The 31-year-old hasn't exactly been shy over the years about his two major weaknesses: whiskey and women. And we were willing to wager there'd be a surplus of at least one at Tortuga.
Ballard's response when we asked if he was ready for a little trouble? A resounding, "Hallelujah."
"Yeah, you know, I'm in my troublesome years," he said with a charming twang. "I'm right in the middle of 'em. Those kinds of festivals, they never let you down. There's always plenty of pretty girls scantily clad and cold beverages to go around. So, really, Tortuga cannot get here fast enough. After a tough winter, I'm ready for that!"
But rest assured, Ballard won't get too carried away — he relies on his faith to keep him grounded.
"These two tattoos on my forearms are both spiritual in nature, and I use them as tools to inject God into the conversation, at least to proclaim the kind of faith I carry in my heart," Ballard elaborated of his American traditional, '40s-style tattoos, one of which features an eagle and the inscription "Soldier in the Army of the Lord."
Clearly, Ballard has a lot going for him, but it's still the little joys he espouses in "Helluva Life" that this rising star relishes. "The simple pleasures in life for me are, like, going out and cutting wood, you know?" Ballard mused. "It makes me feel blessed that I'm able to get out and do things like that."