"We'll take two of these," Frankie Ballard tells the waitress at a Nashville cafe, pointing to an item on the drink menu. Beneath his finger, the menu reads: "Adrenaline Rush: Four-shot latte with caramel and creamy vanilla! Served HOT."
The waitress scribbles down the order and heads toward the kitchen. Ballard, happy with the prospect of ingesting a half-week's worth of caffeine during a single lunchtime interview, shoots a crooked smile across the table. "Man, we're gonna get weird."
The coffee arrives, and we don't get weird as much as super-talkative. There's a lot to cover. Ballard's third album, El Rio, was recorded along the banks of the River Grande, far away from the Music Row studios that tend to produce most country releases these days. Appropriately, it's a different kind of album for the Michigan-born, Nashville-based songwriter, filled with country-rock anthems that have more in common with the heartland heroes of Ballard's youth — especially Bob Seger and John Mellencamp — than the outlaws and highwaymen whose names are so often cited by country music's younger class.
"It's just my own brand of American music," he says. "There's rock & roll. There's country stories and country lyrics and country songs. And there's a lot of blues swagger and blues guitar playing. It's all those things together."
Before the espresso ran dry, we talked with Ballard about temporarily leaving Tennessee, paying attention to his influences and how good music is like extra-sharp cheddar cheese.
El Rio isn't your first album, but it does feel like a reintroduction. Your music has never sounded so specific before.
Well, I started off as a bar band. We played ZZ Top, Bob Seger, Waylon Jennings, the Rolling Stones — everything and anything people wanted to hear. You're not really selling yourself back then; you're selling beer. I'd mix some of my own material in there, and gradually, the sound starting turning into my own thing. It's a natural process, where you turn the corner and start doing something that's specific to you. The dream for any recording artist is to have a unique sound that sets them apart from others, and I really feel like going down to El Paso allowed us a giant leap towards that sound. It was intentional. That's what we wanted to do: to get out of this town and all the distractions that come with it.
Leaving Nashville to record a country album isn't the way most major-label artists do it, though.
It wasn't about making a big statement. It was about putting myself in a position where I could just be me. I really tried to be honest with this record, and an artist can only be honest to what really turns them on, musically. Are you really into pop? Are you really into old country? Blues? If you're not honest about your influences, then things don't sound as real as they can be. They're not as sharp a cheddar cheese as they can be. And I'm trying to be the sharpest cheddar I can be.
Once you got to El Paso, what sort of decisions went into the recording process?
Man, so many. How long should the guitar intro be? Should it be a Les Paul? Should it be a Strat? Should the bass be using flatwounds? Should we use a different mic on a different amp? Wasn't this DI the same one they used on all those Motown records? Should we use it, too? We were laser focused. When you've only got five instruments, they all need to do some heavy lifting. We toiled over that stuff. For the guitar tone on "Cigarette," we used two Leslie speakers for a stereo effect, with the guitar going straight into the board. We didn't use guitar pedals for that. It took awhile to run all the cables and mic it correctly and get it right, but once it was there, it made all the difference in the world.
Let's get back to the cheddar cheese thing. You were trying to make the sharpest cheese possible. How did your band factor into that?
I've always been a band guy. That's my wheelhouse. That's what I do. I love how country music is exploring all different kind of sounds right now, and I celebrate that. People like Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line. . . they've got their own influences. They love pop and hip-hop, and it's genuine for them, and they're projecting that into their own music. It's bringing a lot of eyeballs to country music, and I celebrate it fully, but that's not what I do. What I know how to do is play American music with a five-piece band. We've got guitars, drums, bass, keys. With this record, we committed to that. We found the right people, too.
Like Rob McNelley, who spent years playing guitar for Bob Seger. You can't be more honest about your influences than that.
I toured with Bob four years ago, and he had a different guitar player at the time. Then he went back on tour again, and I went to see him in West Virginia. I took my band with me. You never know when it's gonna be someone's last tour, so I thought we really needed to make that trip. So we're over there, and I'm sitting stage right, and my friend Rob is playing guitar in the band. They get halfway through the show, and Bob says, "We're gonna do 'Like a Rock.'" He never plays that song live. He never played it when I was on tour with him. I'm like, 'Wow, what an incredible treat.' But also, that's one of my top five guitar solos of all time. The tone, the emotion. . . man, it's just impeccable. And I'm going, "Alright, we're about to see what Rob McNelley is made of." And he just just nailed it. I know that slide guitar solo — all the subtleties within it, all the passing tones — and he crushed it. I was so proud of him. When Marshall [Altman, El Rio's producer] and I were getting our tracklist together and talking about band members, we immediately thought of Rob. I knew we needed a lot of slide, and it made perfect sense for us to get him. Marshall and I decided that me and Rob were gonna be the guitar players in this band, and that was that. It was an easy choice.
It makes all the difference to record an album with your road band, as opposed to working with session musicians. Did the band mentality come together quickly for your group?
It did, and after awhile, we developed a certain vocabulary. You start off by throwing darts, basically. You're figuring out how the groove should sound, or what guitar tone to use, or how fast the chorus should hit, and it's a conversation. That's what music-making is: a dialogue. You start to drop certain adjectives — "I want it to feel like this" — and everyone starts understanding this unique language you're creating amongst yourselves. And it's funny because a person will come into the studio to visit, and they hear this stuff and they don't even know what language you're speaking. They're like, "That song is really cool. But what in the world are you guys talking about?"