“I have a DVD from 1970 at Royal Albert Hall, where Jimmy Page is wearing an argyle sweater and all these kids are packed into the front of the stage,” Ballard told Rolling Stone Country during an exclusive chat yesterday, as he rested two hands heavily adorned with chunky silver rings on the table at a booth inside Nashville’s Pour House. “It’s like the birth of heavy-metal music — in the Sixties everything was kind of hippie and trippy and here’s Zeppelin, so thunderous, so good. I watch it on the bus all the time. It’s so inspirational.”
Ballard’s gone through a transition, both physically and sonically, since the release of his self-titled debut album in 2011, and part of that metamorphosis was letting these rock & roll roots shine through. He partnered with producer Marshall Altman, spent 18 months in the studio, and came out with Sunshine & Whiskey, showcasing not just a smoother, bluesier sound, but a new look, too: his hair slicked back in an Elvis-meets-James-Dean greaser ‘do, his arms tattooed with Sailor Jerry-inspired ink, the clothes (and physique) a little trimmer.
“I think it’s very subconscious,” he said, his crystal-blue irises keeping firm eye contact. “It wells up inside you. The urge to cut your hair, or wear clothes a certain way or get a tattoo. It’s about being honest. There’s no doubt in my mind that before ‘Helluva Life’ went Number One that doing what came naturally was the right decision. If that didn’t work, then Frankie Ballard didn’t work.”
The song, written by Rodney Clawson, Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear, had a slow and steady build, eventually climbing to Number One on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart as he toured alongside the likes of Kenny Chesney (“Fortunately, for my liver, I’m not on that full tour,” he joked to reporters at a roundtable earlier, in a corner of the bar surrounded by ornamental bottles of whiskey). After his first two singles from Frankie Ballard failed to make any impact on radio, the success of “Helluva Life” ended up mirroring exactly what he intended the song to project.
“My favorite thing about the song is how true it is for me and my life,” he said. “Ups and downs, curveballs. Everyone goes through those moments where they say, ‘Man, it couldn’t get any better, or worse, than this.’ Saying, ‘it’s a helluva life’ is a way to chalk it up. I just knew the way it made me feel was how it was going to make everybody feel.”
These days, Ballard’s not afraid of taking risks — from a flamboyant blue Manuel suit he wore to the ACMs, to putting a classic-sounding country tune, “Don’t Tell Mama I Was Drinking,” on his record. He hopes to release the twangy throwback, which also appeared on Gary Allan’s 1999 album Smoke Rings in the Dark, as a single.
“I think that song still scares some people,” Ballard laughs. “But I’ll push for it.” And he’s also getting the confidence to allow his influences — from Zeppelin, to his idols like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley (“There are Beatles people and Elvis people. I guess I’m an Elvis person”) — to shine through in his guitar playing, raucous performances and future new music.
“There are a lot of country artists now that are heavily influenced by hip-hop,” Ballard said. “That’s not me. I was very heavily influenced by rock & roll.”
Any chance he’ll put out something in the future where he really lets it rip, Jimmy Page-style? “Probably, if I’m being honest about this stuff.”
Ballard then went off to celebrate (he had also treated himself to a 1970 vintage Marshall amplifier after hitting Number One) with scores of publishing executives and friends, though with one missing piece: his family, who had to cancel their trip to Nashville when his sister went into labor, delivering her baby boy two hours before the party began. He told his parents not to worry.
“She’s planning on having one or two kids,” he said, before enjoying his party. “I’m planning on having 30 of these.”