When it came time to record his third album this spring, Frankie Ballard assembled a group of session aces and producer Marshall Altman and high-tailed it out of Nashville. Like a band of gypsies, they hit the open road, making specifically chosen pit stops on their way to El Paso, Texas, where they would hole up inside the bucolic Sonic Ranch studio for a week of live recording.
But first, they arrived in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in search of what the “Young & Crazy” singer calls the famous recording town’s “mojo.” “We went to Muscle Shoals Sound to rehearse,” Ballard tells Rolling Stone Country. “We loaded into that old studio where all that music was made, the Bob Seger music that I love so much, and the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar.’ All that stuff was cut right there.”
Arranged in a circle on the original studio’s floor, they rehearsed the songs (some co-written by Ballard, others from outside writers, including three from the Cadillac Three’s Jaren Johnston, who wrote the Number One “Sunshine & Whiskey”) that would become the follow-up to Ballard’s Top 5 album Sunshine & Whiskey. Under the watchful eye of David Hood’s wife — Hood was a member of the original Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, known as the Swampers — the players tuned up and jammed.
“I think [David] oversees what’s happening at the studio, and his wife came in and said, ‘Wow, this is so cool to hear music being played in here again.’ She sent David a video clip of us. They couldn’t have been better people,” says Ballard. “Muscle Shoals is still one of the coolest places on earth, and it still has voodoo and mojo dripping all over it.”
Following another intimate rehearsal at the Granada Theater in Dallas, Ballard and the crew arrived in El Paso greasy and game to record. He selected Sonic Ranch, just a stone’s throw from the Mexican border, for its remote, detached location, where he and the band could live and create uninterrupted.
“The studio was in the middle of a 2,500-acre pecan farm. . . The ranch has all these rooms and you get meals there, and these wonderful Mexican ladies cook incredible food,” says Ballard, who was committed to capturing the sound of musicians in the moment.
“I wanted to create an album where you heard five guys playing music, because I still believe in that. I believe it’s possible to have hit songs and popular music that’s recorded by human beings. Nothing against what’s going on right now, but I’m just not good at that. I’m not good at synthetic drum sounds and programming things,” he says.
In the end, they left Sonic Ranch with 14 complete songs influenced by the stops on their road trip, including Texas boogie and Muscle Shoals soul and R&B.
But Ballard says the finished product has a more manly sound than Sunshine & Whiskey.
“The music is a little tougher. More blood and guts,” he says.
Ballard, currently on tour with Florida Georgia Line, has high hopes for the new album, which while finished is not yet slated for release.
“I think it’ll sound different when it hits the radio,” he says. “But no matter what it does when it gets out to the world, I can rest easy knowing I made music exactly the way I wanted to make it. And it’s so intrinsically me. I’m proud of that. That was the goal.”