Although Frankie Ballard has just released his sophomore album, “Sunshine & Whiskey,” and is having absolutely no trouble distinguishing himself in country-music central Nashville, he still finds himself having to explain one thing: His Great Lake State heritage.
True, Michigan is a region that’s better known for Eminem than Ernest Tubb. “A lot of people ask me ‘Frankie, what do you know about country music, man? You’re from Michigan!’ And here’s what I always tell em: ‘First of all, I’m from southern Michigan,” he jokes.
But in all seriousness: “People think of Detroit when they think of Michigan; and the truth is, right outside of Detroit there’s a lot of farms, a lot of farmers, a of blue-collars,” he explains. “Country music to me is blue-collar music. They love country music up there!”
Ballard himself never thought much about the music that eventually would become his career path. He just knew what he liked. “My Dad was really into outlaw music like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Johnny Horton.. So naturally as a young boy, I wanted to get into what my dad was into. He turned me onto all that stuff; him and I were like the family entertainment at Thanksgiving. My mom pushing me by the small of my back – “Frankie’s gonna go up and sing you some Johnny Cash music now!”
“So I just grew up with it and for me as a kid, I never categorized music. It was just stuff I liked, and I think kids today still do that. I liked Johnny Cash and I liked Bob Seger and I liked John Mellencamp.”
Ballard brings that same approach to his own music, which he infuses with a variety of genres ranging from country to rock to blues and beyond. In addition to his fellow Midwesterners Mellencamp and Seger — the latter of whom Ballard actually toured with (“When you’re from Michigan, Bob Seeger is like Elvis,” he enthuses) — he counts a remarkable range of influences.
“I experienced a lot of Stevie Ray’s influences and started learning about Lightning Hopkins and Freddie King,” he explains. “As a guitar player, you go through phases: you go through the Jimi Hendrix and the Eric Clapton and the Led Zeppelin phases; and as a player, you appreciate what all these folks did…I think that it’s really cool that all those different influences can come into somebody’s musical life, and all of a sudden you’re spitting out new music.”
Speaking of new music, Ballard notes that he feels he’s managed to inject a increased dose of his unique personality into his latest album, which made an impressive Top 5 debut on the Billboard Country Album Chart. “There’s songs on there that really move me, from partying to love to everything in between,” he says. “And I’m playing on this record a lot, which is something that was in an effort to create my own sound. The only way I think I knew how to do that was to pour more of myself into it.”
“I think we did create a thread that runs through all this music, which I’m really excited about,” he explains further. “Keith Richards I think is the quintessential example when it comes to that. There are a lot of guys that play guitar better than Keith Richards, but nobody could have played ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ and made it sound — made it feel — the way that it does, unless it was him. And that’s what I want for my music.”
That very uniqueness is key to Ballard, who counts it as his main attribute in a town that, frankly, is overflowing with talent that’s hard to beat. “In Nashville, I don’t think it’s as much about being the best as it is about being original,” he states. “About being who you are, you know? The fans, they love Luke Bryan and they love Hunter Hayes and they love Blake Shelton. But they don’t want another one.”
What they do want is something different, he acknowledges — and if that means a talented rising star from southern Michigan, he’s the one to fill the bill. “My music comes from its own special potion of influences and life experiences, and nobody else can have that recipe. And if you get away from that, which is easy to do, all you get is further away from what will distinguish you from the pack,” he smiles.
“That’s what’s been most enjoyable for me the past couple years in making this [record], and now that it’s coming out, I do feel like it was honest to who I am. And we’ve got something original.”