Country music has had a hard time settling into the 21st century. While its mainstream popularity has hit an all time high, the subject of the true sound of the genre is hotly debated. Artists seem to fall in line pretty clearly in one camp or another, except for the rebel few who refuse to tow a particular line. Frankie Ballard is one of those. A native of Battle Creek, Michigan, he was a lot closer to the sounds of Motown and “Detroit Rock City” than anything coming out of Music City. He moved to Nashville to pursue a career in country music, but don’t think that means he went looking to follow a pattern. There is no shortage of recording studios in Nashville, yet Frankie chose to record his new album, El Rio, in Texas, L.A., and a bit in Nashville. Grab a hard copy, as I did, and it’s evident in the packaging and the content that this is no one’s cliché.

    BALLARD, FRANKIE EL RIO The album cover alone suggests a throwback era, with its worn look and James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause image of Frankie Ballard. His trip to Texas, a place not exactly known for welcoming outsiders, smacks of his rebellious nature. The faraway look in his eyes on the cover tells me he didn’t go there without a cause. Open the liner notes, and the cause is spelled out in a reprinting of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1849 poem, “Eldorado.” The narrative poem uses the word ‘shadow,’ in four different forms, to describe the lifelong journey of a gallant knight in search of the legendary, El Dorado. The quest results in the belief that true riches do not exist in the material world, for it is the spiritual treasures of the mind: knowledge, understanding, and wisdom that are man’s greatest reward. The poem was thought to be Poe’s reaction to the California Gold Rush that was happening at the time. He thought it foolhardy for man to think he could become rich in this manner. The black and white pictures included in the album’s liner are visual pieces of Frankie’s journey. What he went in search of reveals itself in the storytelling on this album. There’s a bit of reflection, discovery, and understanding oneself at the core. He left the neon lights of Nashville in the rearview for this one and drove until he found the sights and sounds that tell the story. El Rio contains the spiritual treasures of that outing.

    BALLARD, FRANKIE WITH DOG To further emphasize the fact that this album does tell a story, Frankie has recorded a series of videos that make up the “El Rio Video Series.” Watching them helps give the music some context. “El Camino” is where this story begins, and the muse for Frankie’s freedom ride. With a classic car, his dog, and a picture of his heartache taped to the dash, it doesn’t take long before her image is left in the dust with the words, “Honey I’ll show you what gone looks like.” Written by Lee Thomas Miller and Chris Stapleton, this could jump into the rotation on a 70s rock station without giving away even a hint of its 2016 creation. From the opening chords to the fade out of the electric guitar, this is a throwback sound brought back to life by a group of musicians who don’t seem the least bit concerned about what country music should sound like. It doesn’t hurt to have Rob McNelley, an ACM nominee for Guitar Player of the Year, lend his talent to this record. Such is the irony of having one of Nashville’s finest lay down some classic rock like it’s his bread and butter. Listen carefully for the keys work on this song. It hits all the right notes for the classic sound of a rock piano, and it complements the guitar playing perfectly. Tim Lauer did most of the keys work on El Rio, and his discography is encyclopedic in scope, making him an exceptional choice for the diversity of sound Frankie went for on this album.

     In the video for “El Camino,” Frankie was wearing a gray shirt with the words ‘Concrete Jungle’ on the back. Could be an indication that his intent for this trip is to leave that world, and all of its trappings, behind him. In “Cigarette,” he dons the classic bad boy leather jacket in the video, singing about a fleeting desire for a one-night stand. The imagery is an “exotic dancer,” and he makes no apologies for wishing to be a cigarette, red wine, or the fire that lights up and burns out. The temptations of the road have a certain allure at this point in his journey. The song was written by Kip Moore, Chris Stapleton, and Jaren Johnston. It has a very modern, pop rock sound, in the style of Maroon 5. Aaron Sterling’s drum work offers an opposing force to the guitar’s raciness, at times, before joining the cause. Aaron is a native of Garland, Texas. He grew up there and in Nashville before moving to L.A. 16 years ago. He is an accomplished studio musician, having played on hundreds of records with a vast array of artists. Likely not a coincidence that he has roots in the three locations used to record this album.

     “Wasting Time” is the continuation of Frankie’s pursuit of a temporary muse. Written by Jimmy Yeary and Craig Wiseman, it resides mostly in the 70s rock era along the lines of the Eagles. The acoustic opening has a quick pace, aided by a shaker, that gives in to the electric guitar and more impressive instrumentation, perhaps to impress the lady on the bar stool. Rob McNelley pulls those strings in a manner that does a little flirting of its own. “Little Bit Of Both” is the first taste of Southern rock on El Rio. It starts with the sound of some porch pickin’, making you think this might be a good, old-fashioned country song, but pretty quickly, it digs in to expose the nasty sound of a bad girl’s influence on the guitar. Might be the work of Bryan Dawley on dobro here. The music demonstrates the attributes Frankie likes in a woman, “I like a little bit of bad girl, and I like a little bit of sweet……..with the body of a stripper and a 100 proof kicker.” Written by Ben Hayslip, Chris Janson, and Craig Wiseman, it’s the perfect song to satisfy Frankie’s desire for “a little boom boom in a room and a little chickin’ pickin’ on a six-string.”

     Frankie co-wrote “L.A. Woman” with Brad and Brett Warren, and Bob Seger’s influence is all over it. “Hollywood Nights” was written by Seger in 1978 for his album, Stranger in Town. Fellow Michigan natives, that’s probably how those two would feel in L.A. It’s a standout track on the album in its ability to sound like a late-70s release given fresh air and room to run in the present day. Frankie’s revelation that he’s “just tryin’ to catch a buzz, listenin’ to some Guns” puts a date stamp on his visit much later than Seger’s, but the appeal of those “California Girls” hasn’t changed. Frankie’s journey finds him admiring the sights and sounds of L.A., apparently still in search of a distraction from what he left behind. There’s such an unbridled freedom in the sound of this song, like being on an open road with no speed limit. Bright lights, big city, fast car, and hot women. Welcome to L.A.

     BALLARD, FRANKIE IT ALL STARTED WITH A BEERPerhaps it was on the long drive back to Texas that Frankie had a chance to reflect on that past relationship, although this song may be as much about his career as it is any particular woman. “It All Started With A Beer” is a rather misleading title for the song this is. Written by Jaren Johnston, Neil Mason, and Jeremy Stover, the lyrics suggest this is a song about a woman, and it may be, but that’s not the interpretation Frankie puts on it. Watch the official video for the song and take note, there’s not a single woman in it. It’s not set in a bar, and alcohol is an aside to the story. The focus of the video is the recording process, and a microphone. If there’s a love interest, it’s the process of making music in this manner. It seems this is a musician’s ballad, an ode to the business. You take the good with the bad and hope to come out on top. Without the video, this song takes on an entirely different meaning. Frankie’s artistic approach to this makes the song that much more sentimental. His version is pretty much stripped down to a gorgeous vocal and minimal instrumentation. If there is to be a standard in what they’re calling “modern country music,” I hope this is it. The emphasis is on storytelling, and the sound is just right.

     “Sweet Time” is the other Frankie Ballard co-write on the album with Jaren Johnston and Jon Nite. I’d call it a modern country ballad with a hard edge. You could slow dance to it, one way or another. Slowing things down is the antithesis of what that fast car was built to do. The video is a great depiction of life in a small town, where a guy takes his girl to a local drag race track. While some feel the need for speed, he seems to enjoy himself more when things slow down considerably. This song makes the perfect soundtrack for the setting in the video and helps to give it a southern, country feel.

     “Good As Gold” is another of the standout songs on this album, for a number of reasons. It was written by Mando Saenz and Justin Bogart. Mando was born in Mexico, moved to North Carolina as an infant, and then on to Corpus Christi, Texas about fourth grade. He went to college in Texas, got an MBA, and then moved to Houston to start a music career. Not a typical path by any means. He was discovered by Nashville producer, Frank Liddell, and signed to a publishing and recording deal with Carnival Music. He has since released three albums and has a number of songwriting credits, now including this one. He seems the perfect fit for inclusion on El Rio. The song gets us back to the message in Poe’s poem, and the search for El Dorado. In the companion video, Frankie’s old car breaks down on the way to pick up his date. He starts walking, then hitching a ride, and ends up running to try and make it on time. When he arrives, he spies her in the window of a nice restaurant with a well-dressed man, just as the lyrics remind her, “He can buy you nice things, but I can make your knees weak.” Frankie’s competition is wearing a suit, as he stands in the street wearing a sweaty t-shirt that says ‘Chitlin’ Circuit ’62’. It seems a deliberate depiction of the haves and the have-nots, and the assumption that one would always choose the wealthier side, in the material form. The Chitlin’ Circuit was a network of venues where black entertainers were allowed to perform during the era of segregation. On the outside looking in is the perception here. I think it’s also a nod to the incredible musicians who played on that circuit and were never fairly paid for their efforts. The song has an 80s rock feel to it, especially the featured guitar solo towards the end, which lines up perfectly with Frankie’s run in the video. The message, and the music, seem timeless.

     Frankie has a lot of fun on “Southern Side,” the tongue-in-cheek song written by Monty Criswell and Rick Huckaby. From the first few notes, there is no denying this is a country song. There is a way to have fun with the cliches and still show off some incredible guitar playing. Sean Hurley plays bass on the album, and his exceptional chops are all over the place. Sean is a first-call session bass player in L.A., and has been John Mayer’s bass player since 2008. He spent the ten years prior to that playing bass with Vertical Horizon. If I can introduce the term ‘hip country,’ that’s what this sounds like. At this point on El Rio, Frankie finally covers an obvious influence, Bob Seger. Their home towns of Battle Creek and Lincoln Park are less than two hours apart, so consider them neighbors. “You’ll Accompany Me” was a single off Seger’s number one, Grammy-winning album, Against the Wind, released in 1980. Frankie’s cover is more of a southern rock version of the song than the original, which suits this album well. The guitars are heavier, and the harmonies and keys are less prevalent, but perfect for this arrangement. Frankie’s vocal takes a bit softer tone in spots, seemingly speaking to a mythical figure, perhaps the lady he’s looking for to accompany him on the rest of his journey through life. She may be as elusive as the search for El Dorado.

     The journey of El Rio ends with “You Could’ve Loved Me,” written by Dustin Christensen and Chris Gelbuda. Dustin appeared on season nine of The Voice, and has a publishing deal with Carnival Music. He splits his time between Nashville, L.A., and Utah. He’s a producer, singer, and songwriter. Chris is a singer-songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist who has cuts with Meghan Trainor and Billy Currington. The song provides a stunningly beautiful ending to Frankie’s journey of discovery and reflection. It’s essentially a man and his guitar mourning the loss of a love that could’ve been but will never be. Frankie’s vocal and the acoustic guitar carry the storyline, with the harmonies, keys, and additional guitars adding their mournful thoughts instrumentally. The resonance it ends with leaves room for this to linger, in thought, and regret.

     BALLARD, FRANKIE SINGING WITH RED BANDANA AND MICROPHONEEl Rio is a magnificent achievement in country music for the 21st century. Marshall Altman produced the project, bringing together the various players, songwriters, and recording locations to tell the story Frankie Ballard wanted to tell, musically and lyrically. Nashville is full of impressive musicians, songwriters, and recording locations, yet Frankie went looking for something different, which turned out to be the essence of this record. The diversity of songwriters adds a kaleidoscope of perspective through which Frankie tells the story. The sound changes as the singer does throughout this journey. His travels and experiences are reflected in the tone of his voice and the musical arrangements. No detail was left untended to, and there was no compromise in the quality of musicians, songwriters, and production elements on this project. The finished product is a testament to that standard. Frankie boldly went after something different on this album, and he got it. He opted not to settle for picking a side, instead, searching for a new frontier on which to create music. Whether he strikes physical gold with the effort remains to be seen, but the debate over the sound of country music should end right here. Songwriting is the heart of this album, keeping the country music concept of storytelling at its core. It showcases exceptional musicianship (read: real musicians), without being overproduced. It allows for the influence of other genres to assist in telling the story, and perhaps most importantly, it starts with a talented artist. If he happens to have a rebellious side, all the better. Frankie Ballard isn’t a prototype. He’s authentic, like the pioneers in the genre. With El Rio, Frankie found the sound of country music in the new century. Whether it’s awarded as such or not, it’s “Good As Gold.”

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Bev Miskus

Blogger of all things music related in Nashville and beyond.

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