Few artists in the history of country music have risen from obscurity to prominence with the speed of Warner Bros. Records guitar slinger Frankie Ballard. On his debut album for the label, this performer brings a bluesy, rocking edge to the country scene. His talents as a vocalist, songwriter, instrumentalist and showman have already made him one of the genre's most memorable new personalities.
In addition to its swiftness, Frankie Ballard's ascent is notable for the seeming ease with which it has happened. In 2008, he signed with the first song publishing company he ever auditioned for. In 2009, the first time he staged a showcase for record companies, he got a major-label contract.
His first single, "Tell Me You Get Lonely," became a top-five video chart success. His first club tour was with big-time hit maker Uncle Kracker. The first of his songs to be recorded by another artist was by million-selling Billy Currington. All of this took place in 2010.
He began 2011 by staging his debut on the Grand Ole Opry in January. The following month, he issued "A Buncha Girls" as his second radio single. In March, he was announced as an opening act on the U.S. arena tour by country's biggest superstar, Taylor Swift. Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer Bob Seger has also chosen him as a concert opener. The boy is on a roll, as they say.
"I totally understand that it doesn't usually happen this way, this quickly," says the singer, songwriter and guitar ace. "I'm so blessed to have a shot."
Frankie Ballard hails from Battle Creek, Michigan. Born Frank Robert Ballard IV, he credits his father and namesake as his formative musical influence. "He was the gatekeeper," Frankie recalls. "He got me started. He'd sing Johnny Horton songs, Merle Haggard and things like that. He turned me on to Elvis Presley, and I am still a huge, huge Elvis fan. My mom - Meg Sullivan Ballard - sang around the house, too. They were both country fans." Neither of his two sisters could carry a tune, but Frankie was singing along with his Dad by age five. When he was seven, he starred in a homemade music video, shot in the family's basement. Even so, he never took music seriously as a youngster. His dream was to play professional baseball, and he attended Western Michigan University on an athletic scholarship. He didn't pick up the guitar until he was 18. "I felt the strain of being a late starter. I thought I needed to make up for lost time. There were days when I would spend eight to ten hours just sitting there practicing. I started off playing my Dad's acoustic guitar, learning Elvis and Merle Haggard songs. Then I got Stevie Ray Vaughan's Austin City Limits VHS tape. I would sit and study. But it never felt like work to me. I went through B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton. Then the country players - Ricky Skaggs, Albert Lee, Roy Nichols and the guys who played with Haggard, Carl Perkins, James Burton.
"As a guitar geek, you seek out all these guitar heroes and see what they did. It really appealed to me that in country music there were all these guys who played their own lead guitar. And what was cool was that they were all different types of players. Brad Paisley and Vince Gill are more stone-country players. Keith Urban is more of a rock 'n' roll picker. My default guitar setting is blues."
When he was 19, Frankie began sitting in at weekly blues jam sessions in Kalamazoo, Lansing and Battle Creek. By 2007, he was ready to return to his country roots and formed his own band. For the next two years, he played more than 200 shows a year, singing familiar country hits. "You learn quickly, especially in bars: If you want to keep working, you better sell some beer. I was very observant. I watched other bands. I watched what worked and what didn't. So I quickly learned how to act on stage and how to get the most out of a crowd. "By this time, I knew that I never wanted to do anything else except play music. So the question became, 'Well, are you just going to play in these bars for the rest of your life? Where does it go from here?' I knew that Nashville was where I needed to go."
Instead of moving to Music City, Frankie began making weeklong visits once a month to make contacts. He kept his performing base in Michigan, which is why so few in the country industry had heard of him or seen him play before he burst upon the scene in 2010.
"The first time I came to Nashville was in late 2007," Frankie recalls. "I walked downtown to the honky tonks and checked out some of the bands. I thought it was incredible. I was going from bar to bar. That first night, I ended up at Tootsie's. There was this awesome guy singing and playing there. He got me up to play with him. I knew that Tootsie's was an important, historic place, and it was my first time playing in Nashville!"
Songwriters Marc Alan Barnett and Walt Aldridge became boosters, collaborators and friends. Marc produced Electric Hillbilly, a CD for Frankie to sell at his Michigan shows. Up there, Frankie won Kenny Chesney's "Next Big Star" regional talent contest. This led to him opening for the superstar at two Michigan arena shows in the spring of 2008.
"It didn't exactly open doors," Frankie comments. "But I immediately put it on my resume and definitely used it as a talking point when I visited with people on Music Row. So I think it was a good step forward."
Walt introduced him to Sony-ATV Publishing, which signed
Frankie as a staff songwriter and helped open the door to a recording contract. Once the Warner Bros. Records deal was in place, Frankie Ballard at last moved to Nashville.
"Up until then, I wasn't that accessible. Nobody in town had ever seen me play. It might have added some excitement to it, once people did see me."
His gripping, raspy vocal delivery of "Tell Me You Get Lonely," his fiery guitar playing, his heartthrob-handsome looks and his charismatic showmanship got noticed quickly. Uncle Kracker took Frankie on the road, and the newcomer documented the experience via a video diary on GAC's website.
"Uncle Kracker is one of the coolest people I've ever met. He and his crew took such good care of us out there on the road. I miss being with them. But I'll always have the footage from the webcast episodes as keepsakes of that tour."
The success of his debut single, its hit video and that tour led to an invitation to play the Grand Ole Opry.
"It was incredible enough that I got to play the Grand Ole Opry. But to make my debut on that show at the Ryman Auditorium was the experience of a lifetime. My dad had a bunch of old Johnny Cash Show videos, and all of those shows were done at the Ryman. It's where Hank Williams and all of the legends have sung. So I am just a huge Ryman fan. It was so cool. My parents and friends came down from Michigan to see me. I'll never forget it."
With the launch of his rocking sophomore hit, "A Buncha Girls," Frankie Ballard is now hitting the road with superstars Taylor Swift and Bob Seger.
"Taylor is the biggest thing in country music right now - actually, in all of music - and to have the chance to open some concert dates for her is such an honor. I feel incredibly blessed. I can't wait to share my music with her fans. Bob Seger is from Michigan, like me, so he has always been a major, major hero. Those shows are going to rock."
And now comes the release of Frankie Ballard, his debut major-label album. The boy is definitely on a roll.
You can see Frankie Ballard September 10, 2012, at the Allegan County Fair, with Luke Bryan. Doors open at6:00 PM