It’s Monday 1st May 2017 and Frankie Ballard is sitting in the backstage dressing room of Brudenell Social Club in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. This is the second time in six months that he has sat here preparing for a show and the third UK tour that he’s embarked on in just over a year. To say that Frankie Ballard, and country music in general, has landed would be an understatement – it’s been taken to by the British music loving public in a big way! We were lucky enough to sit down with Frankie for a chat about conquering our shores and more…
Welcome back to the UK! How excited are you to be back over here for another UK tour?
Good! It’s the last night! It’s bittersweet. It’s been a great tour. We’ve done six or seven shows and we’ve seen almost all of your little island!
This is the third time that you’ve been to the UK in the last year or so. What keeps bringing you back?
I suppose it’s the adventurers’ spirit that we have. Trying to push our territory forward and expand and see what we can gather, you know? All of us have a dream that started when we were younger to go out and play music. We all love British bands and British rock ‘n’ roll so the thought of maybe getting to come over here some time and seeing if what we do worked was a big part of it. So we’re testing our sand.
Do you have any favourite British bands?
I’d have to start with Led Zeppelin. I mean the British rock ‘n’ roll thing sort of took a lot of its influences from America then gave it back. It’s cool to be a couple of generations down the line and get to listen to all of it. Everybody listens to the Rolling Stones and I don’t think I can listen to them enough!
Did you ever expect such a positive response from European crowds to your country music?
I hoped! The country music and American music scene seems to be really growing over here. People are really getting into it and now with Spotify and the internet it’s so easy to hear music. In America you try to get your songs onto country radio and you try to work that market whereas now just with the click of your finger you can hear music from around the world. It was really cool to hear people reacting and to come over and they know the music is just amazing – the power of technology! I think it had a bit of a brand problem, I can remember talking to a friend of mine from England a while back and him telling me “well, they think differently over there. They think about country music in terms of chaps, hats and cowboy boots in more of a hokey way” and I think that the new brand of Nashville is something that’s different to that for sure! Let’s get the message out!
The tour takes you to a lot of places around the country when a lot of acts just hit the major cities. For instance a city like Leeds twice in six months where there aren’t a lot of country music fans, I mean, there’s a crowd of people waiting out there already. That must be cool?
I think that there are fans they just aren’t sure what’s happening yet. That’s what our job is and that’s why we have to keep coming back to let people know that it’s happening.
Was it a shock for you the first time that you arrived at C2C to see the passion for the music?
More than shocked I was just enthusiastic and excited to see there were so many people digging what we were doing out of Nashville. I saw it as a great opportunity and that’s apparently a good thing because I see people coming out from all walks of life to our shows, you know? They’re excited and dancing and having a great time. Hopefully we can get out onto the main stage at C2C in the future!
Congratulations on your recent marriage! Do you find it harder to make big trips like this with your wife presumably at home?
That was the most difficult thing this time to say goodbye to my wife after just getting married. That sticks with you for a minute and you’re not ready to say goodbye for a month. It takes a minute to get warmed up to the time difference but once you’re up and running and you find your groove it’s not so bad. Plus they got all these movies on the planes so the flight is a piece of cake! We’re lucky to have the bus as last time was a little more ‘rough and ready’. The only problem with the double decker is that you kind of have to hunch down so we’ve all got a bit of early scoliosis!
You released ‘El Rio’ last year, which incidentally made it into our top five albums of 2016. How did you find the reaction to that from your fans?
God bless you for that! It’s been great though. Again, I have to thank Spotify and all of the wonderful ways to consume music. You don’t have to wait around to hear a song on the radio any more so I’m seeing people sing songs like ‘LA Woman’ and ‘Good as Gold’ – songs that we’ve never put out as singles. That’s very encouraging to see people are digging deep to the album tracks.
The album seems to build on that sound that you had on ‘Sunshine & Whiskey’ but develop it into more country-rock. You obviously recorded a version of ‘You’ll Accomp’ny Me’ on the record and Bob Seger seems to have had a lot of influence on the album. Would you say that you developed your sound a lot since the last record?
Absolutely and I think that’s a journey that I started a long time a go. Every artist is supposed to be refining what it is that they do. That’s the dream to say “what’s my sound?” and “what is it that I contribute? That’s cooking out of my frying pan and is my unique sound?” I’m trying to get closer to that and I think we did do that on ‘El Rio’. I have a lot of rock ‘n’ roll influences and a lot of country influences but the journey of refinement is sort of what makes it all happen. Guys like me are never satisfied and you hear the project that you just did and already start to put holes in it. I definitely think that we put a big step forward from ‘Sunshine & Whiskey’ to ‘El Rio’ and, by God, we’re going to take another big step!
We loved your Elvis cover last time you were here in Leeds. Is he a big influence?
I’ll do it again for you tonight if it makes you happy! Yeah he’s the first big influence of mine though. I remember my dad showing me the 1968 Comeback Special and the Aloha from Hawaii concert when I was a kid. He is a singer and he’d sing me those tunes when I was going to bed and I fell in love with that sound. The mix of blues from Mississippi and still a lot of country. I think the Memphis thing in the 50’s is my least common denominator and the ground floor for me. Elvis as an entertainer and a musician, you know, his presence and his look I absolutely love. He’s top of the list for me! He was the first ever rock star to walk the Earth!
I understand you headed out into the desert to write and record the album. Was the process a lot different to your previous recordings?
Absolutely! It wasn’t in an effort to get away from Nashville, as it was to get away from distractions. I live in Nashville and when you’re trying to refine your sound and take your music to the next level you’ve got to be focused and that’s really the reason why we went down to El Paso. To be away from all of the things that can pull you away from what you’re doing. We had nothing to do for ten days except make music and dig deep. It was an incredibly different experience – so much so that I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to record in Nashville again! I tell you, I fell in love with the desert! Especially at night – it comes alive at night! Being that close to the border as well is a very spiritual experience because right across the river is Juarez, Mexico. There are a lot of people over there who aren’t necessarily living their dream. They don’t have the same kind of freedoms and experiences that I’m having only a quarter of a mile away on the other side of the border. I’m epitomising the dream and making this record! It put me in a very humbled and thankful headspace.
It must be great being part of a Nashville writing community that means you can have the likes of Chris Stapleton, Jaren Johnston, Kip Moore and others contributing songs to the record?
Yeah. It all happens in Nashville. The pre-production, the songwriting and the vision but this record was more like “now it’s time to get it down on tape” so to speak. That was the only thing that we needed to get out of town for.
Do you have a personal favourite song on El Rio?
I would say ‘Good as Gold’. It’s been hard for me to answer that question for a long time. As you play them live then you get a feel and that’s always one that I look forward to on the setlist. I love the courageous message, you know, this guy is clearly in love with someone that he’s not with and you understand that in the lyric but the courageous bit is that he’s got the nuts to say it and tell her “I know you’re not with me but you should be”!
The country music scene is becoming wide and varied with there seemingly being chance for different styles to hit the mainstream. I’m talking Stapleton, Sturgill etc. Has that made it easier for an artist like you to fully express yourself without having to pander to the needs of country radio?
I think country music has always been a broad stroke. It’s hard for us to have perspective on, let’s say the seventies, but there’s always been a pop side and an organic side of country music. I’m just thankful to be a part of that broad stroke. Like I said before my unique set of influences is going to bring something special just like Chris Stapleton or Florida Georgia Line or whoever. I think country music is about songs that really touch people’s lives. Stories that speak to what blue-collar people are doing and how they’re living more than just a sound. I’m proud of what country music is doing and it just brings more ears and eyeballs to what is happening out of Nashville.
Do you think that more rock and roll side to your show helps with it translating over to a European audience?
I’m not sure but the thing that I think lends itself best is the instrumentation in the band. It’s a four-piece band and the importance is on guitar. I think that’s what makes us unique as far as contemporary country. The featured guitar is not really the thing right now but we’re going to bring it back. I think that in itself is enough to get people over here going “hey man, that sounds somewhat distantly familiar”. I think it’s the instrumentation; the song writing perhaps, we have a more organic sound and it’s definitely the blues in what we do. I know it’s always been a big part of the culture over here.
Can we expect Europe to be a regular fixture on your touring schedule?
Absolutely! We’re expanding our territory in every way. I think the first time that we play countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway will be on the next trip. We’re always going to make time to come to the UK because you guys have welcomed us with open arms.