Frankie Ballard has just released his third studio album El Rio, produced by Marshall Altman, and it’s chock full of country, rock and roll and the blues. El Rio is the result of a road trip from Nashville to Sonic Ranch in El Paso, Texas where the album was recorded. However, the pit stops made along the way to Texas influenced the end result just as much as the actual recordings. The band stopped to rehearse both in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and then in Dallas at the Granada Theater before continuing on to El Paso. 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.” Ballard, Altman, and a group of seasoned musicians didn’t want to rush through this project and Ballard felt he needed to take his time so they chose to make the road trip and get out of Nashville. He says he needed to get away from the distractions of Nashville and found exactly what he needed on the edge of the Rio Grande River just outside of El Paso. In fact, that where the title El Rio comes from.
Ballard says in his “Journey To Sonic Ranch,” a behind the scenes look at the making of El Rio, “My vision for this album was just to do some music the way I always wanted to do it. Couple guitars, bass drums, keys of all kinds… I’ve just wanted to make a record like that.” He continues, “something magical happens when you create a band, a band of whatever it is and it’s decided that this is it and it’s these five guys that are gonna make this music and that’s it, that’s it.”
The finished product is a compilation of 11 tracks, 2 of which he co-wrote, all of which demonstrate the artist’s ability to pick the right tracks for him, even if they aren’t his own. In an interview with CMT.com, Ballard explains his reasoning behind choosing songs which are not necessarily his own. “Until I hear a song or write a song that beats my work, it’s not right to put something in there that’s not as good because I wrote it. But it’s for the fans. I’m making this music for people to have, and for myself because I have a lot to get off my chest. That’s what will continue to make this town great. I’m always going to be that way. I’m always going to try to record the best songs I can get my hands on whether I wrote them or not. Maybe somebody else will record a song I’ve written, which has happened before. It’s always a real blessing when that happens.”
The album kicks off with “El Camino,” written by Lee Thomas Miller and Chris Stapleton, a high energy, rocking guitar “kiss off” ballad to an ex. Ballard tells ET.com “Look, I’ve been there!” he says, laughing. “I’ve been busted up by some saucy minx and I’ve had to cut and run! This guy is heartbroken. He’s been done wrong, doggonit. Somebody kicked him to the curb. And now he realizes he’s got to go find something else out there that he can do and that’s going to make him happy. He doesn’t know what it is but he knows, ‘All I need is a dog and an El Camino and some cheap sunglasses.'”
“Cigarette,” the second track off the album, was written by Kip Moore, Chris Stapleton and Jaren Johnston of The Cadillac Three. It’s a sexy ballad about a man lusting after a woman from afar. Fans of Moore will recognize this underground hit and should find Ballard’s version has done the song justice with his raspy vocals and edgy guitar riffs.
“I wanna be your cigarette / Smokin’ on so cool / Or maybe that red wine / Drinkin’ down so smooth / I wanna be the fire /
That’s takin’ you higher / Girl, you can leave me or let me burn / I wanna be your cigarette, cigarette.”
El Rio is a compilation of songs with lyrics full of imagery. Ballard’s love for the sound of a strong guitar and his love of rhythm and blues is evident throughout the project. Perfect examples are track four, “Little Bit of Both,” and track nine, “Southern Side.” In his interview with CMT.com, he says, “I’ve always expressed myself on guitar and so I look at it as another voice that is available to say what you need to say. I’ve always loved when a guitar is right there supporting a song in such a way or is doing some heavy lifting for the song. I mean, a song is lyric and melody. Everything else around it is supporting what that lyric and melody is trying to say in every way. A great guitar part and a great guitar tone can be such a great companion for a lyric and a melody.”
Ballard, a Michigan native, says that Bob Seger has always had a big influence on his music and it’s evident in his cover of Seger’s “You’ll Accomp’ny Me.” He describes the Seger song as courageous and says it’s one he’s “always cherished.” He tells CMT.com, “I love the confidence in that song. There’s a lot of that spirit in this album, and it felt like that song fit this group of songs so well. I really wanted to honor what Bob Seger has done for me as an artist. I think it’s a perfect fit.”
There are also some nostalgic, heartfelt songs on the album. Ballard says “Life is relationships and what we’re trying to do together. And please, that’s what people have been singing about forever. That’s what the blues is all about — the good, the bad, the fun, all of it — that lies there in between a man and a woman.” The album’s first release, “It All Started with a Beer,” has you reminiscing about a relationship and the turns it’s taken along the way while “You Could’ve Loved Me” (track 11) is an emotional story where he’s admitting he made his lover wait too long and in the end the girl got away. One of the most heart-felt, and perhaps more classic country sounding, songs on the project is “Good As Gold.” Here the lyrics tell the lesson of love being the most important thing, more important than money and material things. It’s what counts in the end.
“He can buy you nice things / But I can make your knees weak / So he has a house on a hill / I got what you really need /
Cause that view from a hill / Looking at the stars / Ain’t gonna fill the valley in your heart / Where the wild wind blows / Good as gold”
It’s apparent that Ballard accomplished what he set out to do with El Rio. The album is a reflection of his love of the blues mixed with rock and country. His passion for quality lyrics, melodies, and love of strong instrument combinations are all there. El Rio is available now on iTunes.
El Rio Track Listing
1. “El Camino” (Lee Thomas Miller, Chris Stapleton)
2. “Cigarette” (Kip Moore, Stapleton, Jaren Johnston)
3. “Wasting Time” (Jimmy Yeary, Craig Wiseman)
4. “Little Bit of Both” (Ben Hayslip, Chris Janson, Wiseman)
5. “L.A. Woman” (Frankie Ballard, Brad Warren, Brett Warren)
6. “It All Started With a Beer” (Johnston, Neil Mason, Jeremy Stover)
7. “Sweet Time” (Ballard, Johnston, Jon Nite)
8. “Good as Gold” (Mando Saenz, Justin Bogart)
9. “Southern Side” (Monty Criswell, Rick Huckaby)
10. “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” (Bob Seger)
11. “You Could’ve Loved Me” (Dustin Christensen, Chris Gelbuda)