Nashville musician makes a run for the border with 'El Rio'
“I'm getting tired of this white bread town/Same old people just hanging around,” Frankie Ballard sings at the onset of his 2016 full-length, El Rio.
A similar wanderlust fueled the country singer, songwriter and guitarist's decision to flee Nashville, Tennessee for 10 days of recording at Sonic Ranch, an El Paso, Texas studio situated near the banks of the Rio Grande just a stone's throw from the Mexico border.
“In Nashville, there are a lot of distractions. … I'm always trying to refine what it is I do, and the only way to do that was to get focused,” said Ballard, 34, in a recent phone interview (the musician performs on the second day of Buckeye Country Superfest, which takes place at Ohio Stadium on Saturday and Sunday, June 10 and 11). “Going down to El Paso felt like a mission.”
The musician described the border setting as idyllic, with days spent immersed in recording sessions and nights filled with desert walks (“The desert kind of lives at night and rests during the day,” he said). And while El Rio doesn't wade into political territory — Ballard is generally more concerned with short skirts, fast cars and cold beers — the musician didn't hesitate when asked if the construction of a proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall would change the character of the place.
“Oh, I certainly think it would,” he said. “[If] you open up the wall between your living room and kitchen, things just feel a little more open and free and welcoming. There's no denying if there was a wall instead of the Rio Grande, it would have been a different feel.”
Growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, Ballard, who was raised by a building inspector father and a homemaker mother, idolized the likes of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. He started playing guitar at age 8, watching Presley's 1968 Comeback Special on repeat and trying to replicate what he witnessed onscreen. But it wasn't until Ballard reached college age that he started to take songwriting more seriously.
“There's something about that time in your life when you're in your early 20s and you're trying to figure out who you are,” Ballard said. “As soon as I tried to figure it out, these songs started happening, and I was thankful I had the guitar to write them on at that point.”
Following his 26th birthday, Ballard departed Michigan for Nashville, intent on finding a music scene suited to both his rock and country roots. Prior to making the move, Ballard had a perception of Nashville as a gatekeeper town where Music Row executives positioned themselves behind imposing wooden desks and offered “Gladiator”-esque thumbs up or down to aspiring musicians.
“But it turns out Nashville is a very tight-knit community,” Ballard said, laughing. “Music Row is only about two stories tall. You don't go up in some big skyscraper and play your songs and get a record deal. You more or less invest in the community as a whole, which is cool.”