Exclusive Interview—His debut single, “Tell Me You Get Lonely,” was a Top 40 hit, his rollicking current single, “A Buncha Girls,” is climbing the charts, his self-titled album is set for release in late May and he’s touring with Taylor Swift later this year. But the most exciting thing to happen in the young career of country newcomer Frankie Ballard just might be taking place tomorrow night, and again on April 2, when he opens for one of his musical idols and fellow Michigan native, Bob Seger. Before his Seger show, Frankie took time out to give a call to Nashville.com to discuss his background, his guitar playing, his beloved late grandmother and, especially, Mr. Seger. Here’s part of what he had to say.
Nash: Are you excited about opening for Seger, having grown up in his neck of the woods?
Frankie: Hell yeah!
Nash: Tell me about it. Were you aware of Bob and his music even as a small kid?
Frankie: Oh totally. You can’t go anywhere in Michigan without hearing about Bob Seger. It’s awesome. And the thing I tell people, too, is that I think some of that stuff Bob Seger put out back in the day . . . it could’ve been played on country radio today. Things like “Night Moves” and “Against the Wind.” A lot of that stuff just had that Midwestern vibe that is something country radio would play.
Nash: Do you have two or three favorite Seger songs?
Frankie: “Night Moves,” definitely that one. “Her Strut” probably . . . and “Turn the Page.” He’s a badass.
Nash: I know you and your dad sang some Elvis songs when you were a kid. Was there much country music in your house as a kid . . . or mostly rock?
Frankie: My dad raised me up on outlaw country music. He loved Willie and Waylon, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard. So I grew up with that stuff. And then, as a kid, I became a huge Travis Tritt fan. So I always call him my favorite modern-era country singer.
Nash: Sounds like you’re definitely drawn to the grittier side of country music as opposed to the crystal clear, pure singing voices. That’s no surprise, having heard your music.
Frankie: Absolutely, man. Always been a swampy, southern rock fan.
Nash: I know your folks still live in Battle Creek and that you’ve got a couple of sisters. Were you the only one in the family bitten by the music bug?
Frankie: My mom and dad are both pretty good singers, but nothing professional. Just around the house at Thanksgiving or Christmas. No one else in the family did anything professionally.
Nash: Your single, “A Buncha Girls,” is a great cruise-with-the-top-down summertime tune. Is that one of the reasons that specific song is out when it is?
Frankie: Yeah, I’m so excited. I think it’s gonna be an anthem for girls this summer. And, as you say, the timing couldn’t be better. It’s really gonna be playing a lot this summer, and I picture girls throwin’ down their windows and crankin’ it up as they head out for their girls’ weekends.
Nash: Here’s the ultimate question for a single guy. When you’re out and encounter “a buncha girls,” what’s your technique for cutting one out of the herd . . . (no bovine reference intended)?
Frankie: Cutting one out of the herd? Ha! Ha!
Nash: Just a little ranch terminology. But do you have to rely on a wingman or two to help disperse the crowd? Or how do you handle that?
Frankie: I tell you what, I lean heavily on the band in that situation. Especially after shows, I’m usually going out to the merch. table, so I count on them to . . . kind of narrow it down. (chuckles)
Nash: Sure, it’s got to be easier if you’re up on stage playing. But if you just walked into a club and nobody knew who you were, it would be more of a challenge.
Frankie: Absolutely, man. Guys around the world start playing guitar for that very reason!
Nash: Was that part of your motiviation?
Frankie: No, but it sure is one of the benefits.
Nash: You got started on guitar relatively late in the game, didn’t you? Eighteen or so?
Frankie: I actually started playing drums before I played guitar. And, yeah, I did start late. But I was determined to make up for lost time. I spent some eight- and 10-hour days in my bedroom locked away tryin’ to get some licks down. I feel like I’ve made up a little bit of time, but I’m still definitely growing as a guitar player.
Nash: Did you ever take lessons . . . or just listen to records and try to figure it out?
Frankie: I just listened to records. I didn’t have any money to take lessons. So I was forced to do it the hard way. It’s given me some handicaps, but it’s given me some benefits, too, I think.
Nash: I would imagine it helped you develop a really good ear, probably better than someone who did nothing but read music from day one.
Nash: Was your first guitar one of those with strings about an inch off the fret board?
Frankie: Oh! Totally! It was my dad’s. I still have it. My dad bought one back in the ‘70s and he tried to learn how to play a little bit and never really did. So it just kind of sat around. I’d bang around on it when I was little. I just picked it up when I was 18 and thought, “Sh_t, I need to learn how to play this.” It’s a Yamaha.
Nash: Do you do any actual practicing on the guitar these days? Or just play a lot and experiment with progressions and new tunes?
Frankie: There’s definitely a big difference between practicing and playing. But I do get in some guitar playing every day. I’ve always got one with me, and I’ll pick it up and run through some scales.
Nash: I really love your earlier tune, “Tell Me You Get Lonely.” There’s not really a worse feeling after leaving a relationship than to know your former girlfriend isn’t lonely . . . and doesn’t miss you . . . is there?
Frankie: It’s about the only think that’s gonna make you feel any better. To know she feels the same way you do. And it’s such a stereotypical guy thing for a guy, who maybe hasn’t even admitted it to himself how lonely he is, to want her to say how lonely she is.
Nash: What’s the status of the record.
Frankie: Man, it’s done and it’s gonna be out the end of May. It’s self-titled.
Nash: How much of it did you write?
Frankie: A small portion. I knew when I started this record that I was in a town with some of the best writers in the world. And the humbling thing is, I’m not always gonna write the best songs. My songs have got to fight to get on the record just like anybody else’s.
Nash: What kind of validation do you get as a songwriter when somebody like Billy Currington cuts one of your tunes, like “All Day Long?”
Frankie: That was very cool. As a songwriter, as you said, being legitimized by someone else cutting one of my songs. I really appreciate Billy doing that. I’m glad he liked it. It made me feel like I’m on the right track as a writer.
Nash: I know you named your guitar after your grandmother, Arlene. What would she think of everything you have going on now?
Frankie: Oh, man, yeah. I wish so much that she could be around to see it. I don’t that she would’ve understood the grind. Just cause she hear me on the radio, she’d expect me to be headlining arenas (chuckles). But she would’ve loved it. I miss her and wish she was still around. She’s been gone three years.
Nash: Would she have loved seeing you play on the Opry?
Frankie: Oh, totally . . . totally. That’s probably the one thing that would’ve been the coolest . . . having her there when I played the Ryman.
Nash: Do you have tangible career goals you want to achieve? Was playing the Opry one? Any others?
Frankie: I like to set short-term goals. And to have a number one hit song is my first goal. Then after that, I’ll set another goal. I like to take it one step at a time.
Nash: Is it going to be hard topping opening for Seger in the next few months. I know you’ve got your album coming out, but anything else you’re really excited about?
Frankie: Yeah, we’re goin’ out with Taylor Swift. I’m excited about how different those two crowds will be.
Nash: Does that cause you any anxiety?
Frankie: I think it’ll be awesome. I think both crowds will dig what we’re doin’ and, at the same time, you’re reaching two different groups of people, which is always good. I want to get in front of as many people as possible. So I’m totally excited.
Nash: Have you always known you wanted to do what you’re doing now? Did it start as a kid?
Frankie: It’s funny, man. I’ve always had a big imagination. I used to fantasize . . . if I heard a song I liked on the radio or . . . an Elvis thing . . . I would imagine myself onstage performing. It’s just always kind of been there. I’ve always fantasized about being an entertainer. It’s always been there.
Nash: Never nervous? Not even opening for Seger?
Frankie: I don’t get nervous at all. For me, it’s just like waiting in line for a roller coaster. I’m just excited. I know it’s gonna be great. It’s gonna be fun.