There’s a line in Frankie Ballard’s first hit that really resonates with him: “Bad times make the good times better.”
Celebrating his first No. 1 this week on the Country Airplay chart with “Helluva Life,” the Battle Creek, Mich., native can’t help but reflect on the hard times he experienced to get to this point in his career, even while he celebrates the success that’s been such a long time coming.
“Helluva Life” is Ballard’s third single and first hit. It arrives almost four years after his first, “Tell Me You Get Lonely,” reached country radio. That single peaked at No. 33 in 2011. Follow-up “A Buncha Girls” stalled at No. 27 the same year.
While he released an eight-song EP in the spring 2013 via label Warner Music Nashville, it wasn’t until last month that he finally got his first full-length, "Sunshine & Whiskey," into the marketplace.
The false starts at radio were frustrating, but Ballard thoroughly understands the process by now. “You have to ride into this thing on a song [to have] a career in country music,” he says.
That song turned out to be “Helluva Life.” And while it’s not one of the album tracks he had a hand in writing (the song was penned by Rodney Clawson, Josh Kear and Chris Tomkins), Ballard says, “It moved me from listen No. 1 because it’s so parallel with the journey I’ve been on as an artist. I thought my first single was going to come out and off to the races, and that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen on the second single either.”
While he says those experiences gave him many moments of questioning whether or not he was good enough, they also came with many positives, including “a lot of friends at radio, a lot of fans, a lot of maturing things, a lot of situations that made me stronger, made me a better Frankie Ballard in the end.
“I knew that that there was a lot of people out there that had experienced those kinds of things, the ups and downs, the curveballs of life, that would be able to relate, and they really have,” he says of the single. “People have been really connecting with it on a deep level.”
Ballard doesn’t pretend he wouldn’t rather have had a big hit single out the chute, but he says that the four-year trek to success brought with it valuable lessons, including the realization that it’s not healthy to compare his career to that of any other artist.
“I’m glad my journey is what it is,” he says. “That’s something that I’ve come to terms with over the past couple of years . . . This is my journey. This is my career. I’m a faithful guy, and I have to stay faithful to that. And I’m proud of it. I’m proud of what those ups and downs have done for me and where they’ve gotten me, so I wouldn’t change it.”
The waiting time also gave him ample opportunity to experiment with his sound, first tinkering with songs in the studio, then road testing them, often followed by more tinkering. That process was designed, he says, to “let the songs become me, and not just try to slam the arrangements together. It was an incredibly artistic time, a creative time, and I felt really free as an artist, like I could not make any wrong suggestions.
“As far as music making is concerned, this whole new project for me was all about changing the process of making it,” he continues. “I didn’t want to be in a hurry. I didn’t want to rush it. I didn’t want it to be slammed into a 10:00 and a 2:00 [recording] session on some Tuesday afternoon.
“We didn’t have the budget to book out Blackbird [Studios] for a month and just vibe out in there, but [producer Marshall Altman] had a really cool studio in a small place, and I’d go over there all hours of the night and we’d experiment. We’d write songs. We’d play guitar and start building tracks from scratch. All of it was pre-production stuff, but it was an organic thing. It was not pressured. It wasn’t: ‘Hey, we need these songs by this time.’ It was just: ‘Go make some music.’”
Through that approach, Ballard says he and Altman finally “created an original sound,” for "Sunshine & Whiskey," “something that sounds unique to me.”