Frankie Ballard's Smokin' 'Cigarette' Owes Sexy Vibe to Three Fellow Artists

Courtesy of Warner Music Nashville
Frankie Ballard

Kip Moore, Chris Stapleton, The Cadillac Three's Jaren Johnston are behind the track.

It opens with a brash electric guitar, carving out the offbeats with a massive echo. Frankie Ballard’s “Cigarette” has a bold, in-your-face tone made by just a handful of musicians, and it provides a strong snapshot of the mentality behind his third album, El Rio.

“Four or five instruments, played by human beings, can come up with something still that sounds really big and fresh,” says Ballard. “We were going for some explosive sound with minimal technology.”

To get the desired effect, Ballard eschewed the typical Nashville recording approach, in which session players work during a series of three-hour blocks at local studios, go home, then come back the next day for another series of sessions, likely for a completely different artist. Instead, Ballard assembled a small group of top-level players, rented a bus and headed off on an excursion to El Paso, Texas, where they holed up for a week to record at Sonic Ranch, a secluded spot near the Mexico border that has served as a creative home for such left-of-center acts as indie singer-songwriter Conor Oberst and alt-rock group Band of Horses.

They departed Nashville on March 31, 2015, stopping twice for long days of rehearsals — first at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Ala., then at the Granada Theater in Dallas — before arriving at the Ranch, which has its own housing units, allowing an artist to stay on the property, focused on the task at hand, for the entire stay.

“We wanted to have these guys bonded together by the time we got to Sonic Ranch,” says producer Marshall Altman (Eric Paslay, Marc Broussard). “So we met at my studio on a Tuesday morning and loaded up all this gear ourselves, no cartage, no nothing. We worked a good 12 or 14 hours [each day], loaded our gear back on the trailer, got on the bus and slept. By the third day, we were a tough little army.”

“Cigarette” became the song that Ballard played first when music-industry acquaintances wanted to know what El Rio sounded like, though the credits suggest that he never should have had a shot at it. “Cigarette” was penned by three other artists — Chris Stapleton, Kip Moore and The Cadillac Three singer-guitarist Jaren Johnston — in 2013. Stapleton hadn’t yet broken out as an artist, and The Cadillac Three wasn’t in an album cycle. Moore inserted “Cigarette” in his live set for several years, but it didn’t end up fitting his second album in 2015.

“I was close to putting it on the Wild Ones record, and I never did,” says Moore. “Frankie wanted to cut it, and I was like, ‘Go for it.’ ”

Moore lit the fire for “Cigarette” during a songwriting session at a Music Row studio where Johnston worked at the time. The three writers were focused on a different title when Moore took a break.

“I have a bad habit of smoking cigarettes when I write music,” he says. “For some reason, it makes me think, and I stepped out to have a smoke and I saw this girl right as I was walking outside. I saw her put a cigarette in the ashtray, and it had red lipstick around the cigarette butt.”

When Moore walked back in the room, he had the opening lines of the chorus — “I want to be your cigarette/Smoking on so cool” — and it became the day’s focus.

“Chris immediately jumped in on the back half of the chorus,” recalls Moore. “Jaren is a killer guitar player. He took the guitar riff that I was doing and spruced it up a little bit more, and then all of a sudden, we were all flying pretty fast on it.”

It was completed in roughly 90 minutes as the writers built on each other’s ideas. They got the chorus finished first, then went back to the start, kicking off the first verse with a fairly precise analysis of a single puff of smoke. Once the woman’s action is established, the verse turns to the man’s reaction.

“Stapleton goes, ‘All I can think about/Is all that I can think about/And I keep thinking about it, thinking about it,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s-awesome,’ ” says Johnston. “I don’t know what that means exactly, but I loved the way that sang.”

The second verse introduces a “big, bad barfly,” and the protagonist watches while the woman essentially blows him off. It’s not clear from the lyrics whether the singer ever approaches her and/or attempts to rescue her from the lounge lizard, though none of the creatives in the process see him becoming that assertive.

“He didn’t necessarily have to get the person,” says Moore. “It was just a declaration of infatuation.”

Stapleton sang lead for the demo, and Johnston finished it up later, adding some breathy “aaahs” in key places — particularly at the end of the chorus — turning the figurative exhale of smoke into part of the song’s rhythm.

“I always try to put as many hooks in as I possibly can,” says Johnston.

Ballard heard through the programmed elements in the demo and saw it as a song that would help him “stamp my new sound,” he says.

The final arrangement came together on April 1, the second day of the trip to El Paso. Guitarist Rob McNelley created a background arpeggiation, and Ballard chimed in with the big, bright chords.

“That Granada Theater had such a great sound to it,” recalls Altman. “The snare and the guitar really sounded amazing, because it was just this giant cavern.”

The sounds became even bigger when they tackled “Cigarette” at the Sonic Ranch on April 5. The band recorded as a group in the center room, but the amps were placed in their own chambers to give them separation on the recorded tracks. Ballard’s guitar blasted into its room through two amps, with lots of echo.

“That’s a very classic sort of guitar tone, but it works so great for that staccato kind of part there at the top,” says Ballard. “It just sounds so angry.”

The bridge took a different attitude, with a Mellotron — a keyboard that creates hazy samples of real instruments — and reverse echos forming a surreal sensibility.

“We wanted to make it like a dream sequence,” says Altman. “Like in the ’70s on The Brady Bunch — whenever there was a dream sequence, the screen would get all wavy and you’d hear a theremin in the background. That’s how Frankie and I wanted it to feel.”

The band got it on the third take. They returned to Nashville on April 8, and Ballard laid down the final vocal at Altman’s studio the next day.

It was more than a year before El Rio was officially released, on June 10. Ballard always envisioned “Cigarette” as a single, and Warner Bros. sent it to radio via Play MPE on July 25. 

“I want to be the guy with the fresh new sound,” says Ballard. “I can remember as a kid thinking about a DJ going, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the new one from Frankie Ballard. He’s the guy with that hot new sound.’ That’s the dream.”