A Helluva Disappearing Act: What Happened To Frankie Ballard?

Image from Twitter

Musicians are often lumped into two buckets: Those who make it big, and those who don’t make it at all. However, there’s a third group that sits in between these extremes: The artists that get a taste of success and draw the spotlight for a brief moment, but can’t sustain the momentum and watch the light quickly fade from their careers. Bittersweet as it may be, however, that brief moment can leave an lasting impression on the people who hear it, leaving them scratching their head as to why things didn’t. These are the stories of the one-hit wonders.

…Well, in truth Frankie Ballard falls into a fourth bucket: He’s more of a one-album wonder, as his 2014 album Sunshine & Whiskey spawned three #1 singles in the mid-2010s. When the album cycle flipped to 2016’s El Rio, Ballard’s fortunes flipped with it, and he quickly disappeared from the airwaves. However, something about Ballard’s departure has left many people scratching their heads over the years: The man still appears to be on his original record label, and he has still maintained a robust touring schedule over the years (or at least as much of such a schedule that the coronavirus pandemic will permit)…but he hasn’t bothered to release a new radio single since 2017’s “You’ll Accomp’ny Me.” (Side note: When the subject of your deep dive fell from grace within the lifespan of your blog, it really makes you feel old.) It’s a strange move that has left a lot of readers here wondering what happened:

(It took me over a year to get back to this comment, but I finally did it!)

Joe’s mentioning of Josh Turner feels prescient here, because the more I dug into this story the more I was reminded of Turner’s standoff with MCA that we explored in our original deep-dive. While quotations and other hard evidence is hard to find on the matter (like Jessica Andrews, Ballard remains active on social media, but he’s been extremely tight-lipped about his musical situation) after going through Ballard’s radio singles the sense I get is that Sunshine & Whiskey was an experiment, an attempt by Warner Bros. to try sticking a square peg in a round hole just to see how it fits. Ballard, however, has styled himself as a very different artist than the generic Metro-Bro singer that appeared on Sunshine & Whiskey, and when he tried leaning into his preferred style on El Rio, both the radio and the label seemed to lose interest in him. This left him stuck in country music purgatory, where he still seems to reside today.

The Rise

Ballard signed with Warner Bros. subsidiary Reprise Records in 2010, and released a couple of forgettable singles and an unremarkable self-titled debut album over the next two years. “Tell Me You Get Lonely” is a fairly standard lost-love song and isn’t much to write home about, but “A Buncha Girls,” with it rock-guitar-dominated sound (albeit more of a classic and softer sound than some of the stuff that would follow) and a heavy focus on girls and partying in the lyrics, were a preview of the trend that would end up dominating much of the decade. Florida Georgia Line would drop “Cruise” in 2012, Jody Rosen would write his famous article a year later, and the Bro-Country trend was off and running.

At the movement began to gain steam, Warner Bros. started scouring its roster for a suitable candidate to push in that direction. The obvious candidate at the time was Blake Shelton, who was in the early stages of his #1 single streak at the time, and thus his material took a hard turn towards the beer-truck-girl-drum machine formula (it kinda-sorta started during the end of the Red River Blue era, but really kicked in on Based On A True Story… and the insufferably-repetitive “Boys ‘Round Here”). While hindsight may have validated the move (as aggravating as I find his output now, he became one of the faces of Bro-Country and eventually one of the most successful artists of the decade), Shelton had already been in the business for roughly a decade, and didn’t have that new-artist smell that an act like Florida Georgia Line did. The label wanted a fresh new face that it could break in as a Bro-Country hitmaker, and they settled on Ballard.

Sunshine & Whiskey produced three singles, and it’s striking how much his sound changed between his first and second albums. The classic-rock guitar sound that he’s become known for was turned down (at least for the first two singles) in favor of electronic beats, token banjos, and a generally-slick feel, and the subject matter was dumbed down to a third-grade reading level and became very buzzword-heavy: Six-packs and longnecks, Jack Daniels, gas, KC lights, summer beaches, driving, making out, driving while making out, alcohol of every stripe, old-school name drops (it’s telling, however, that the artists mentioned is Tom Petty rather than George Strait or Hank Williams Jr.), and a generally-carefree party-hardy approach to life. In short, it was exactly what everyone else was playing at the time, and it all found similar success: “A Helluva Life,” “Sunshine & Whiskey,” and “Young & Crazy” all found their way to the top of the Billboard country charts.

Ballard played the part of a good soldier for Warner Bros. (and still seems to be doing so; I haven’t found any articles where he’s been openly critical of the label and/or Sunshine & Whiskey), but he seemed to want to make a different kind of music than what was being pushed on him, and he didn’t seem keen on Nashville’s atmosphere, constantly citing the “distractions” involved:

“I’ve done a lot of recording in Nashville and I get easily distracted…I’m in there and we’re doing our thing, and somebody stops by like ‘How’s it going? Can I bring you guys some sandwiches?’ It’s like ‘No, you’re breaking up our mojo.'”

Ballard, as told to Chris Parton, June 2016

“I’ve done a lot of recording in Nashville and other places, but I really wanted to get out and away and try to focus and eliminate some distractions that come from recording in Nashville…just in an effort to make the music better.”

Ballard, as told to Gayle Thompson, April 2016

“I live here, and there are wonderful studios here. After all, it is Music City, USA. But when you try to work in a place that you live in, sometimes there can be too much going on outside of the door that you’re trying to work in to avoid it. People stop by, or you need to go run and do something. I didn’t like being distracted in the studio, and I’ve felt that way numerous times in Nashville. Maybe I’m not able to focus as I should, and it always seems that people are in a hurry. You’re only 20 minutes from your house. I just really wanted to eliminate that and focus ourselves — the band, myself and everybody — to put us in a situation where all we have to do is make music.”

Ballard, as told to Chuck Dauphin, November 2015

As Bro-Country gave way to the even-slicker Metropolitan sound in the mid 2010s, Ballard struck out on his own path both figuratively and literally, recording the album in the El Paso, Texas area instead of in Nashville. The resulting album El Rio was a stark divergence from the Nashville assembly line, with a fair bit of homage paid to classic rock (the third single was actually a Bob Seger cover, which I didn’t realize at the time I wrote the review). Heck, even the album cover with Ballard’s “combed back hair and leather jacket” served as a nice throwback:

Image from Wikipedia

The leadoff single “It All Started With A Beer” may have been a bit more soundalike and radio-friendly than the rest of the album, but later singles brought his retro rock-edged guitar back to the forefront, resulting in a sound that fell somewhere between Petty and Eric Church. The lyrics tried to connect on a deeper level as well: Even with “It All Started With A Beer,” the romantic encounter was meant to be long-lasting instead of ephemeral, and the feelings involved were more deeper and more durable. In other words, it was a record that oozed individuality, the sort of disc that could make an artist like Ballard stand out from the crowd, catch listeners’ ears, and use a specific sound to draw them in. I may not have been terribly moved by the singles, but hey, at least the guy was trying.

The Fall

Unfortunately, “unique” and “different” don’t always equate to “successful”: El Rio was a commercial disaster, with the leadoff single peaking at #15, “Cigarette” and “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” failing to go beyond #50 on Billboard’s airplay chart, and sales that chart watcher Chris Owen described as “embarrassing.” Ballard may have described the album as “Frankie Ballard, but it’s better,” but apparently no one agreed with him, and his retro stylings just didn’t resonate with the radio. Of course, artists run into this sort of roadblock all the time: An album just doesn’t generate any hype, and everyone involved has to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and figure out a way to do better the next time.

…Except that this time, there wasn’t a next time: “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” is Ballard’s last official single release to date, a nearly five-year drought that has completely destroyed whatever momentum and buzz Ballard had going for him. His label status is…well, it’s hard to say: I can’t find anything that says Ballard has left the Warner Bros. stable, but he’s no longer listed on Warner Music Nashville’s artist page either (in comparison, Devin Dawson’s still there, and he hasn’t released a new single since 2018). In fact, Ballard hasn’t generated much copy at all over the last half-decade: Like Andrews, much of his recent news has been personal (his marriage in 2017, his first child in 2020), and while there have been rumors and rumblings about an eventual fourth album (He’s writing with Kristian Bush! He’s working on a gospel project!), nothing has actually materialized despite the fact that he’s apparently been working new material into his live shows. What the heck is going on?

At this point it’s pure speculation, but my guess right now is that Ballard’s getting the Josh Turner treatment.

My deep dive header image from 2016.

Turner went five years between his Punching Bag and Deep South albums as he and the label feuded over exactly what the album should be: The label wanted something trendy and hip (read: Bro-Country), and Turner wanted something that was more traditional. The resulting delay pretty much destroyed Turner’s mainstream career, but in the end he got the creative control he wanted (and amazingly he’s still with MCA to this day), and has released both a gospel album and an album of classic country cover songs in recent years.

My guess is that Ballard is in a similar spot: He may be stuck under contract with Warner Bros., but the label is looking for something they think they can sell before they start making a comeback marketing push, and Ballard simply wants to do his own thing outside the Nashville machine, regardless of its commercial viability. If both sides are willing and able to try waiting out the other party, we end up with dry spells like this one, where no news is made and no songs are heard.

Conclusions

So what happened to Frankie Ballard? At this point, we only have half an answer: He served as a guinea pig for Warner Bros. Bro-Country experiment, found some radio success as a result, and then tried to do something different and immediately faded into obscurity. He’s never emerged from that obscurity, however, and while my theory is that he and Warner Bros. are still trying to figure out a way forward that’s palatable to both sides, the truth is that we really have no idea what’s going on.

The good news is that if my theory is true, then as bad as Ballard’s current situation may be, Turner’s outcome gives Ballard fans a reason to be optimistic. Turner may never be relevant in the mainstream conversation again, but he’s still putting out new music and making both himself his fans happy. Hopefully Ballard gets the chance to do the same thing soon, whether it be with classic rock, gospel, or something else.

Warner Bros. was awfully quick to use someone else’s Bro-Country template for Ballard, so if they’re really still trying to figure out what to do with him, get MCA on the phone and get their Josh Turner playbook, because there are still quite a few people out there who enjoyed Ballard’s work and would love to hear more from him. At the end of the day, everyone involved here is in the business or making and selling music, and with so many avenues open beyond traditional albums for getting music to the people that want it (EPs, digital downloads, streaming services), there has got to be a way to get Ballard back into the spotlight at a price point that works for everyone.

Maybe we don’t know what happened to Frankie Ballard, but I think we all know what should happen to him, and the sooner he gets to record new content and share it with the world, the happier and better off everyone will be.

2 thoughts on “A Helluva Disappearing Act: What Happened To Frankie Ballard?

  1. I really liked ‘A Helluva Life’. It was a relaxed, summer-type song, the kind you might play coming back from spring break.

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  2. I have seen most country acts perform and really thought he was the next big star for country music. I witnessed Keith Urban become a big star and felt Frankie B was next especially watching perform live. I knew something was up and thought they had pushed him aside and was hoping he would switch labels.

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