Like Southwest Airlines says, sometimes you just wanna get away. That’s the mantra that Frankie Ballard adopted when he was making his new album, El Rio, which drops today (June 10). The Nashville resident packed his bags—and guitar, of course—and traveled more than 1,200 miles to the Sonic Ranch in El Paso, Texas, to record the 11-song offering with producer Marshall Altman and his handpicked five-piece band. Before settling in El Paso, Frankie and his team took rehearsal detours at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama as well as the Granada Theater in Dallas.
When Frankie arrives at the Nash Country Daily campus for an early-morning sit-down in late May to talk about El Rio, it’s obvious he is running on fumes after a late-night jam session with one of his musical heroes—ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons—at Nashville’s Skyville Live, an online music series that teams artists together for performances that are streamed live. Missing a few Zs, however, isn’t going to bring the sleep-deprived 33-year-old down from the high of his ZZ Top collaboration—or the high of completing his new album.
“For this album, I really wanted to get better as an artist,” says Frankie in his characteristic raspy voice, which is a tad raspier under the circumstances. “I looked at my producer and said, ‘Man, we’ve got to get better on this album, we’ve got to really take it up a level.’ So we asked ourselves how do we do that. And the answer was: ‘Get focused.’ I’ve recorded a lot in Nashville, but I live here. I’m easily distracted here in Nashville, people are wanting to come by, ‘Hey man, what’s going on in here? You guys recording some music?’ I said, ‘Man, let’s get out of town and get focused.’ So we went down to this beautiful place called the Sonic Ranch in El Paso. We were there for 10 days and cut the new album.”
A change of scenery. It’s a great way to shake things up a bit and get the creative juices flowing. It’s not a new concept. The Tennessee-to-Texas exchange program—and vice versa—has been happening for decades. Texans come to Tennessee. Tennesseans go to Texas. It’s like a musical co-op. And the Sonic Ranch seems like a favorite destination point for artists of every genre, from the Dixie Chicks to Billy Gibbons to Hanson (yeah, the three dudes who sang “MMMBop”).
Frankie and his team holed up at the Sonic Ranch during the day, but at night, he used the inspiration of the Texas desert to refresh his spirit.
“We were just south of El Paso [in Tornillo], so there wasn’t really anything to do except make music during the day,” says Frankie. “But I’ve got to tell you, I fell in love with the desert at night. Being down there, it’s such a beautiful place. The desert during the daytime is barren and there’s nothing around because it’s so hot. At night, it really comes alive and it’s so beautiful, you can see the stars. It’s a really inspiring place to be.”
The result of Frankie’s 10-day music-making sabbatical in Texas is his stoutest album to date, a statement with some gravity considering his previous record, 2014’s Sunshine & Whiskey, produced three No. 1 singles. Nonetheless, El Rio, is brawny and crisp, full of filthy guitar riffs (“Cigarette”), definitive vocals (“El Camino”), crafty lyricism (“It All Started With a Beer”) and rock-infused jams (“L.A. Woman,” one of two songs on the album that Frankie co-wrote).
“Ever since I got started, I’ve been trying to refine what it is that I do and my brand of country music, and what my sound is,” says Frankie. “This new album, El Rio, is really an effort at further refining my sound, separating myself and what I do, what I bring to the table. I think we made a big step toward that. I think you’re going to be able to hear a new sound from me. For any artist, the best thing they can do is be as honest to their influences and what really turns them on musically, and that’s what I tried to do. I was heavily influenced by old country, old blues and rock ’n’ roll, and so I just tried to really stick to my wheelhouse, and that’s what this album is.”
It’s not surprising that Frankie, a former college baseball player, chooses to use the word “wheelhouse,” which is baseball jargon for the sweet part of the strike zone that’s most likely to produce a homerun for a batter. Absent from Frankie’s wheelhouse are the digitally created pop-infused sounds pervading much of country radio. Instead, El Rio is as much about musicianship as it is about Frankie trying to raise his own musical batting average.
- “El Camino” (Lee Thomas Miller, Chris Stapleton)
- “Cigarette” (Kip Moore, Chris Stapleton, Jaren Johnston)
- “Waste Some of Mine” (Jimmy Yeary, Craig Wiseman)
- “Little Bit of Both” (Ben Hayslip, Chris Janson, Craig Wiseman)
- “L.A. Woman” (Frankie Ballard, Brad Warren, Brett Warren)
- “It All Started With a Beer” (Jaren Johnston, Neil Mason, Jeremy Stover)
- “Sweet Time” (Frankie Ballard, Jaren Johnston, Jon Nite)
- “Good as Gold” (Mando Saenz, Justin Bogart)
- “Southern Side” (Monty Criswell, Rick Huckaby)
- “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” (Bob Seger)
- “You Could’ve Loved Me” (Dustin Christensen, Chris Gelbuda)
“I think it’s more of a band sound, more guitar playing, because I’m a guitar player,” says Frankie. “We got down to simple instrumentation for this album, which is something interesting to think about, talk about. It’s just a five-piece band. We took bass, drums, guitars and keys and tried to find and write the best songs we could, and record them live as a band and make it feel that way. The energy of that live band experience, that’s really a big part of what I do. I wanted to make it sound like it’s something live, and something that you wanna come see live.”
Wanna get away? El Rio may be your ticket.