Frankie Ballard one ‘Helluva’ country music maker

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Frankie Ballard | PHOTO BY SAM ERICKSON

BY TRICIA DESPRES | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

Frankie Ballard was smack in the middle of a helluva life.

With stacks of Kellogg’s Pop Tarts lining the shelves of the pantry of his childhood home in Battle Creek, Mich., Ballard grew up listening to country music legends Johnny Horton and Waylon Jennings and playing old acoustic guitars his father would give him.

“Dad was a strummer,” recalls Ballard. “He would play these vintage sounding country songs and jam with me as a little kid. It was pure fun.”

As he got older, Ballard would throw those same guitars into the back of his van and head to gigs throughout Michigan, never traveling farther than a tank of gas could take him. “It was all about selling beer,” remembers Ballard of his days playing small-town bars. “The bar owners would give you the gig if you could get the audience drinking. I would always tell them that if they let me come in and play my kind of country music, I would get them to the bar. I guaranteed it.”

After a good number of years playing and hiking up bar tabs, Ballard had become a long-haired country music man making money, making fans and making an impression.

So, who the hell needed Nashville?

“I needed Nashville,” he admits during a recent interview with the Chicago Sun Times. “It was a savage time when I knew I had to find a way to make music for a living. But I didn’t rush into it. The last thing I wanted to do was give up everything I had in Michigan just so I could head to Nashville and try to convince everybody there that someone not from the South could actually make it playing country music. I wasn’t going anywhere until I had a reason to go.”

That reason came in 2010 in the way of his Warner Bros. Records deal, followed in 2013 by the chance to release a new record, “Sunshine and Whiskey,” and the crazy fan reaction to his first No. 1 single “Helluva Life” in 2014.

“I have always felt that you had to find a single to ride in on in this business, and ‘Helluva Life’ was that single for me,” says Ballard, who counts fellow country star Jake Owen as a treasured friend and mentor. “It finally got us some of the traction we needed.”

Now sporting a bit more of a James Dean, chiseled look, Ballard is riding high on his current hit single “Sunshine & Whiskey”, which quickly catapulted into the Top 15 on country radio, marking his fastest-rising single to date. Preparing for his first headlining run as part of the “Light ‘Em Up Tour” as part of Live Nation’s “Ones to Watch” concert series beginning October 19, Ballard says he is looking forward to begin the process of recording his follow-up album sometime in the beginning of 2015.

But don’t rush him.

“I think there are more singles on the current album. I really want to tell the rest of that story,” says Ballard, who has opened up for the likes of country/rock powerhouses such as Superstars Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts and Bob Seger. “And considering how long it takes a single to go up the charts, I think I have time.”

Indeed, time will also allow him to enjoy the chance to play the bar that has supported him and his music year after year. “Joe’s Bar is the kind of place that country singers dream about,” says Ballard of his September 12 Chicago show. “They take care of you and give you everything you could possibly need. Plus, just having the chance to play a packed club is by far the most fun you can have on stage. And I hear I’ve got some family members jumping the train in Michigan to see the show. It’s going to feel like home.”

FRANKIE BALLARD w/Nick Sturms

WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Sept. 12

WHERE: Joe’s Bar, 940 W. Weed St., Chicago

TICKETS: $12

INFO: (312) 337-3486; http://www.joesbar.com

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