Frankie Ballard’s brand of country music borrows just as much from rock and roll as it does country and his latest release El Rio showcases both genres flawlessly. To record the album, Ballard left the familiarity of Nashville, Tenn. for El Paso, Texas in hopes to push himself and the musicians out of their comfort zones on the music they were making and it worked. Produced by Marshall Altman at Sonic Ranch, El Rio impresses musically and vocally for a release that begs to be heard in an arena setting.
While Ballard co-wrote two of the album’s 11 tracks, El Rio demonstrates the singer’s ability to select the right songs for his gritty vocals and country rock edge. The first track,”El Camino,” was written by two of Nashville’s most respected songwriters, Lee Thomas Miller and Chris Stapleton, and is a spirited kiss-off to an ex. “Honey, I’ll show you what gone looks like,” Ballard belts alongside rollicking guitar and a piano part that recalls Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s a song that hints at the energy found on the remainder of the album.
The standout “Cigarette” follows suit. Written by Stapleton, Kip Moore and The Cadillac Three’s Jaren Johnston, “Cigarette” is a sexy song that has Ballard singing of wanting to be the cigarette on a girl’s lips so he can be close to her. The catchy track would do well on radio and in a live setting where Ballard’s distinct rock side can be heard loud and clear with plenty of guitar fuzz and attitude.
Where “Cigarette” has Ballard admiring a girl from afar, the clever and twangy “Little Bit of Both” has him fantasizing about a girl who is a little bit bad and a little bit sweet. The vivid imagery combined with the laidback vibe of the music is more country barn burner than rock show but once again showcases Ballard’s versatility. It’s lines like “You’re a naughty little rhyme in a hip-hop line/ You’re a William Shakespeare sonnet,” sung in a deeper register that best showcases the grit in his vocals.
Other highlights include the anthemic rocker “L.A. Woman,” not to be mistaken for The Doors’ song of the same name which also pays tribute to West Coast girls. It’s on this track that best demonstrates Ballard’s penchant for guitar solos. Meanwhile, current single “It All Started with a Beer” shows the singer’s more nostalgic side as does album closer “You Could’ve Loved Me” where he admits his regret to have taken too long and as a result let a girl get away.
“You could’ve loved me if it happened just right / But we rise and we fall and we can’t win them all ’cause that’s just life/ It ain’t like the stories you see in the movies but you could’ve loved me,” he sings on the emotional track.
Clocking in at over five minutes, the song shows a different side of the singer with wavering pedal steel and a music interlude that stays with the listener long after the last note is played. While the musical accompaniment is best remembered on this track, it’s on “Good As Gold” that leaves the greatest impact. A song that has a man trying to show his girl that love always trumps money, the message is more country leaning. “He can buy you nice things but I can make your knees weak,” he sings.
A perfect blend of rock and country, El Rio showcases Ballard’s influences while continuing to push his music forward. While tracks like his cover of Bob Seger’s “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” take a look back, he manages to put his own flavor on the song and every song, whether he wrote it or it is an outside cut. The rock side is apparent throughout El Rio, but so is Ballard’s country depth on tracks like the beautiful “Good As Gold” and “It All Started with a Beer.” A standout release, Ballard more than accomplishes what he set out to do on El Rio.