Frankie Ballard absolutely accomplishes what he set out to do with El Rio, his third studio album. The project is an airy country, rock and blues mix that takes advantage of the spontaneity found when you pile a bunch of musicians into a bus and head to Texas through Muscle Shoals, Ala.

From the first notes of "El Camino" through the final lines of a 5-and-a-half-minute ballad called "You Could’ve Loved Me," Ballard excels as a vocalist and musician in space. His 50-grit sandpaper voice dominates the album with previously unheard versatility. Find growth here, in Ballard’s ability to command a lyric. Every line feels uniquely him. He’s the James Dean lookalike throwback in leather on chrome during songs like “L.A. Woman,” “Southern Side” and “Cigarette.” If there’s an edge, he leans into it.

El Rio was cut at the Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas (Ballard says he could throw a baseball into the Rio Grande, and Google Maps doesn’t argue). The finished project is reminiscent of a great ‘70s live album like Bob Seger’s Live Bullet. The Michigan rocker had a big influence on the 33-year-old country singer from Battle Creek, and he pays tribute with “You’ll Accomp’ny Me.”

More emphasis was put on finding the perfect sound to complement the songs than the songs themselves. “It All Started With a Beer” isn’t a great representative of the album. A better love song is “Good as Gold,” written by Mando Saenz and Justin Bogart. Songs like “Cigarette” and “Southern Side” are colorful and satisfying, but crowded.

Ballard does something essential for his future, however. El Rio establishes his sound — what fans can expect from albums moving forward. It's something Eric Church did early on and the result has been one of the most faithful audiences in country music. With some help from likeminded, out-of-the-box thinkers on his label and management team he could do the same.

Key Tracks: "Little Bit of Both," "Good as Gold," "Southern Side," "You Could've Loved Me"

Did You Know?: Ballard recorded El Rio in early 2015. He's been sitting on the finished album for nearly a year!

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