The Bones Brigade (Photograph provided by Jim Ballard)
Jim Ballard is a life-long musician and native of Akron, Ohio. He is a talented writer/performer—and the list of names that he has worked alongside in the business is, frankly, staggering.
He, in conjunction with his band The Strangs (Bill Watson, Joe Lang, Will McCraw and Tom Longfellow) will be headlining the opening night (May 17, 7 PM) of the triple-shot grand finale weekend of the Live Music Now! pop-up concert venue in Kenmore. Under the guidance of Tina Boyes, the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance has been running an eclectic and intriguing series of shows since the beginning of the year. Opening the evening will be Benjamin Payne of the folk/country/roots act Yankee Bravo. The event is free but donations ($5-$10) are strongly encouraged.
Tell me about your background in music…
I was 14 when The Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s iconic now. Like, pretty much every other teenage boy at the time, I wanted to be that—mostly for the girls. So, I got together with three other guys in my homeroom (none of us played instruments) and we decided to make a band. After a while, I realized that I actually liked music. Throughout school, I played in bands. I didn’t grow up in Kenmore, but because of the band, I found myself playing at the high school and at parties, as well as all around Northeast Ohio.
After high school, I got drafted. The Vietnam War was going on, so I was tied up the next four years. When I got back, I had no plans to play music professionally. I was married and working at a publishing company. An old friend who people may know as “Jammin’ Paul” Hively dropped by one day. He was putting a band together and wanted me to play guitar along with him. So, I gave in and joined. We named (our group) “Akropolis.” (We played) all covers in bars in Akron, Cleveland and Kent.
After a year I realized that I really just wanted to write my own songs. So, I went and got myself a Martin (guitar) and started writing. (I then hit) what was then a pretty rich coffeehouse circuit all over the Eastern part of the country. I guess I’ve played almost every state this side of the Mississippi. In the process, I got to meet and play with Pete Seeger, Odetta, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom Rush, Paul Simon and Leo Kottke. Later on, Pure Prairie League, Poco, Michael Stanley, The Mekons, 10,000 Maniacs and others.
As I went along, my first album was pretty much all acoustic. It was very folkie, no drums. I began adding side players, and then a band. I continued touring as a solo (act) and, when it was possible, with a full band. In the late ’80s after the third and fourth albums, we were being looked at pretty closely by a couple major labels, to the extent that one of them (CBS) were flying in to see us both privately and at gigs. But when things didn’t pan out, I decided to go it alone again. At that point, I had two sons and I increasingly wanted to not be on the road so much. Over the first couple years of the ’90s, I phased out gigging and began working more and more in the studio, Skylyne Studios, which I still own.
I produced lots of other artists, songwriters and bands during that time, including several albums from Jon Mosey, Charlie Wiener and others. I also produced a compilation/tribute CD (dedicated to) the music of John Bassette that included a whole list of great Northeast Ohio recording artists, including Michael Stanley, Alex Bevan, Don Dixon and Marti Jones, Charlie Wiener, Benjamin Payne, Mo’ Mojo, Jon Mosey and others. Tom Paxton also appeared on that one. You may not know him, but Google him. (Click HERE to learn more about Tom Paxton.)
In the late-90s, I got into creating scores, songs and FX for films. I did a handful of indie pictures. (Ex: Nora Falls)
What drew me back in (to live music) was that Charlie Wiener began producing an annual series of concerts in homage to (living) NE Ohio songwriters/bands. He asked me to play on the ticket. So I did. I immediately realized I still enjoyed it and, to my surprise, still had something to say. That was the early-2010s. Since 2011, I’ve put out five discs of music: Wood and Wire, Music From Wexford Lane, Human Harvest and, in late 2017, a double album titled Ask John Steinbeck. The idea behind it is that there are 14 songs, each of which are repeated on the second disc, but played by a completely different set of musicians who weren’t allowed to hear the first versions. The second disc, by my choice, was more intimate and folkie/Americana. (What is “Americana” by the way?) So, if song #3 on the first disc was done with bass, drums, two electric guitars and a Hammond organ (my standard default configuration) the same song on the second disc might be done with an upright bass, a drum set with brushes, acoustic guitar, fiddle and accordion. Each had a different and original approach to the vibe (of the material). Now when I play them live with my band, The Strangs, we often pull elements from both versions into the performance.
Who are some influences on your work?
From the beginning I tended to like bands that were influenced by roots/garage/Americana, but with a bit of an edge. Tom Petty comes to mind. I like Jackson Browne for his poetic edge and (Bob) Dylan and (Bruce) Springsteen. Willie Nile, R.E.M. (especially the early Dixon-produced stuff), Richard Thompson, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span. I couldn’t write or perform pop if you shot me!
What is your relationship with Kenmore?
I didn’t grow up in Kenmore—I grew up in South Akron—but my first real girlfriend went to Kenmore High School, so I spent a lot of time there. But years later, when my wife and I looked to find our own place, settle and have kids, we found Kenmore to be a nice neighborhood where we could afford to live. We bought a house and have been here ever since. I coached a lot of Little League and high school baseball. I was involved in the community in lots of ways. That’s the genesis of our involvement now: this is our home and we’re going to help make it better. I’ve always, since the first album, written songs that deal with topical material, social justice and such, so writing something like “Bones of the Boulevard” is a natural evolution for me.
Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance Exectutive Director Tina Boyes on Jim Ballard:
“Jim was one of the first guys on board with the Live Music Now! concept. When I approached him, he was already looking for a way to bring his talented cohorts and fans – most of who live outside of Akron – to his home neighborhood. His booking our third Thursdays brought a flavor of talent to Live Music Now! that the Boulevard has not seen, and it has really helped to showcase our neighborhood and its assets to group of people who may have never otherwise come here. I feel like we now have a whole new group of musical ambassadors, and I’m grateful to Jim for being the beacon for bringing them here.”
Momentum began for the neighborhood tracing back to the Better Block Kenmore event last September. What changes have you noticed in the community in the ensuing months?
Actually, there were ideas and a bit of momentum even before that, which is why Better Block happened. But Better Block certainly had the desired effect on both residents and non-residents of Kenmore. People got to come to this community, see that it’s safe, clean, well-lit and inviting. There are things to do and more are coming. Our hope is that entrepreneurs from all over the area will see our “BoulevArts” strip as a place to come to open their coffee shop, bakery, live venue or what have you. The Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance, under Tina Boyes, along with Kenmore Kreative, under the guidance of Angela Miller, has already motivated (individuals) in and out of the community to begin the grassroots efforts to make things happen. Not to mention Jason Chamberlain, who practically single-handedly put together the Busk Until Dusk summer music series. It didn’t hurt that the Vaill brothers opened (and put all they had into) The Rialto Theatre. It became an anchor around which places that were already there, such as The Guitar Department and Lays Guitar could rally. And new spots are opening (Lay’s Loft, a high-end boutique guitar store, and Live Music Now, our very successful pop-up venue). But we need more to come in, especially things that are open and inviting during the daytime, most especially a great coffee shop, a café and a bakery…
On Monday, you released a video for your new song “Bones of the Boulevard.” Walk me through the process of creating the song from vague notion in your head to finished product.
I was in a meeting with some of the planners of Better Block. Todd Ederer, the real estate investor who gave us the space for Live Music Now!, and I were talking. I happened to mention to him what great ‘bones’ the Boulevard has. Immediately, I made a note of the phrase and, in a few days, had written the song. I proposed that I track it in my studio, which I did mainly with my band, The Strangs. But there being other creatives and studios located in Kenmore, I also wanted to pass it on to them. So, I sent it along to Thomas Kincaid and Jason Chamberlain at Studio 1008, then to Seth and Nate Vaill at the Rialto’s Just A Dream Studio so that they could add to it. I wanted it to be a joint endeavor. And so it was. I also got Akron rapper LDG to write and perform a rap section in the bridge, which he did beautifully. Additionally, I got my old friend Norm Tischler, an incredible musician, to play sax. Once we got all the tracks done, Nate Vaill mixed it.
There are many familiar faces in the video. What local luminaries are to be found in it?
It was too much fun shooting the video, which we did in three separate shoots.
In it, you’ll see, in no particular order… Zach Friedhof, Thomas Kincaid, Nate Vaill, Benjamin Payne, Kara Jones, Tim Longfellow, Terry Lilley, Paddy Taylor, Lewie Misheff. They all moved their schedules around to be able to be there for the shoot. Also, the videographer, Chris Miller appears playing the saxophone. Everyone was so generous and gracious. Then, you’ll see this guy near the end of the video, on the left side playing a hi-hat cymbal on the sidewalk. He was just dude hanging around by the music store who said “Hey, this is so cool,” so we asked him to be in the video. It was too much fun.
You will be performing at Live Music Now on Thursday. What do you have in store for those who come to the show?
I’m just getting out of the starting gate with my band The Strangs. First of all, all of the guys in the band are already folks who I’m a fan of, having seen all of them play in other settings over the years. So, it’s a great trip to get to play with them. They bring the songs to another level. We played the G.A.R. Hall to an “SRO” (standing-room only) audience for the release of the Ask John Steinbeck CD. But there, we played only the songs from that album. Now, we’ve added songs to the set from pretty much every album throughout the years—and will be doing them the “2018 Strangs’ way.” We also have a few other small surprises, but no spoilers here. It’s going to be a great night.
What does Kenmore mean to you?
Zach has a great thing he says at the end of his set. “I’m Zach and I’m here to save the world.” I love that. Throughout my music career, I’ve always been about pointing out things for folks to think about, but with, I guess, a larger agenda of having them work to make the world better. I’ve always considered that my job. But I’ve realized that it starts with the 21 cubic feet surrounding me, so I keep working on that. Kenmore is where I live, where my kids were born and brought up, where I’ve made great lifelong friends and memories. I owe it.
Jim Ballard can be found online:
For more information about the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance, CLICK HERE.
The Bones of the Boulevard Music Video: