Akron singer-songwriter Jim Ballard’s 11th album took him on a journey down two different paths. So, he recorded two versions of each song.
For this week’s Shuffle, WKSU’s Amanda Rabinowitz talked with Ballard about the creation of "Ask John Steinbeck," an experiment that brought together about a dozen musicians.
Left lane, right lane
Jim Ballard’s music career has spanned more than four decades. In between albums, he’s opened his own recording studio, composed music for films, run marathons and even coached high-school baseball. But, about a year and a half ago, he started writing "Ask John Steinbeck." The album is 14 songs that he recorded with his usual lineup of electric and acoustic guitars, a Hammond organ, bass and drums.
But, then he realized the songs could tell another story.
“As I was recording, I was also in the middle of sometimes going out and playing as a guest on somebody’s show and having to rework the songs so they would fit me solo,” he says.
He thought about just recording a solo, unplugged version of the songs. “But, no, that felt like a cop-out.”
So, he decided instead to make a double album with an alternative version of each song. He called Side A, Right Lane and Side B, Left Lane.
“Let’s take the same song and maybe do an acoustic guitar, a banjo, a fiddle, djembe and an upright bass.”
And Ballard says there was a twist – The musicians on the two discs are mostly different and were not allowed to hear the songs on the first arrangement.
“We wanted to make [the songs] theirs. The second disc I wanted to be closer to you and more intimate, more like you’d see a small band in a coffee house setting, versus a large band on disc A in a bigger venue setting.”
He called on musician friends including Joe Lang, Jon Mosey, Bill Watson, Wes McCraw, Tim Longfellow, Cathy Miller Grady, Robin Stratton and Ruth Billman.
Inspiration from a different Akron
One of Ballard’s favorite songs on the record is "The Bells of St. Mary’s," which reflects on his old Akron neighborhood.
“I grew up in an Akron that doesn’t really exist anymore because the expressway came through when I was a very young kid and took our neighborhood.
"What I could see from the neighborhood and still can see is the tower of St. Mary’s church. I went to that grade school and got chased around by the janitor because we would hide in the bell tower and ring the bell.
"That bell tower is something that’s a constant, and that’s really what that song is about,” he says.
As for how the double-album experiment turned out, Ballard says he feels really good about it.
“The fun part of this was the journey of bringing the musicians in and asking their input and taking that input and letting them invest themselves, which they did.”
Jim Ballard and friends will perform the entire album this Sunday (Oct. 28) at GAR Hall in Peninsula. You can find tickets and information here.