Young bluesman Slick Ballinger turns to the gospel; keeps promises to family | Music Feature | Indy Week

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Young bluesman Slick Ballinger turns to the gospel; keeps promises to family




Listen to Slick Ballinger's "Talkin' 'Bout Jesus" from his debut album Mississippi Soul. If you cannot see the music player below, click here to download the free Flash Player.

Slick Ballinger
Sunday, Dec. 10
Guild Ministries, 909 N. West St., Raleigh
Music and a sermon begin at 11 a.m., and a free lunch will follow. Oh Boy Records will be on-hand to film.

Getting down for the blues: 22-year-old Slick Ballinger is taking it to church again.
  • Getting down for the blues: 22-year-old Slick Ballinger is taking it to church again.

Mack's of Garner is an old-fashioned TV and appliance shop that's called East Main Street home for more than 40 years. Actually, Mack's could now be described more accurately as half TV and appliance shop and half museum for Daniel "Slick" Ballinger, a young blues musician whose debut, Mississippi Soul, was released earlier this year on John Prine's Oh Boy label.

As I look around the shop on a Saturday afternoon, Mack, an ace storyteller, pops in a series of VHS tapes, together illustrating the arc of Slick's musical career: Here are Slick's earliest performances, like the Crabtree Valley Mall gig that he braved a hellacious snowstorm to honor, or one down the street at a local Mexican restaurant. The most recent footage is from a raucous gig at Raleigh's Overtime Sports Pub this past spring, the night after a sold-out show at the Clayton Center.

But amidst an array of performance photos (like a shot of Slick and B.B. King) and gig posters, a newspaper clipping stands nearly front and center as anything on display. It's an article announcing that Daniel Ballinger has earned the rank of Eagle Scout. This is grandfather's pride.

"His daddy said the only thing that I want you to do for me is graduate from high school and I want you to become an Eagle Scout. And then I'll do anything for you," Mack says, showing that look-you-straight-in-the-eye delivery that allows a business owner to become a longtime business owner. Slick lived up to his end of the bargain, as did his father. And that sounds about right: Slick Ballinger's 22-year-old story is full of promises kept and great promises to be realized.

I leave Mack's and settle into the living room of Darlene Cramer's Garner home. Cramer is Slick's mom (she and his father, Jimmy Ballinger, are divorced). She's fulfilled several key promises, too, and most of them have enabled Slick's musical career. She took him to Memphis on his 16th birthday, and she helped move him to Mississippi after his high school graduation. His blues obsession is long-standing.

But, today, Slick is back up from Mississippi. He's much smaller in person than he looks from the stage. On stage, he's got a guitar and a howl. In person, he sports a nebulous mustache, a blue polo shirt and jeans. Unassuming certainly comes to mind.

In fact, it's hard to believe this is the same young man who, dressed to the nines and wailing, was jumping on tables and dancing with all the women at the Overtime Sports Pub. Fielding questions from the sofa, he carries a composure that's preternatural and a comfort in his own skin that's enviable. But, with Slick, you always get plenty of glimpses of the charismatic performer lurking within.

Sitting with the King: Slick on B.B. King's tour bus
  • Sitting with the King: Slick on B.B. King's tour bus

The beginning of this musical saga is pretty standard: Boy gets guitar, boy plays guitar, boy plays guitar first thing in the morning and last thing at night. But, literally and figuratively, things take a cinematic twist courtesy of the 1986 movie Crossroads.

"The movie starts out with [Ralph Macchio] walking up these crossroads, gravel roads down in the Mississippi Delta, down in the cotton fields," recalls Ballinger. "And they had harmonica music playing, and when that music was playing, something hit me. It just hit me, and I felt like it was something I wanted to do."

The "it" involved moving away from the Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis proto-rock he'd been playing and immersing himself in something even more primordial—namely, the blues. It's just as Mack had said earlier: "When Slick saw that movie, he said, 'Chill bumps came all over me, from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head.' He's never played nothing but blues since."

It didn't take long for people to take notice. Eric Schwoebel, a Raleigh blues addict, congregated in Ballinger's corner for the first time at a Triangle Blues Society's annual talent contest in 1999.

"Up to the stage came this very young kid in a handsome suit, hair slicked back," Schwoebel recounts. "He looked about 12, but was actually 15 years old. He sat down, settled his guitar in his lap, addressed the audience comfortably and politely and launched into a blues tune with some sizzling slide work and a surprisingly assured vocal. I was captivated; something very special was going on here."

The Blues Society's Randy Stoltz was there that night, too. He has been paying attention ever since. "If you have seen Daniel play, you know he is the real deal and has blues in his soul," says Stoltz, adding a half-dozen more words that capture Ballinger as sound bite: "He lives and breathes the blues."

That triple threat of youth, passion and skill has also earned Ballinger the attention of other bluesmen, with the ensuing relationships playing important roles in his musical development. At her son's request, Cramer began driving him into Raleigh more frequently for open jams. They're both quick to acknowledge the support of local promoters and players he met there. When Cramer took Ballinger to Memphis so he could play on Beale Street, blues vet Bob Margolin invited Ballinger up on stage to jam.

But his move to Mississippi did the most to mold Ballinger's sound and style. Fife master Otha Turner was his main back-country mentor, but he also played alongside other older musicians like Pinetop Perkins, taking—or, more accurately, being given—a little from each of their styles. The results are hill-country stomps made by an old soul with the advantage of youth.

"I wanted to have the old-school sound and feel, but I wanted it to be my own," says Slick, adding that perhaps the most important ingredient came from the black churches that the musicians would take him to. He calls it "the Sanctified Pentecostal, just get up, sure enough type of thing.... Most all the beats to the blues songs that I play got the same church beat."

As Slick says this, he starts to lean forward. His voice takes on a preacher's cadence, as if, now, he's in the pulpit and I'm the congregation. Part of me—the self-protecting skeptical part, to be exact—wants to spot a crack that lets the artifice shine through. Indeed, some people wonder aloud whether Ballinger is too young, too white, not Piedmont enough, whatever to really play the blues.

Ballinger acknowledges these doubts as handily as he denies them. "I could go to any black juke joint and never feel out of place. Any black church. Or any mixed place. Because we're all brothers and sisters. We're all made by the same father," he says. "And I know the originators of the music, some old musicians, always understood where I was coming from." When Ballinger talks about trying to tap into what he calls "the old moan," all of the sentiments feel genuine, the sermon sincere.

As Ballinger explains it, "The moaning, the melody comes from somebody being really down, depressed about something. When you're moaning, it's a deep thing. Like those old folks in the cotton fields, they couldn't do anything but moan because they couldn't say what they wanted to say, you know? They didn't have that freedom.

"The Bible says that 'Blessed is they that moan.' A lot of people are getting away from that, in blues and gospel music. And everything got to grow. But it's good for somebody to be at the roots. It's good for somebody to be at the bottom of it. If you let the bottom fall out, it's like a tree growing in the ground. The roots spread deep. If those roots die, that's it. That tree ain't gonna stand!"

Really, it's all I can do to suppress a "hallelujah!"

Ballinger, in fact, is now committed explicitly to that spiritual feeling. This summer, he married Ashlye Wells in Beulaville, N.C. As you'd expect, there was some singing, including a bride-groom duet of "Jackson." And though Ballinger is fulfilling all club dates that he'd signed on for, he's determined to stop playing in bars and music clubs and move back to North Carolina. He's going focus on playing in churches and other venues better suited for turning souls with his brand of gospel-blues, and he says his next record will be a gospel album: "It will have the same get-up-and-go fire in it," he says. "But this time there's going to be some sure enough fire, because the fire is coming from a different place."

Somewhere, Mack Ballinger is, somehow, beaming even more.

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