All this time, Ball was doing well at independent radio based on the quality of his records.
In 2001, Ball signed with Dualtone and released the well-received "Amigo."
The album's first single, the moving military ballad "Riding with Private Malone," was presciently released a month before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and although completely unrelated in content, captured the mood of the country at precisely the right moment. As well as the song had been doing at radio before 9/11, "Riding with Private Malone" skyrocketed in the wake of the attacks, ultimately rising to the number 1 slot on the Gavin charts, number 2 at Billboard and R&R.
Once again, Ball's commercial success seemed to have little bearing on the label's consideration for a follow up. Although Ball's deal with Dualtone was ostensibly a one-off contract, the label was frustrated in its own attempts to build on the early response to "Private Malone."
"They kept trying to break different things after we had that initial success," says Ball. "We just never could get at it. They realized how expensive a proposition it is, and even at that, you can spend a whole lot of money and still not get anywhere at radio right now. But they didn't want to go after radio."
Upon the release of "Amigo," Ball hit the road with a vengeance, then started thinking about a new album.
"For about two years, I toured pretty heavy," says Ball. "Then we jumped into this record and finished it up before Christmas. But we had to put something in place because we wanted to have a run at country radio, and there's not many people who really want to get into that game right now. It's tough."
For Ball, the trigger for recording a new album is as simple as a handful of songs.
"Whenever I get five things I'm hot about to cut," says Ball of his impetus to hit the studio. "I've gotten to where I really like making records because I get to do what I want to do. It's an artistic endeavor. So when I get five or six things written that I feel real good about, I start looking around for other material that will go with it, and when I feel like I'm ready, we book it and go."
After a four-month negotiation, Ball signed with indie Wildcatter Records of Texas to release his diverse new album, "Freewheeler," produced and partially written by Ball's longtime producer and friend Wood Newton.
Although the label is considerably smaller, Ball says they're dedicating energy and resources to the album.
"Wood and I both feel like we've got a hit record, and that's what I'm doing right now with this record," says Ball. "That's what I like, so I at least wanted to get a chance at getting something on the radio. (Wildcatter) was willing to go for it. They might be small, but they've got backing, and they're coming from a Western swing background, and they were looking to step into a bigger market. Anybody that's paying attention will go, 'Radio must be dying for something fresh and different.' In a way, it could be a good thing because it's so narrow right now. Of course, it's narrow for a reason."
With "Freewheeler," Ball has certainly given himself every opportunity to nab some radio attention. Every track on the album represents an entry point to a different facet of country radio's wide ranging playlists.
From the Cajun-spiced two step of "Louisiana Melody" to the traditional '50s honky tonk of "Mr. Teardrop" to the contemporary country pop of "Yours Truly Blue" to the pure country appeal of "I Can See Arkansas" and "Nobody Told Me," Ball has positioned himself to capitalize on any musical whim that radio might be ready to seize.
Although it sounds rather calculated in the telling, Ball insists he's not deliberately angling for a hit by simply playing every conceivable genre in hopes that one of them takes hold.
"I hate to feel like a whoredog," says Ball with a hearty laugh. "As it turns out, that's the stuff we had. It really is a wide-ranging record. I felt real good about this pop stuff I'd written with Chris Carmichael, my fiddle player. We had two of those, and I really wasn't intending on cutting both of them, but I felt like they were both radio commercial hits, and I say that in a good way. I like a hit record. I've been that way since I was a kid. On the other side of the coin, we got to put on some country stuff that's pretty strong. I'm just real pleased with it. I know it's a little bit broad, but I don't pay that much attention to what other artists are doing. Maybe that's a good thing, I don't know."
Through all of Ball's label experiences, high and low, and all of the phases of his career, he says he tries to just act without torturing himself with measuring all of the possible pitfalls and outcomes from his decisions.
"We don't analyze it too much," says Ball. "If you think it to death, it loses something. It's just music, really. I hate to even put it all under the heading of any kind of category. I just like to call it music. I feel sorry for all these people who listen to music because they have to."
"There's two types of people out there right now; there's critics, and then there's the audience. And I'm not really cutting records right now for critics. I just hope that people get a chance to hear it and get into it."