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CHICAGO COUNTRY BAND John Ballantyne’s Crazy Heart

More often than not, the road to country music stardom originates in Texas, Tennessee, or another time-honored Southern destination. John Ballantyne’s story arc reads way different.

Fast becoming recognized as one of Chicago’s premier country singers and songwriters, Ballantyne was born and raised in Scotland, though you’d never know it from his earthy vocal delivery and immaculate lead guitar. Both resonate with the twang and raunch of classic honky-tonk country, also known these days as Americana. A frequent presence on the Chicago club circuit, John and his band Crazy Heart ( Bassist Gus Noble, and drummer Leslie Walle-Santos) will take their musical exploits to a whole new level this year, building on a recent hugely successful tour of Scotland , the highlight of which was two mainstage appearances at the prestigious Tiree Music Festival.
Ballantyne’s highly unusual saga commenced in southwest Scotland. “Music was a big part of local culture. I grew up in a small mining community. What would typically happen is, on weekends, people would socialize in bars, having a few beers, then taking turns to sing with the band,” John says. “Bars at that time closed at 10 p.m., and then they would make their way to each others’ houses to continue with the party. So that was the backdrop to my childhood.

In his 20s, John grew enamored of singer-songwriters Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, and Jerry Jeff Walker., but John Prine remains his favorite. “He’s a master songwriter. That’s what he’s famous for. The kicker is, you think, ‘What a great song! I want to sing this, but I bet it is really hard to learn,’” he says. “You print out the lyrics, look at it, and you go, ‘Is that it? There’s two verses and a chorus. How can that be? There’s something wrong with the computer!’ This guy has painted a whole picture, a whole movie, and contained it in two verses and a chorus. And that’s the magic of John Prine. Other people do it, but he does it like no other.”

Ballantyne’s splendidly concise lead guitar attack recalls that of James Burton, whose impeccable licks graced the hits of Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, Emmylou Harris, and many more. “Burton was a huge influence,” he says. “I would sit with the LP record and play it over and over and over again, trying to figure out what the hell he was doing. One of my heroes, for sure.”

2014 featuring the Scotland tour was  a banner year for Crazy Heart, however John’s musical ambitions remain relatively modest. “The work that I get the most fulfillment from is writing these songs and performing them, even in these little bars around town,” he says. “The goal would simply be to find a way to keep doing that in the hope that the songs resonate with the audience, beyond that is just gravy.”

Smart money says John Ballantyne and Crazy Heart achieve a great deal more……

Bill Dahl